21st Sunday after Pentecost
25 October 2009
Stories about healings inevitably raise difficult questions for modern Christians. What really happened? Are these stories true, or are they just told to make us believe in Jesus’ divinity? Why don’t the types of miraculous healings from the Bible happen anymore? Or do they? And if they do, then what is the relationship between faith and healing? If someone doesn’t get healed, does it mean they didn’t have enough faith? The questions are daunting.
Mark doesn’t try to answer them. He just tells us these stories, and leaves it to us to figure out what to do with them. In many cases in Mark’s Gospel, after Jesus has healed he tells the people not to tell anyone. Is it because these miracles will draw too much attention to Jesus, or will raise too many questions? Who knows? All we know is that Jesus repeatedly heals, and then says, “Don’t tell.” But not this time. Today’s story is the last healing story in this Gospel, and Jesus doesn’t try to keep it quiet this time. He is on his way to Jerusalem now, on his way to the cross, and in a way, this final healing is the inauguration of that journey. There will be no more secrets about who this man is and what he has come for. Eyes will be opened, and the truth will be seen.
Mark shows us with this story. Jericho was a lush city of palm trees and springs, near the Jordan River, and it was surrounded by a wall. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sat by the road just outside the gate, so he could beg the pity of those on their way into or out of the city. The people inside those walls knew him, saw him every day. They were used to his sad story and his tragic condition. It no longer horrified them. And isn’t this the way it always is? We grow so tired of the need around us. We get so accustomed to seeing people begging that we are no longer horrified at their poverty or their need. We grow numb, or worse, we get annoyed. So Bartimaeus set himself up by the road outside the city walls, where he could appeal to travelers who might still be moved to compassion for an impoverished blind person begging for change.
There he sits, when a large group of people begin to leave the city, walking by him as they go. Bartimaeus hears that one of them is the great healer, Jesus of Nazareth, and he begins to shout. He starts making a racket. No more rattling a little tin cup or hoping someone might hear him calling out, “Please help.” No, this is his big chance, and he lays it all on the line. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People try to shush him. Even beggars have a protocol. Stay on your knees, look pitiful, say please. Not this guy. Not this time. He will not be shushed. He screams even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!!”
And Jesus stops. He stands still. Silence. And then: “Call him here.”
No more shushing for the blind beggar. An invitation now. The people who had been trying to silence him now call to him, saying, “Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!” Watch him now, as he throws off his cloak, rises up from his place of pity, crosses ground he has never seen, among people he has never seen, outside a city he has never seen,[i] to meet the healer he cannot see.
And it is like this for many of us, is it not? We fumble forward in life without a clear picture of who Jesus really is. Many times – maybe even most of the time? – we cannot even see how he is present in our circumstances. Every Sunday we come to church and hear the stories and say the words and sing the songs and go through the motions. But do we see him? Do we sense that he is a real presence in our lives?
The blind man could not see him, but moved towards him anyway. He threw off his old life like a left-behind cloak, and leapt forward into the unknown. And now a question for him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.
Does it seem an odd question? Do you think that Jesus does not know what this man wants? “Have mercy on me!” the man has shouted as Jesus passed by. The man has begged only coins from all the other travelers through the years. Now he has a choice. He can ask this Jesus for spare change, or he can ask for what he really needs. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks him. The question is not for Jesus’ sake – he surely knows what the man needs. The question is for the blind man, and for us.
It is not the first time he has asked this question. Just a few verses earlier, James and John announce, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And what they ask for is a ludicrous pretension towards greatness. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They ask him this right after he has told them – for the third time – that he is going to be condemned and killed. And here they are, still hoping that following him will mean greatness for them. They ask their selfish and delusional question, and he responds, “You do not know what you are asking.”
They are as blind as Bartimaeus. They clearly do not understand their calling or their destiny. Jesus is headed towards the most brutal kind of suffering and death. There will be two people on his right and on his left - criminals, executed in shame. James and John have no idea what it means to be on Jesus’ right and left hands. Jesus is resolute about his own calling, and destiny, and purpose. James and John fantasize about power, and privilege, and glory. They do not know what they are asking. Like the blind man, they cannot really see Jesus. The difference between them and the blind man is that they do not realize they are blind.
Jesus’ question confronts our most basic desires. “What is it that you want from me?” Do we know what we would answer? His question is not that of a genie, who is going to magically grant wishes. His question is that of a healer, a teacher, a man on his way to the cross. His question calls into question our own sense of purpose and of need. The blind man knew what he needed – “My teacher, let me see again.” Do you know what you need? Is there a healing that you seek? Are you aware of your own blindnesses? Do you want to see clearly? Are you willing to admit your need, and to beg for him to fill it? What is it that you want from Jesus? What are you looking for?
Forgiveness? Healing? New sight? New life? He stands there ready to give any of it, all of it. What is it that you want with him?
As soon as the blind man says, “let me see,” Jesus gives it. “Go; your faith has made you well.” And what is his faith? It is not some certain knowledge, born of seeing. It is not a set of beliefs; it has nothing to do with doctrine. His faith is a seeking. His faith is an asking. His faith is based on knowing that he cannot see and knowing that he cannot give himself that sight. His faith is the yearning that pushes him forward and makes him desperate enough to beg mercy from the One he has heard will heal. Put simply, his faith is hope. [Blind hope. Hope that freely seeks and begs for what he knows he cannot give himself.]
If we knew how poor, and how ill, and how powerless, and how blind we really are – if we knew it, maybe we would come begging and unashamed to Jesus. Maybe we would cry out with everything in us. Maybe we would seek him, even when we cannot see him. [Maybe we would ask something from him even when we cannot quite believe he will answer.]
He stands so ready to give what we need. The blind man only had to ask it, and it was done. His eyes were opened, and the first thing he saw was the face of love. And even though Jesus had told him, “Go, your faith has made you well,” what he did was to follow. Once he could see that face, what else could he do, but to go wherever that man went?
In the end, his story is a miracle story, modified. It is not just a healing, it is a calling. This is what true vision is ultimately for – to see our true purpose and the One who heals and calls us, and to follow him. His way is not the road to glory or success. It will be the road towards sacrifice and sometimes suffering. But it is also the road of truth, grace, giving, and real freedom. We never walk the road alone; he leads the way.
He knows we struggle. He knows we have a hard time following, and a hard time trusting or even hoping. He knows how broken we are, and how blind we can be – to our real selves, to each other, and especially to him and his great giving grace. He is so ready to give so much. He knows we have our questions about him and his way. He stands before us with just one: “What do you want from me?”
[i] John R. Fry. “Blindness.” A Chorus of Witnesses. 142.