I’ve mentioned before that I took time decades ago to read the Gospels over and over for six months. It changed my world. It changed everything. On Wednesday evenings at Fourth Avenue in Franklin, TN I share some of the stories in a class called “Just Jesus Stories.” We covered one last night that hasn’t stopped rocking my world since the late 80s when I spent weeks thinking about it.
When I suggest you read Mark 10:46-52 I am really suggesting that you take a few weeks to read and absorb it. While the Book of Mark is, to me, frustratingly episodic and almost devoid of explanation and context I think that might have been part of the plan in that it makes us sit back and fill in the gaps – if we are willing to take the time to enter the story.
Jesus and his disciples are being followed by a large crowd as they leave Jericho (as usual, Mark tells us nothing of why they went there or what happened there). A blind man is outside the city begging for alms. Giving alms was a big part of Jewish culture; there was no workman’s compensation, Social Security, welfare, or Medicaid so those who were disabled had to rely on the goodwill of their fellow men for survival. Stories abound of them begging for alms here or there on high trafficked routes (such as by the Beautiful Gate to the temple in Jerusalem in Acts 3). Friends and family would bring their disabled loved ones out in the morning and get them set up for the day’s begging and then come get them in the evening if, indeed, the beggar was fortunate enough to have friends and family. It was a harsh life and it would do us well to sit back and contemplate what might have gone through their minds each and every day as they sat or stood helplessly relying on others for their very survival.
But something amazing happens next and by “amazing” I don’t mean the miracle of restored sight. It may seem odd to you but the miracles are, in some ways, the least impressive part of these Jesus stories to me. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God and creator of the universe so, as the developer of Eyes 1.0, I am not at all surprised by his ability to restore sight. No, first amazing thing in this story is…we know the beggar’s name.
Think about that. Beggars had no standing in the social order of the day. They were not respected and held no rank or property. And yet…God seemed to think it was important for us to know this man’s name: Bartimaeus. When that first hit me I stepped away from this story for nearly two weeks to give myself time to work out the ramifications of that: God knows that beggar’s name and He wants us to know it, too.
I found myself stopping after walking down a street or in a mall and turning around to see who I’d missed. Who wasn’t important enough to notice? Who did I actually notice and turn away from, perhaps unconsciously? Who were the Bartimaeus’ in my path whose name was known by God but whom I had treated as less important than myself or my mission of the day? I still make this a spiritual discipline, an everyday call to worship. On Sundays, I know that the members of my church want to greet me and visit with me but I find myself darting around looking for the Bartimaeus’ who might have come in and been unnoticed. The fact that God gave us this man’s name changed me.
Who does God see? Who does He think is important? Why did He want us to know this man’s name if not to impress on us the value of this person – and every person? The story moves on. Bartimaeus, once he hears that this is Jesus of Nazareth, calls out for alms and calls Jesus “Son of David.” It is at least possible that this beggar was also a son of David — of the same tribe as Jesus. It would have made sense for him to call that out and use that relationship to help his odds of receiving alms. It could even be that he had met Jesus before. Jesus had relationships with many people that can only be ascertained by backwards engineering the stories we find in these books: a colt is released for his use as soon as someone says it is for him, men immediately drop nets and follow him when he calls them. That only happens when you’ve already met a person, know them, and have a good relationship with them. As much as Jesus seemed to crave privacy and quiet, alone time he worked at building relationships that paid off time and time again in the Gospel stories. Maybe this was another one.
The crowd tried to shut the beggar up – a common response to beggars hassling you right when you’re trying to do something else like listen to a famous local rabbi – but Jesus “stopped” and told them to bring Bartimaeus to him. I like it that Jesus stopped. Until I spent a lot of time in these stories I assumed that just meant he stopped walking but that wouldn’t explain why the crowd was so adamant that the beggar be quiet. I now think that Jesus was teaching the crowd and they were straining to hear his words. Bartimaeus was interrupting church, shall we say. That was impolite, impolitic even. But Jesus wasn’t interested in what the polite rules of the day were – he stopped.
I spent a few weeks thinking about that before I moved on. Will we – do we – stop church services, our formal or informal liturgies, for sudden needs or because we noticed someone that was in pain or left out?
And here is where it really gets stunning: Bartimaeus is brought in front of Jesus, a meeting of a beggar with zero standing in the world with the creator of the universe. And Jesus says…”What do you want me to do for you?” Sit back and let that rock your world. Almighty God looks at a beggar and doesn’t rush in, doesn’t intrude, doesn’t demand or assume. Rather, God looks at the beggar, whose name he knows, and asks what he can do for him.
Wow. I remember the old hymn we sang when I was a boy “Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth or song, as the burdens press and the cares distress and the way grows weary and long? O yes, he cares, I know he cares. His heart is touched with my grief…” Mark has Bartimaeus saying “Rabbi, I want to see.” Some versions have a more poignant rendering: “Lord…if I could see…” And so Jesus gives him his sight. That restores more that sight, though – it gives him back his life, his standing, his place in the world…a place he had never lost in God’s eyes. He’d only lost it in the eyes of men.
And Jesus walks on. He does that a lot after healing people and even after raising a girl from the dead. He doesn’t capitalize on the miracle or bask in the adulation of the crowd. He merely does good to the Bartimaeus’ of the world and walks on. So when he tells us to “Follow me” I get the sense of what he really wants from me today.
From me. Because he knows my name, too.