Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Invitation to See

Mark 10:46-52
Ordinary Time 30  
William G. Carter

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, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 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, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

           A good friend was having eye problems. He woke up one morning to flashes of light, believing at first there was a lightning storm raging outside. But the storm was in his eyes. He couldn’t see sideways. There were little “floaters” in his vision. The optometrist couldn’t see him right away, so my buddy says he started to panic. What if he was losing his sight? What if he went from seeing the colors of the rainbow to the perpetual darkness? What if he could no longer see his grandchildren’s faces, no longer enjoy the sunrise, no longer have the freedom to drive around in his car?

It turned out to be a torn retina. He could get treatment for that, and he was fortunate that his sight could be restored. That’s not the case with everybody, as you know. When people lose their sight, they have to find new ways to travel through the world. They can learn Braille and work with a guide dog, but they inevitably have to rely on others. They depend on the people around them. And in the ancient world, that meant you were reduced to begging for help.

Bartimaeus was a beggar, a blind beggar. His life was reduced to sitting by a well-populated road. The cloak that he wore to keep him warm was also his offering basket. First thing in the morning, he would cast it before him, smooth out the wrinkles, and wait for generous people to walk by. Calling to them, he would ask for mercy, particularly in the form of spare change. “Can you help me?” he’d say. “Would you have mercy on me?” Then he would listen with heightened attention for the sound of coins to fall on his cloak. Whatever fell on his cloak was his, and he could afford to eat for another day. That was his routine. That was his life. He lived on the spare change from others.

One day, he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is drawing near. There is a buzz in his home city of Jericho. We don’t know what everybody around him was saying. Some had heard of Jesus as a wise teacher. Others knew of him as a miracle worker and a healer. Still others spoke of him as an exorcist, as a holy man who could defeat the powers of hell. What is so striking about this story is that Bartimaeus the blind man sees Jesus as the Messiah of God. He calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy! Jesus, Son of David!”

Now, that’s code language for “Messiah.” King David would have a Son someday. He could come from God, and he would begin to restore everything and everybody that was broken. “Jesus, Son of David” meant “Jesus, Messiah.”

And that is politically charged language. Jericho was occupied by the Roman army. The Caesar of Rome had put his troops there to expand his empire. The popular notion was that the Messiah would come to restore Israel to its ancient glory. To do that, the Messiah would drive away the oppressive soldiers, drive away the system that put the citizens under the emperor’s thumb, cast out the evil that comes with putting people down. The people around Bartimaeus heard him talking like this – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy! – and they said, “Hush up! Be quiet!”

Do you know why I think they said that? They didn’t want any trouble from the imperial troops stationed there, yes. But more than that, they saw Jesus of Nazareth, heard the code word for “Messiah,” and said to themselves, “We don’t think so.” He didn’t look like a Messiah. He didn’t look like a tall gladiator, ready to fight. He didn’t look like anything other than what he was: a Galilean, a peasant like the rest of them, a person with no obvious external abilities . . . except that things happened around him all the time. The sick became well. The hungry had food. The possessed were set free. The blind regained their sight.

In his physical blindness, Bartimaeus sees Jesus as the Messiah. His insight is that there is another way through the world than the way of the empire and its brutality. There is the way of Jesus. That’s the Holy Way. It will be costly. It will be awkward. But to care for the people for whom Jesus cares, to join him in doing the things that he does – this is the way of the Messiah in the world.

The blind man’s insight is remarkable. Up until this point in Mark’s account, nobody else had gotten it quite right. We heard it last week, in the text immediately before this one. Jesus predicts for the third time that his ministry will run a collision course with the powers of the world. His way is the way of sacrifice. Remember what happens? Two disciples, James and John, come up and ask for preferential treatment. They want to sit on special thrones when Jesus finally rules the world. Then the other ten disciples hear about it, and they get angry because James and John got to him first.

Jesus denounces this me-first, what’s-in-it-for-me mindset. His way is the way of service in the name of God. His sacrifice will pay the ransom to set people free from the powers that demean them. Bartimaeus sees this with something other than his eyes. He cries out to the merciful Messiah, even as his nervous neighbors ask him to hush.

I have always wondered how some people come to follow Jesus. I marvel at how they “get it.” Those Roman Catholic nuns who speak up for the hungry and work to get them food, where did they get their tireless energy? One of them says, “I heard Jesus say, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food.’” It was not a political statement, except as the political system has to be addressed on behalf of those who are hungry, who have no other voice. They speak for Jesus.

I heard one of my seminary classmates talk about a mission project in Kenya. She went with some people from Sacramento to build a school. One of the Kenyans asked, “Why are you here?” She said, “I am here with the Presbyterians working in partnership with this school.” He got this look on face, broke into a grin, and said, “Oh, we know the Presbyterians!”

