Let’s look at our gospel story closely. Jesus comes down here to the city of Jericho, and he hears a man shouting. Now, that’s a déjà vu sort of experience, if you know your bible stories. Jericho is famous in the Hebrew Bible. Why? Because Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho. What happened there? Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. How did the walls fall? They shouted at the top of their lungs and blew on trumpets. The walls came down by the power of the living God. Where were the Israelites when this happened? They stood outside the city. Jesus comes to the city of Jericho, he is just outside the city and he hears a man shouting. I wonder what kind of walls are going to come tumbling down?
Bartimaeus had been sitting just outside city of Jericho for a long time. He had been there from the time he went blind. There, where people went in and out of the city, going about their business, he sits on the ground, his cloak spread out before him, begging for coins. “Have mercy, have mercy,” is his constant refrain. He has to call out to them or they would walk right by him. Many people don’t even hear his voice anymore…just another noisy beggar that you tune out. One of thousands of blind beggars in Israel. He is part of the background noise.
Jesus enters the scene. Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem. He had been in the north in Galilee, on the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum. Now he walks down the Jordan River Valley, down, down, towards the Dead Sea. Then just before he hits the Dead Sea, he heads into the city of Jericho. Jericho is the lowest city on earth. The shores of the Dead Sea are in fact the lowest dry land on the planet. For those of you who like facts, I’ll tell you that it’s 258 metres below sea level. It’s as low as you go in the world on dry land. Of course they would not have known that then. But they did know it was the bottom of the country; everything else was up from here. It was a steep uphill climb all the way from Jericho to Jerusalem.
Who is shouting? It’s Bartimaeus and he is shouting because he is blind. Being blind in that culture and time meant you were at the bottom of the social heap. There was no cure for blindness. The Hebrew Bible records different types of miracles, but nowhere was anyone ever cured of blindness. There was no hope. And to top it all off, everyone believed that if you were sick, it showed that God was punishing you for something you did. So not only is Bartimaeus blind, he is also blamed for being blind. He can only sit at the gate and hope that people will toss coins onto his cloak, his only worldly possession. If people don’t give, he will not eat, he will die of starvation.
I was reading a commentary of this text from Matthew Henry, a minister writing in the 1600s. And he instructs his readers that the blind can’t make a livelihood with their own labour, they subsist on charity, and so “we must take care of them.” That was 1600 years after Jesus lived, and so not much had changed. It really is only relatively recently that we have had a cultural shift towards people with disabilities. And people with disabilities will tell us that shift is not complete. Today we don’t talk about the blind; we talk about people with disabilities and visual impairments. They are people first, and we expect that they will lead full lives with accommodations to their impairment.
But for Bartimaeus, from the moment he lost his sight, all that was in store for him was to be a beggar, to live off what people tossed his way. Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by. Jesus had healed blind people, he had cast out demons, he had done many miracles. You can bet that sitting at the gate as he was, Bartimaeus would have heard these stories. Maybe he remembered the promises from Isaiah that when the Messiah came, he would heal the blind. Was there just a glimmer of hope for Bartimaeus and others like him when they heard about Jesus? If you thought your grim path in life was set, and you’d given up all hope, and then someone told you that there was a possibility of healing, would you pursue it?
From the moment he hears that Jesus is passing by, Bartimaeus is relentless, he is yelling at the top of his lungs for Jesus to hear him. “Have mercy on me, son of David.” It’s his one chance.
Many sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet. He was making a spectacle of himself. It seems obvious to the whole crowd that Jesus is an important person. Why a very well known rich man went and even knelt before him just the other day! Jesus won’t have time to bother with old Bartimaeus, that dirty beggar clothed in rags. You can imagine them trying to block the noise, making a human wall, standing in front of Bartimaeus, urging Jesus to hurry on past this annoyance.
But remember, at the very beginning of his ministry Jesus was already hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees, who were sent to check out this popular prophet, start griping about this, and Jesus tells them straight out, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Given that direction, it is not surprising that Jesus comes here to the lowest place on earth. It’s not surprising that he stops when he hears the anguish and despair in Bartimaeus’ voice. He turns to the lowest of the low, blind Bartimaues, the streetperson of Jericho.
Jesus hears the shouting, and though he can’t even see Bartimaeus for the wall of people around him, but he calls for him to come. When Jesus calls, the human wall of people surrounding Bartimaeus collapses and Bartimaeus appears, being led, guided, pushed towards the waiting Jesus.
