Blind Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road and calls out as Jesus passes by. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When he is scolded by the disciples he cries out even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
What would Bartimaeus, a humble man of faith, think today, had he know that his cry to Jesus would form the basis of a prayer much beloved by the Eastern Orthodox Church? The prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” After the Lord’s Prayer, it may be the most commonly spoken prayer in the Christian world.
It is ironic then, that his vocal prayer to Jesus is nearly suppressed by Jesus’ own followers. Why did they tell him to hold his tongue? Bartimaeus is a beggar, a bit like ones we have in Luton – and in my own home town of Brighton, where there are more of them, presumably because there is a wealthier clientele down there, (and warmer summers). It used to be said that instead of giving beggars money you should offer to buy them a McDonald’s, and then wait for them to say no. Well, they don’t want a Big Mac, they just want the money, so if you are feeling charitable that is what you should give them. They may spend it on drugs, as everyone assumes, but statistically they are more likely to spend the money on rent, food and clothing.
Bartimaeus is also blind. His blindness means he is unable to do work that other men can do and so, instead, he begs. His blindness seems to touch no nerve of sympathy among the disciples and I wonder why? In the Old Testament blindness was seen as a stigma, sent by God. In the book of Deuteronomy, blindness is one of the punishments for disobedience (28:28). Yet God, ever merciful, can also take away blindness, for example: “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.” from Psalm 146.
As a metaphor for the human condition, blindness is associated with faulty understanding and with the mind being held captive in darkness. Jesus describes the Pharisees as “blind guides of the blind.” (Matthew 15:14). All in all, to be blind is to be cursed in some way – so I wonder if that is what many in the crowd were thinking? In passing, note the use of the word “many”; not all of the followers of Jesus thought they should ignore the blind man. As for the disciples, we can’t be sure exactly what they were thinking.
What is interesting is that we know what passes between Jesus and Bartimaeus but not what passes between Jesus and some of the others. In the exchange between Jesus and the blind beggar we are being taught some important lessons in faith and in the power of faith to transform human lives. What is especially remarkable is that the beggar’s example is greater than that of Jesus’ close disciples James and John.
You will remember last week’s gospel, when James and John approached Jesus and wanted him to do whatever they asked of him? Contrast their approach with the words of Bartimaeus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The beggar, instead of wanting something for his own advantage, simply asks for mercy. Actually, he begs for mercy. He stands in place of us in the same way James and John did. Yet Bartimaeus, despite his blindness, sees clearly where James and John were blind.
“Have mercy on me,” is the cry of someone unable to save themselves. It is the essential cry of faith. And when the crowds try to push him down, he cries all the more, in order to demonstrate that strength of faith we sometimes need when we feel discouraged or are facing opposition. In other words, we can say that Bartimaeus, despite being told to keep silent, cares enough about his own salvation to cry aloud a second time. It is enough to make Jesus stand still. Jesus calls him. Bartimaeus wastes no time and throws off his cloak and, we read, “sprang up and came to Jesus.” Note the sequence of events: first we have the expression of faith in the words, “Jesus…have mercy on me!”; then, as Bartimaeus springs up, we can see faith in action: lively, eager, attendant.
Jesus asks the question: the same one he asked of James and John: “What do you want me to do for you.” The blind man asks out of his greatest need, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus replies, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Compare this outcome with James and John, whose request to sit either side of Jesus in his glory was denied.
Finally, we read that immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way. The beggar, at first stuck by the roadside, now joins the flow of pilgrims following our Lord. And note that word immediately: the life of the redeemed soul begins now, without delay.
This whole story provides us with a short but remarkable sequence of events, beginning with the appearance of Jesus in the life of the blind man and culminating not only in the recovery of his sight but in his movement from sitting at the roadside to travelling with Jesus on the way.
“The Way” of course, is the way of life. Bartimaeus calls Jesus teacher, which he is. Yet the teacher in this story is also Bartimaeus: he is our teacher, because we learn from him how to express our faith and follow Jesus along the Way. Let’s retrace that sequence one more time:
1. Jesus enters your life.
2. From where you are, stuck in one place, you ask Jesus for mercy. This the beginning of prayer.
3. When Jesus calls you and asks you what you want him to do for you, tell him what you need, not what you think would make you look good.
4. Respond with eagerness to our Lord’s command. Get up and go out to meet him.
5. Receive from him. Trust him to know what you need – even if you do not know it yourself.
6. Follow him and continue doing so. By receiving from him, you have left your old life behind. Embrace the new life and love and freedom he offers you. Join him on the Way.
I give the final word to Bartimaeus, or at least, what I imagined he would say when asked for advice. It is this: don’t look down upon those worse off than yourself; you may learn something from them. Don’t be blinded by pride. Instead, learn to see with humility.
Father David Beresford