At the beginning of chapter ten of Mark’s gospel, a part of which we read on October 24th, Jesus and his disciples were walking through the Jordan Valley on their way to Jerusalem about 23 kilometers to southwest of Jericho. This is the background for the gospel for October 24th. (Mark 10:46-52)They came to Jericho. As Jesus 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!”
The first two sentences, in which they came to Jericho then were leaving Jericho convey the sense that they were just passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. They were moving with purpose.
Since beginning his public ministry, Jesus’ fame as a healer and teacher had spread. Beyond the growing group of his disciples there was a large crowd, of people, some of whom may have been curious about Jesus, the celebrity whom they had heard about and who was now passing by, but some of them may have also been pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for Passover.
Even blind Bartimaeus, who had a begging spot near a heavily trafficked road, had heard about Jesus. While people told him it was Jesus of Nazareth he shouted out a different name, Jesus, Son of David. This seemingly simple transition tells us that Bartimaeus had paid attention to the stories circulating about Jesus and that he knew that, beyond having been raised in Nazareth, he was part of the Davidic line from which the Messiah was to come. Putting together the stories about Jesus’ teaching and his cures, he may have wondered if Jesus was the Promised One. Even though he was blind he had insight into the true nature of Jesus. He was engaged by Jesus’ story.
However, Bartimaeus’s shouting was an unwanted interruption. 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.
Bartimaeus might have called out, “heal me”. Instead he said, have mercy on me. We could interpret this as a synonym for ‘heal me’, but the phrase has a broader meaning of spiritual salvation. His words apparently caught Jesus’ attention, because he stood still and said, “Call him here.” As I imagine the scene, Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of people walking at a good pace. When Bartimaeus called out to Jesus from the side of the road, he was out of Jesus’ line of sight. Nevertheless, when Jesus heard Bartimaeus’s words he abruptly stopped and called for him to be brought forward.
The detail about Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak and springing up tells us that he seized the moment with enthusiasm.
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.” The words my teacher are mildly surprising but also significant. My is a claim to a personal relationship with someone whom Bartimaeus had not encountered before. Yet the words imply that Bartimaeus has been learning from and about Jesus.
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Our understanding of the story is that Jesus had cured him. Yet Jesus attributed the man’s ‘immediate’ cure to his faith that made him well. It suggests an alignment between faith in Jesus and wellness.
This was not the first time that Jesus associated faith and a cure. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. … heard about Jesus, came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped … Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”… Then the woman… came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:25-35)
The word that we translate as “faith” might be better understood as ‘faithfulness’, which implies a continuous following in mind and action. In both situations described above, Bartimaeus and the woman acted on their understanding of Jesus’ true character. Notably, this morning’s gospel ends by saying that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on his way.
In these two instances, Jesus said that faith in his person as a source of wholeness. While some of his cures appear to have been done to elicit faith in him and his relationship with the Father, these two cures were the result of faith.
(Modern science might interpret the story as an example of the ‘placebo effect’: believing that a pill or treatment has healing powers, even if the treatment or ingredients are neutral. The belief, itself, causes symptoms to disappear. Even if Bartimaeus’s blindness was psychosomatic, his cure, based on his belief in Jesus, was real. Grace works through nature.)
Elsewhere in his gospel, Mark says that Jesus healed many (1:34, 3:10). The fact that we have details about this singular cure suggests that Bartimaeus may have subsequently become a lifelong follower of Jesus and offered his story as testimony to others including Mark. Otherwise, how could we have so many details about his name and whose son he was when it seems that Jesus and his disciples were just transiting Jericho. While Bartimaeus is not mentioned in any other gospel and only this one time in Mark, his story containsdetails that could have only come from one who was closely involved in it.
This momentary contact with Jesus changed Bartimaeus’s life. Obviously, by restoring his sight, Jesus made him whole again. The larger impact was that Bartimaeus may have followed Jesus in his own life of faithfulness.
Try looking at the story as though you were a film director. The scene begins with a wide-angle shot of a crowd walking along the Jericho road. It comes closer to Jesus with his disciples around him. These disciples first shout at Bartimaeus to be quiet then are involved in bringing him to Jesus. In the climax the camera focuses exclusively on Jesus and Bartimaeus and their exchange. In the final moment Mark’s camera gradually pulls back as the crowd resumes walking toward Jerusalem, but this time with Bartimaeus by Jesus’ side in the centre of the screen.
If you were to extend this film scene, what dialogue would you write for Jesus and Bartimaeus for the next few minutes? (I personally found this exercise of ‘writing the continuing dialogue’ to be very fruitful and I encourage you to explore the imagined exchange.)
How do you think Jesus’ disciples reacted to Bartimaeus? Did they ask him about how he knew about Jesus? Were they interested in what he planned to do with his life now that his sight was recovered? Did Bartimaeus ask them to tell him stories of Jesus’ teaching and what it was like to travel with Jesus?