With a faraway look, he said, “When I was five, I lost my sight. My family could only afford one bus ticket. So they pinned a sign on my shirt that said ‘Kikuyu Presbyterian Hospital.’ My parents put me on the bus, and I went by myself across Kenya. They met me, did the surgery, and now I see.” He nodded and said, “Yes, I know the Presbyterians.”   

Bartimaeus “gets it.” He understands that the Messiah has mercy on those with great needs. When Jesus calls him, he casts off his cloak, leaving behind his only possession and his source of income. Literally, he “bounces” up – he springs up. He refuses to sit in a pool of self-pity, and goes to the One who can heal him. And when Jesus said, “Faith restores you, go your way,” where does he go? He goes after Jesus, on his way. As far as we know, the cloak is still sitting by the side of road.

In recent years, the scholars have pondered the name of this man. It’s stated twice – Bartimaeus, which literally means “Son of Timaeus.” Timaeus was a famous name. Anybody know this? Timaeus was one of the titles of a work by Plato, the Greek philosopher. All the cultured people who could read would have known it. In that work, Plato describes a perfect cosmos, pure, unblemished, distant from us. All of us mortals can’t see anything more than a dim Xeroxed copy of this, unless they attend to a certain kind of elitism that removes them from the muck and grime of daily life.

Among the wealthy and the educated, this was a prevailing view of the world. It was a kind of a high rent snobbiness that only the very few and the privileged can attain. That was the view of Plato’s famous essay Timaeus.

So here the “Son of Timaeus” meets the Son of David.  Bartimaeus hasn’t turned out so well, has he? His eyesight is flawed. He is reduced to begging beside a dirty road. Even after he is healed, he follows a loser Messiah who is going to be crucified. And he does so because he sees who Jesus is. He knows that Christ’s Way is the Real Way. It will involve sacrifice because the idols of success must be forsaken. It will involve suffering, because if you minister to those who suffer, it affects you. You give up the beggar’s cloak, and all that it meant, the way that it reduced you to somebody that the world ignores – and you go the others that the world ignores, and you do what you can to infuse their lives with compassion and love.

As somebody notes, the Gospel of Mark perceives Christian faith as, "The determination to shed denial and face the world as it is, in order to struggle for what could be.”[1] Real faith is giving up on the crazy idea that the only thing that matters is a perfectly beautiful house, a perfectly successful career, with perfectly obedient children nurtured by a perfectly obedient spouse. There are a lot of people who believe that stuff, and it’s not working out so well for them. All of us have our social fractures and our difficulties. All of us have our bruises and our imperfections. All of us get jostled around by the empire and its attempts to consume us.

Bartimaeus is the one who says, “Teacher, let me see again.” Let me see what is real. Let me toss aside my empty efforts for security and status, and follow you, come what may.

Sometime ago in my travels, I met a remarkable lady named Dana. She was running a halfway house for women who are recovering drug addicts. She schedules twelve-step groups, arranges for child care, and arranged for job interview. You would never expect her to be involved with such work. She is even-tempered, gentle, and articulate. But she will tell you what happened to cause her to see anew.

She was a graduate school student in Pittsburgh, looking for a part-time job. A newspaper listed an administrative position with a soup kitchen. That looked interesting, so she called and got an interview. The day came and she put on a dark blue business suit, put her resume and references in a briefcase, and clipped back her hair.

Dana arriving a few minutes before noon and knocked on the door. Someone yelled, "It's unlocked." She went in, only to find a long line of people in front of her. Disappointment washed over her. Then she realized it was lunch time. The people ahead of her weren't there for the interview, they were waiting for soup.

She grew nervous as she looked at the people in line. Some of them, in turn, looked at her. She felt self-conscious about the way she was dressed. Apparently others began to sense her anxiety. A woman in a worn-out sweater smiled and tried to make conversation. "Is this your first time here?"

"Yes, it is."

"Don't worry," said the lady in the sweater, "it gets easier."

"The scales fell from my eyes that day," reflected the young woman. "I went there looking for a job, and that woman thought I was there for soup. As far as she knew, the world had been as cruel to me as it was to her. But in the kindest way she could, she welcomed me as a fellow human being. She saw me as someone equally in need, which I was and still am. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the day when God began to convert me." She motioned around the halfway house and said, "You see all these things God is doing here? God gave us the eyes to see where Jesus was leading us."

Jesus looks at any one of us and says, "What do you want me to do for you?" I suppose we could ask for more prestige, a greater impact, and a sense of power. But if we have the eyes of faith, the answer is clear: "to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly" . . . all the way to the cross.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved. 

[1] Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994) 46.

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