The story tells us that Bartimaeus springs up, leaving behind his cloak, likely his only worldly possession. Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus doesn’t hesitate. He has one hope, one desire–he longs to see again. He tells Jesus this. Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus is immediately healed. And it says, “he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Bartimaeus’ life is turned entirely upside down. The blind see!
Now if you remember last week’s scripture passage, maybe something is tweaked for you. Last week we talked about the rich man. Jesus asks the rich man to sell his possessions, to give them away to the poor. But that man cannot do it. Here we have the poorest man leaving behind his only worldly possession, his cloak, to go to Jesus. Jesus tells the rich man, “Follow me”. But the man goes away sorrowful. Here Jesus says “Go”, but the man follows him. Bartimaeus has his sight, he got what he wanted, he even has permission to go his own way. But he will not. He can see, and he has seen who Jesus is. He has recognized Jesus as the Son of David. He was healed by this man, and he will follow him on the Way!
The irony of course, is that this latest disciple joins the Way just a few hours shy of Jerusalem. They will enter that city, and the crowds will hail Jesus. They will, like Bartimaeus, recognize Jesus for who he is. They will line the streets with palms saying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” But in a few days, Jesus will be outside the city again, crucified. No one will see him for who he is. He will say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Bartimaeus turns out to be a prophet. He was the first one to say publicly that Jesus was the son of David. And now he will witness the son of David suffering and dying on a cross. Jesus healed many people, there are many stories of healing. But Bartimaeus is the only healed person who is named; it’s the last healing that Jesus performs.
There are different characters and groups in the story. Bartimaeus, Jesus, the crowd. Who do you identify with in this story? Where do you find yourself in the story? Maybe we identify with the crowd. We find Bartimaeus’ yelling disturbing and irritating. Why so much noise?! We’re watching this whole thing unfold and we are surprised to see Jesus paying attention to the yelling streetperson. Why can’t Jesus notice how neat and polite and put-together all the other people are. Why does he want to spend his time with someone like Bartimaeus?
Too often, we are like the crowd, we get tired of the same old shouts, the same old cries. Society forms a wall around the pain it doesn’t want to see. It’s just old Bartimaeus griping again. Can’t he get over it? Can’t he just die and put himself out of his own misery?
We can walk right by the pain in our society. If churches aren’t careful, we can be part of that wall of apathy and neglect. That’s why it was so important that representatives of the church be at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was held in Edmonton last week. For too long the church was just part of the wall that society had formed, to not listen, to block out the pain of First Nations peoples.
Can we get out of our crowd mentality? Can we let the walls fall and hear the pain?
The thing is, pain is unruly, it’s messy and it’s unpredictable. And churches have become tidy places, where we want things done in a nice orderly fashion. The church is a controlled environment, we like to know what’s going to happen, we like things to be predictable. I know I do!
I remember when I pastored in a congregation where the majority of people were on the edges of society. Order and decorum went out the window. I would have a nice service planned with my order of worship neatly laid out in the bulletin, and then life would happen, and things would go sideways. I remember one day, I said, “Let’s pray the Lord’s prayer together”. That sounds like an innocent thing to say in church, doesn’t it? “Let’s pray the Lord’s prayer together.” And someone shouted from the back of the room, “I hate that prayer.”
I have to admit that as a minister when things like that happened, I got this sinking feeling—it was out of control, I had no idea what was going to happen. It was a shout and it was loud and it stopped everyone in their tracks, including me. “I hate that prayer,” the person continued, “because it tells me to forgive my mother, and I can’t forgive my mother for what she did to me, so I won’t say that prayer.”
Well there’s a lot of pain there. Did Jesus come to be with the people who dutifully say the Lord’s prayer, or to be with people who are so broken, they can’t pray it? Do you usher the disruptive person out the door, or do you say, “We want to hear about this.”
This story we read today reminds us that Jesus travelled to the lowest place on earth, to hang out with the lowest of the low. Will we be the crowd, shushing the people in the pain, making a wall, trying to worship with our hands covering our ears, blocking out the yelling?
Or maybe it’s not the crowd we identify with in the story. Maybe it’s blind Bartimaeus we really identify with. Maybe we are people with deep pain, that we’ve lived with for years and years. Pain that is big, that is enormous.
