Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 24, 2021
Mark 10:46-52 Commentary
A couple of weeks ago, we witnessed the rich man come to terms with reality. This week, we see a bit of a contrast in the person of Bartimaeus. Both he and the rich man are earnest and sincere in their desire to encounter Jesus, but one walks away and the other follows our Lord. One has “it all” and the other “has nothing.” Both know that there is something remarkably special about Jesus, and Jesus takes the time to stop and interact with each of them. When Jesus does so, one walks away with a heavy heart, and the other leaps to his feet, heart full of faith, and decides to stay near and follow Jesus on the way.
Thinking about these two figures in contrast to one another helps me understand what Jesus might have meant when he worked this touchless miracle and said to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.” Faith just might be the difference between the blind beggar and the rich man.
So what are the signs of Bartimaeus’ faith in this account?
First, Craig Evans (Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary) highlights how the beggar’s cry towards Jesus for mercy/pity (v 47) is an “echo” from the Psalms (9.14, 25.16, 26.11, 27.7, 31.9, 41.4, 41.10, 51.1, 57.1, 67.1, 86.3). Psalms are the prayerbook of God’s people, exhibiting our full range of emotions, needs, and ways of relating to God. They are words of faith: faith in the midst of hope, doubt, fear, joy, opposition… you name it, it’s probably there.
Bartimaeus is blind, which very likely given the first century world, has led him to become a beggar on the roadside. He is a man with great need, dependent on others. The people who Bartimaeus depends on are the people who tell him to stop shouting. They think he’s a nuisance and not worth Jesus’ time of day. (At least, we can note, it’s not the disciples who are doing the marginalizing this time…) So in other words, Bartimaeus is hungry, he is poor and destitute, he is physically suffering, and he is put down and trampled on by his “enemies.” Those sound like some things we hear expressed in the Psalms, don’t they? And like the Psalms, Bartimaeus cries out for the mercy of God to rescue and help him because he has faith in the person he is crying out to. He is yelling a prayer in real time because he’s heard that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is walking by.
This real-time prayer points to another sign of his faith. Bartimaeus specifies who it is to—he cries out to “Jesus, Son of David.” Like Peter calling Jesus the Messiah or the Christ, calling Jesus the Son of David has significant implications, especially since we (as readers) know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, which will end with the cross. Here Bartimaeus calls out for the man who is in the line of King David, implying that Jesus is the true king, the Messianic rescuer…. We don’t know how Bartimaeus came to faith in Jesus, but we know he is right. And his insistence on repeating it when the people around him tell him to shut up, signifies how deeply he had faith that this Jesus of Nazareth could do something about his needs. We see such confidence and persistence in many of the healing stories, don’t we?
And like it or not, the fact that it is all happening in a community setting signifies some things about Bartimaeus’ faith. Scholars point out that the road Bartimaeus would beg on was a busy one. Not only would he be able to beg from wealthy traders and merchants, but he’d also be able to ask for help from those religious pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem—just as the crowd and Jesus are at the time of our story. Many of the folks who “Sh!” Bartimaeus are perhaps the well-meaning kind, trying to protect the all-important Jesus from having to be bothered by the likes of a beggar. But they are also the people who, when Jesus tells them to call for Bartimaeus to come to him, quickly change their tune and encourage Bartimaeus to get up and go. One has to think that they also helped the him get to Jesus through the crowds (he’s still blind at this point)! For his part, Bartimaeus had enough faith in Jesus that he risked believing that Jesus was calling for him—even when the message came from the same people who tried to squash him. In other words, it was God he was listening to, not the crowd.
The fourth sign of Bartimaeus’ faith comes in how he is described as getting up. Verse 50 paints a rather dramatic picture: Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up from the ground! Like a predator ready to pounce at the first opportunity, Bartimaeus is off to the races at the call of his name. Could this be a sign that his was an expectant faith, ready to leap into action at the call from Christ? Take special note of the fact that as a beggar, it was likely that his cloak was wrapped around him so as to form a cloth basket in his lap to catch all of the monetary donations given to him. So when we’re told that he threw off his coat, we ought to imagine his money flying through the air without single hesitation or afterthought, cloak left on the ground where he sat begging. What’s money or possessions when Jesus is calling? Who has faith like that? (And notice here the very clear difference between the rich man and Bartimaeus: Bartimaeus gave up everything he had before he was even asked to, whereas the rich man walked away, unwilling to give up anything.)
Finally, when the moment comes and he’s face-to-face with Jesus, Bartimaeus plainly declares his heart’s desire: to see again. It is a bold, simple declaration, rooted in faith that a miracle at the hands of Jesus, the Son of David, is possible.
Yes, in many ways Bartimaeus has been made well already by his faith: he is unattached to earthly possessions or position. He knows he is worthy of Jesus’ time, even if the world does not—a sign that his self-image and self-esteem come from God and not other humans. Bartimaeus knows better than most how important it is to take care of one another because he has had to learn to survive on charity. And all the while, he hasn’t given up the possibility that his life could be different.
Some look at Bartimaeus the blind beggar and think of him as helpless before Jesus restored his sight, but that can lead us to thinking of this miracle as a reward that Jesus gives him for his faith. No, that’s not what Jesus means when he says that Bartimaeus’ faith has made him well. I think it means that Jesus sees how this guy gets it because he has faith—belief that the world is not as it should be and that God can, and will, do something about it.
Bartimaeus is not simply a helpless man without a place to go. By faith, he’s been watching and waiting for God to make himself known in the little realm of his existence, sitting on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus has been expectantly waiting, ready, to call out and ask for God’s help, to defy the expectations and desires of this world and to persist in petitioning for wholeness and healing.
Jesus tells him to “go” and Bartimaeus does just that: physically healed, he began to follow Jesus on the way.
This is the last healing story in the gospel of Mark. Interestingly, it is also the only time we get the healed person’s name. (If the name thing intrigues you, you might want to check out Scott Hoezee’s commentary on this text in this lectionary cycle.) From here, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the fateful last week of his life. The lectionary has us skip over the Palm Sunday events next week, so it’s good to make note of this transition to the final stage.
We’ve got to be really careful how we use illustrations that have to do with people in poverty and/or with physical disabilities. Besides, Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus is much more than about restoring his sight; it’s also a recognition of Bartimaeus’ deeply-rooted faith and how that has prepared Bartimaeus to easily choose discipleship.
If you know of someone whose life challenges made it possible for them to more readily accept the truth of the gospel, or to trust in God’s almighty power, please use it as an illustration of the main thrust of this passage. Or maybe you know of people who walked away from everything in order to follow what they knew was God’s call. Those sorts of stories would also illustrate the posture that Bartimaeus’ faith examples for us.
You can always dwell a bit on what surprises me the most from this passage: Bartimaeus’ readiness as he throws off his cloak and leaps to his feet. You can’t do that if you don’t expect to be answered, aren’t anticipating being heard. In a kind of silly way, it reminds me of the superhero who has their suit on under their normal clothes: they are always watching and waiting for the need to arise. Are we expectant of God in the same way?
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