KCUCC, Rev. Jessica Palys
Our scripture passage this morning revisits the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who is the poorest of the poor, a character so wretched that to most of Jesus’ contemporaries, he would be beyond hope. It is a story as significant for its rich detail as it is for its contrasts - and it, too, tells us something about belonging.
“Take courage, get up, he is calling you.”
On its surface, it looks like another healing story. To paraphrase one of our bible study attendees, it can be difficult as science-embracing, 21st century thinkers to be touched by this or any healing story without looking for scientific explanations as to why this healing might have happened. But I would argue that the story is telling us much more in the details and the symbolism than in the healing.
It’s not as clear in the way we break up the gospels into singular stories for Sunday morning worship, but if you were reading the Gospel of Mark straight through like a story, you would recognize that this is the second blind man in the Gospel of Mark who has come to Jesus to restore his sight. And you would see that what has taken place in the meantime is a whole lot of blindness.
Between this passage and the last passage in which a blind man was healed; Peter doesn’t see what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah and tries to make Jesus recant that he will be tortured and killed. Peter, James and John miss the importance of the Transfiguration. Repeatedly, they fail to see the importance of the little children. The disciples are blinded by ambition, arguing over who is the greatest, and cannot see that to be greatest is to be last. The rich man can’t envision life without his possessions, and James and John again fail to see the coming suffering and instead, request to sit with Jesus ‘in his glory’.
But this man, blind and begging and socially outcast, sees Jesus for who he is. Scripture tells us these condemning things about Bartimaeus; He is blind, unable to fend for himself, and he is a beggar – a disgrace in itself. His status as an outsider is echoed in his location; Bartimaeus is sitting outside of the city, outside of the path, outside of the economy, embodying the effects of social exclusion. Generally speaking, this man is one most of us would prefer to pass by. Even his name holds significance. In all the healing stories, few if any of those healed are named. Usually they are nameless people in the crowds, who return to their communities after healing. But this one is named - and named twice, redundantly. Since Bar-timaeus literally translates as ‘son of Timaeus’, the literal Aramaic definition of Timaeus is ‘one who is unclean or defiled; and the ‘Bar’ prefix – means son of. Therefore Bar-timaeus literally means ‘the son of the defiled or unclean’ - and the author of the gospel haphazardly repeats this twice, calling him Bar-Timeaus, son of Timaeus - either to make sure we got the point, or to create symmetry.
This man sits all day on his only possession, his cloak. The cloak here is critical. For someone living as a beggar, their cloak is the piece of clothing that acts as coat, blanket, and beggars’ cup. Bartimaeus would have used it to warm himself in hostile weather and to cover himself to sleep. But there was an additional, crucial function to the cloak; it catches the coins he needs to survive. Bartimaeus is blind and spends his day asking for donations from passersby. In the ancient world, where a condition like blindness is thought to make one unclean, those who might take pity on Bartimaeus with alms would be even less likely than we would be to grasp the hand of a panhandler that we give money to at a stoplight, for fear of becoming unclean themselves. Therefore, Bartimaeus would spread his cloak out on the roadside and sit on it, using its width to collect the alms thrown to him by passersby.
But this man, this blind, socially outcast beggar, sees Jesus for who he is. Somehow he hears that the crowd passing held Jesus of Nazareth, and Bartimaeus knows. Out of nowhere, this blind man hollers, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” He finds his voice and hollers twice above the din, “Son of David! Son of David! Notice me! Bring your mercy my way! Don’t pass me by!”
Bartimaeaus, son of Timaeus, hollers Son of David, Son of David, have mercy on me!
The crowd wants to keep this blind man mute. The crowd with Jesus, even though they are followers of a healer, seem more comfortable leaving the blind man as he is… keeping this unclean man in his place, barring his access, telling him to shush. The disciples are hushing him, but Bartimaeus is unwilling to remain by the side of the road, ignored. The disciples are shushing him – not only because he is a bother – perhaps not only because he is an unclean – but because that term, Son of David, is a political term in a hostile, volatile community. To be called the Son of David is to be called King – in a place where the King is impulsive and cruel. They shush him because to have him holler, at the top of his lungs, “Son of David!”, puts them in very real danger. The disciples are shushing him, but Bartimaeus is unwilling to accept his situation and demands that God take action. With clarity, he knows exactly what he wants; Restore my sight. Return me to wholeness. Allow me to become a part of my community again. Give me belonging again.
