The Sunday prior to preaching this text, I had an encounter with one of our parishioners which presented me with a challenge. Her 16 year old son had retinitis pigmentosa – a degenerative eye disease that would eventually result in complete blindness. She had this too, but her son’s form was much more aggressive and progressing very rapidly. With tears in her eyes, she told me of taking her son to the eye doctor and the doctor breaking the news that her son would never be able to drive a car because his eyesight had degraded so quickly. Knowing her son, he was taking this news better than his mom who felt horrible about having passed this disease along. Of course, this was not her fault – but it still felt that way. After she finished pouring her heart out to me, and with teary hugs we parted, I thought to myself, “Oh great! Next week I have to preach about the healing of Bartimaeus!” I just knew this could bring up all kinds of theological issues like why Bartimaeus was healed but this wonderful young man was losing his sight. My seminary education at Gettysburg taught me Greek and I went back to the original language of the text and poured over it hoping to find something else that would preach. What I found astonished me. I found out this isn’t primarily a healing story.
The first clue we get that this is no ordinary Markan healing story is that we know the name of the man being healed. None of Mark’s healing stories name the person receiving the healing: it’s the blind man, the deaf mute man, the woman with the hemorrhage, Jairus’ daughter, the paralytic lowered through the roof. But right away, Mark tells us this man’s name: Bartimaeus.
As Jesus is leaving Jericho, heading for Jerusalem and the cross, Bartimaeus cries out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Hold it right there! Mark’s gospel has no birth narrative. We have no knowledge of Jesus’ lineage or origins – he just shows up to be baptized, then is driven out into the wilderness where he’s tempted, then calls disciples and starts his ministry. In Mark’s gospel, we have no indication that Jesus has a Davidic connection until … the blind guy points it out! Don’t you just love the irony here?
Well, Bartimaeus’ colleagues try to shut him up, but he’s not going to be silenced – he cries out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks and tells his disciples to “Call him here.” “Call him here” – call him – the same thing Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry, the very same verb is used – “call him here.”
The disciples then go to Bartimaeus and say, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” These three phrases have echoes in other parts of Mark’s narrative. “Take heart” is the same verb in Greek that Jesus used when he was walking on the water towards the disciples in the boat and they were afraid of him. “Take heart. I AM. Fear not!” he told them. “Take heart” or “have courage” is phrased the same way in both places. “Get up” or “rise up” is the Greek verb which also means “resurrection” – Bartimaeus is about to be raised up to a new life. “He is calling you” is the story of all the disciples – Jesus called them.
So Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps up and goes to Jesus – apparently without assistance so it does call into question how blind is blind. Jesus then asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” The essence in the Greek is a bit deeper – more like, “What is your deepest longing?” Or “What is your heart’s desire that I can do for you?” Bartimaeus’ reply in Greek is an idiomatic phrase and idioms are the hardest thing to translate because they often lose some of their richness in the translation. We hear in English, “My teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus actually calls Jesus something like “My beloved teacher” and then says, “that I might lift my eyes.” Yes, an idiom meaning to regain sight, but for Jewish hearers there is an echo back to Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
Jesus’ reply is another idiom, “Go; your faith has saved you.” Yes, we translate that as your faith has “made you well,” but the Greek uses the salvation verb – your faith has saved you. Mark then says that immediately, Bartimaeus “lifted his eyes” which we translate as receiving his sight; however, it is a cryptic phrase and to what degree his sight was restored is a bit enigmatic. What is rock solid is what Mark says next, Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way” or in Greek, “in the way.” We clean that translation up to make sense in English, but the phrase “followed Jesus in the way” has another meaning. The early Jesus movement was known as “the Way” or “the Way of the Nazarene.” To follow Jesus “in the way” meant Bartimaeus became a disciple!
This is no ordinary healing story at all – it is a call story. Jesus does not initially reach out to Bartimaeus, rather Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus in his own need, out of his own poverty. Jesus, in turn, calls Bartimaeus in spite of his poverty and need – perhaps even because of his poverty and need. Jesus didn’t wait for Bartimaeus to have his act together or even to behave appropriately before calling him. Jesus called him in the midst of his brokenness, poverty and need. He called him because of his emptiness … and his faith.
What was true for Bartimaeus is true for us. Jesus doesn't wait until we have our act together to call us to be disciples. He calls us right now in the midst of all the broken stuff in our lives. He calls us and spite of and even because of our need, our poverty, and our weakness. Because it is only through our weaknesses that we can really and truly connect with others to bring them the hope and healing of the gospel. It is in our need and poverty that we are able to make space for another who needs to hear what Christ is doing for us. His words to Bartimaeus are also words to us: “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.”