We are at the lowest place we’ve ever been. God is our only hope. We turn to the church with that pain. We talk about it. How will we be received?
As I was thinking about this story, I remembered the story of my friend Liz. I phoned her this week and asked whether I could tell a little bit of her story, and I assured her I would do it anonymously. She said, “Tell my story, use my name, it’s important that the church hear that.” She was badly, badly hurt as a child by her parents, and faced significant debilitating mental health issues as an adult as she worked through that pain. She went to church, after decades away. It was hard for her to come. In a Sunday school class, she shared about her pain. It was raw, it was hard to talk about. In another small group setting she talked about it again. She started to feel that maybe she could attend the church, maybe they could accept her even though she was in so much pain. Soon she got a visit from someone who told her that when she was in church, she shouldn’t talk so much about what happened, “Can’t you just talk to a counselor about that?” Liz was a person in pain, and she felt now that the church didn’t want to hear her story. Liz stopped going to church, she never went back.
There are people among us who live with deep physical pain, psychological pain, mental illness, deep anger about betrayals: we hardly know what to do with ourselves. We are scared that if we ever let anyone see inside us, we would be escorted out the door. That’s how big the pain is inside us. Or if we open up a little bit, there are pat answers, and people expect a little prayer to heal things, and if we come back in a few weeks or months with the same pain, people will think, “We already dealt with that. Don’t you have enough faith to get over that?” Miracle stories, like the one we read today can feel depressing because life usually isn’t like that. There isn’t immediate relief, we mostly don’t walk away healed in one miraculous moment.
But still…Jesus stops when he hears Bartimaeus. Jesus pays attention, Jesus doesn’t turn away. Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
Today we hear those words of Jesus addressed to us; “You have what you need within you to heal.” You find yourself in the presence of the living God, you know that God believes in you, God made you strong and you will be a survivor. You will heal yourself. If you identify with Bartimaeus, this story is one of hope. You are suddenly one who sees. If you identify with Bartimaeus, you know that this story shouldn’t be subtitled “Blind Bartimaeus”. It should be called “Bartimaeus the faithful” or “Bartimaeus, the one who sees”. People who have experienced pain and God’s healing have insight that others do not have. They can see the power of God in ways that others can’t.
We may find ourselves with the crowd, we may find ourselves in Bartimaeus, but as followers of Jesus, we are all ultimately invited to find ourselves with Jesus. To journey with Jesus as we have been doing throughout Lent. And that’s our job for this week, that’s the challenge to think about as we go away this morning. As a church, as Christians, we are called, like Jesus, not to turn away from the shouts of the hurting people. We may feel like running, or covering our ears. Instead, we remember Jesus, and we make a beeline for the hurting people. Once we’re there it’s not easy, you won’t always know what to do there, or what will happen, or whether you will do or say the right thing in the midst of the pain you encounter. But perhaps it’s not so much what you say, as where you are.
What might that look like for you? This week, maybe you will see your neighbor, who you usually try to avoid, because they want to talk about their problems, they go on and on, and you see that as a waste of time. Maybe this week, you will invite them to sit down and really listen. The wall of “I don’t have time for you” will come down.
Maybe there’s someone at work who is really struggling, and you wish they’d get their act together. They are slowing everyone down. Instead of just talking about this person behind their back, you’ll reach out and see whether you can help them with their work. What is hard about their work, and are there any solutions. The wall of “you” and “us” comes tumbling down.
Maybe you are on the bus and you hear some teenagers use a racist slur against the bus driver as they get off the bus. Instead of just ignoring it, as you usually would, you say, “That’s not cool, that’s racism.” You’ll talk to the bus driver and say how much you appreciate their service, you notice other people start saying that too. The wall between those who experience racism and those who tolerate it starts crumbling.
Where are we? We are with Jesus. With Jesus in the lowest place on earth. A place where a blind man says, “I see.” A place where walls come tumbling down by the power of the living God.
READING the text
[I had the text read in two pieces, the first Mark 10:35-45 earlier in the service, and then just before the sermon Mark 10:46-52. I had someone with a really big voice in the pews at the back of the sanctuary just jumping up suddenly and yelling out the parts of the blind Bartimaeus :
Carol: They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say,
Reader: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Carol: Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly,
Reader: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Carol: Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him,
Reader: ‘My teacher, let me see again.’
Carol: Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. ]
A sermon preached at
Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
April 6, 2014
by Carol Penner