“Take courage, get up, he is calling you.”
Oh, that we would all respond with the faith of Bartimaeus to Jesus! Upon hearing this, the man is elated. Years of begging apparently have not slowed him down – he sprang up, discarding his cloak. His cloak. The only security he owned – the only guarantee that he might be warm at night, the only way he has to collect the coin that might be thrown at him – given that he is unable to see. This man is so confident in his future, so confident in Jesus’ ability to heal him that he throws off the only possession he owns in favor of sight. Bartimaeus sees a future that the people around him can’t. He walks confidently to the greater future that lies beyond this moment. He takes the risk and walks confidently towards change in his life. And, once healed, he becomes part of the community of Jesus.
Our scripture reading this morning poses the question: What is the risk we will take for God’s activity in our lives? Are we willing to cast off our security to risk the change that brings greater wholeness and community belonging? Will God intervene in our lives directly, or are we expected to take action on God’s behalf? We may wish for God’s direct intervention, for a burning bush or an obvious miracle, but most days we don’t get such things. Most of the time, God is subtle to a fault. And yet, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we may be able to discern where God is acting in our lives, where God has presented opportunities in our path. And it is up to us to act on them, to take the chance, to cast off our cloaks and walk brazenly and courageously into the light!
Unease and apprehension are understandable when we look at the world today and worry about where we are headed. All of us, I imagine, can relate to feeling uneasy about the future. Bad news is coming at us from all directions lately – with a surging virus and stubborn public; with lying politicians, violent intimidation and a crisis of democracy; with a housing crisis and tent cities popping up even here in our city. It’s becoming difficult to keep up with the severe storms crashing the world’s coasts and climate change seems to be accelerating exponentially, making the emergency urgent. And here too, in church, sometimes we look around the pews and see the ghosts of people we miss, both the beloved people who have gone to God, and those who have moved on, leaving us with some small voice of distress. But that is exactly why we need to take courage, and get up. Because we are being called.
Perhaps it is up to us to use our power to speak about the ways in which the world can be changed in such a time as this. We can get stuck in keeping things safe, or we can take courage in the opportunities we have set before us and move forward to a greater future that lies beyond. Perhaps God is using you in this time of extreme peril to safeguard God’s people and God’s purpose. Perhaps beyond the risk, beyond the danger is a greater future that will require your courage, your participation, your voice. To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, perhaps the question is not whether the things that happen to us are chance things or God’s things because, perhaps they are both at once. Perhaps the opportunities that lie before us are there for the seizing, where our courage and God’s will merge. Perhaps God will use us as a tool to bring us to a greater future beyond. Perhaps the church has been set aside for such a time as this. Perhaps, in such times as this, we are called to be resolved, to be courageous, to risk and in so doing, to learn something about ourselves and the power of our relationships to enter us into the kingdom, God’s kingdom of greater possibility and love. The faithful life requires that we hold two truths in tension; that we both make our own way by proactively using the gifts God has given us toward our own flourishing, and thank God for the circumstances and the community that allows us to gather the courage we need and be proactive to bring about the change the world needs! Maybe it’s daunting, perhaps intimidating. Perhaps we will have to lean on each other, and ask for prayers. Perhaps it is the wisdom of one who sees what is needed to give us a push. Perhaps we need to shout until we are heard. Perhaps we will need to rely on the crowd around us to help us see and hear. But we can respond with the faith of Bartimaeus to the work of the church. We are called to be the church, to open the community to those living on the outside, to take the risk to create belonging that goes beyond what is comfortable or safe.
“Take courage, get up, he is calling you.”
Cast off your cloak, and have faith - the faith of Bartimaeus - that your actions can make a difference in someone else’s life. May we all respond with the faith of Bartimaeus to God’s call. May we be that vehicle of transformative change that brings everyone in and leaves no one with only a cloak. May we show such an example that we may one day be the ones to say to another, ‘take courage. get up. He is calling you.’ It's time to be healed and go forth in service to others.