Sunday, October 24, 2021

Learning From Bartimaeus


October 24, 2021 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:45. 

We have been on quite a journey. For six weeks now, we have walked with Jesus and the disciples from their home base up in Bethsaida down south through Galilee, past Samaria, and on into Judea. Each Sunday, we have heard a gospel story from another stage of the journey, and each week we have moved a little closer to Jerusalem and a little closer to understanding what will happen there. Three different times along the way, Jesus has predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection, and each time the disciples have responded with disbelief and confusion, which, in turn, has led Jesus to offer another clarifying teaching about discipleship.

Today we have reached the last stop before we get to the holy city. Jericho is about 15 miles away from Jerusalem—a full day’s walk—and the road that leads to the capital makes its way steadily uphill, gaining over 3200 feet in elevation. For a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem, Jericho was the last chance to spend the night and stock up on supplies before the taxing trek ahead. And, for us and the disciples, it our last chance to learn from Jesus before his triumphal entry into the city where he will be killed.

On the way out of town, which is to say after Jesus and the disciples had embarked on this final leg of their journey, a blind beggar, sitting on the side of the road, cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Like any beggar well skilled at his craft, Bartimaeus had set up shop on a busy thoroughfare, and, when he heard that a prominent religious figure was passing by, he seized on the opportunity to force that rabbi’s hand by inviting him to spare some change while the crowd looked on. At least that’s what the crowd thought when they heard Bartimaeus’ cry. “Be quiet!” they hissed at the annoying beggar. “Save your flattering appeals for someone else.”

The disciples and the crowd tried to protect Jesus, not unlike when they had tried to prevent parents from bringing their little children to the busy teacher, but Bartimaeus would not be deterred. He cried out, squawking like a raven, all the more loudly, all the more disruptively, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped. And the crowd stopped with him. “Call him here,” the rabbi said.

In the retelling of this story, Mark wants us to be sure to recognize the role that the crowd played in the episode. Those who had tried their hardest to silence the blind beggar now became his greatest cheerleaders. “Take heart,” they said. “Get up; he is calling you!” The same energy and enthusiasm with which they had denounced the helpless man now fuel their invitation to him. Their desire for decorum and efficiency now became a commitment to charity and inclusion. Bartimaeus, therefore, was not the only blind man to be given back his sight. 

As is true with many of Jesus’ miracles, when we read this story, we discover that the healing itself is only a small part of what is being conveyed to us. That the man regained his sight, while an essential element, is delivered to us almost as a passing thought right at the end. Instead of focusing on the miraculous event, Mark gives us a dramatic story about the conversion of the heart and the transformation of our minds. Once the healing is accomplished, Bartimaeus, who only moments earlier had been ridiculed by the crowd as being unworthy, joins them in following Jesus on the way. He is, in fact, the only person to receive a miraculous healing and then become a disciple of Jesus. That we know his name at all—Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus—is a testament to his subsequent faithfulness as a follower of Jesus. 

As we leave Jericho and make our way toward Jerusalem, what must we learn from Bartimaeus in order to make sense of what awaits us up the road? Surely the disciples couldn’t help but compare this blind beggar with the man who, a few days earlier, had knelt at Jesus’ feet and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. This beggar man had nothing to offer—nothing to bring into their fellowship—yet he had been included, while the rich man, whose life overflowed with treasure and influence, had been sent away discouraged. The disciples had had a hard time making sense of that decision. The rich man was the kind of disciple whom any rabbi—any rector—would love to have as a patron. But the way of Jesus—the path that leads to the cross—has no use for those who would rather cling to their wealth than follow Jesus with their whole heart.

There isn’t much time left for us to figure out who Jesus really is and what it means for us to follow him before he makes his celebrated entry into Jerusalem. On the very next page, in the very next verse, it will be time for the disciples to go and find a colt and bring it back so that Jesus can ride it into the city. Soon, it will be time for the crowd, who will throw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground, to separate into two distinct camps—those who want to crown Jesus and those who want to crucify him. Our getting it right depends upon our ability to recognize what sort of messiah and savior Jesus is. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the defining moments not only of our faith but of our entire lives, and our ability to make sense of them depends on our willingness to learn from Bartimaeus.

Jesus calls out to each of us, beckoning us to follow him. The call that is issued to every disciple is an invitation to a life of poverty and powerlessness in order that the true power of God might transform us and renew the whole earth. Jesus does not call us to bring our wealth and influence into the community of faith so that the body of Christ might become a symbol of earthly power. He calls us to give it all away in order that we might belong to the one whose resurrection power is changing the world into the reign of God. That power to renew the world begins within us when we answer the call to follow him. As long as we are looking for God and expecting God’s salvation to come into this world through the channels of wealth and power, we are more blind even than Bartimaeus. But those who are willing to follow Jesus on the path that leads through suffering and death into the glory of the resurrected life are given new eyes to see God’s saving work in the world. Take heart; get up: Jesus is calling you.

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