03/08/20 “Encounters With Jesus: A Blind Man”

Mark 10:46-52

As Marc and Peyton and I finished up our time in Arizona after my mother-in-law’s funeral last week, Peyton asked if we could go to some of the places she had fond memories of. One of those places was the park in the center of town.  The park surrounds a lake, and the lake surrounds the fountain that gives the community of Fountain Hills its name. The fountain was built fifty years ago as the community was being developed, and for ten years it was the tallest fountain in the world—taller even than the Washington Monument.

We followed the walking path that encircles the lake and the fountain.  The fountain only runs for 15 minutes every hour, so there are photos along the path that show what the view would be like if the fountain were running. I was struck by how different the views were, depending on where you were standing. From one spot, you see the MacDowell Mountains. From another, you see only low-lying hills. From another, you see the businesses and homes that have grown up around the park. Where you stand makes a difference in what you see. The same is true in our passage today.

In our story from Mark, we continue to walk with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem and to his passion and death. With Jesus, we encountered the rich man who was saddened at the prospect of giving away his wealth, along with his status and power, to follow Jesus. Later, Jesus had once again talked about what was going to happen to him, in great detail: he would be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes who would condemn him to death; they would hand him over to the Gentiles, mock him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him; and after three days he would rise again.

The first time he told the disciples this, Peter had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him. The second time, they didn’t understand but were afraid to admit it. The third time, they still didn’t  understand, which was clear from how James and John responded. They asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom—clearly not understanding what’s in store. And the rest of the disciples were just as clueless, because they just got mad at James and John for trying to glom onto what they think are the best seats in the house.

Now we’ve passed through Jericho and are headed out of town, with Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd. Along the side of the road is a blind beggar. Oddly, in telling the story, Mark includes his name. Until Mark gets to the Passion story itself, the only people he identifies by name are the disciples, John the Baptist, Herod, and Jairus, the synagogue leader whose little daughter Jesus had healed.

Mark doesn’t mention whether those of us with Jesus knew the blind beggar’s name, but he made sure his reads did: it’s Bartimaeus, which means “son of Timaeus.” And it may mean more than that. It’s thought that the name Timaeus may have come from an Aramaic word that means unclean or impure—religiously, ritually, morally, or even geographically.

His name labels Bartimaeus as having come from a place or a people that is objectionable in some way. Blindness itself was a terrible scourge; it was a “blemish” that disqualified a priest from serving in the temple. We don’t have any reason to think that Bartimaeus himself is unethical, but he comes from Jericho, a place where Herod had made his power known by building a winter palace.  Since Herod had a palace there, Jericho had become a resort for all of Jerusalem’s elite. It may also have been home to as many as 12,000 Jewish priests who served the temple. Among them may have been some of the religious leaders who couldn’t (or refused to) see who Jesus was. Bartimaeus’ name sums up all the reasons for why he might have been sidelined along the road.

As we walk along with Jesus, we create quite a commotion. The dust kicked up by dozens of feet drifts into the eyes and noses of the beggars along the way. There are noisy murmurs as people ask “Who’s the celebrity?” and others, eager to show that they were in the know, say “It’s Jesus of Nazareth!”

Bartimaeus may not be able to see, but he can hear. When he hears who is passing by, he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Some of those close enough to hear him tell him to shut up. It wasn’t just a few, and it wasn’t a gentle suggestion; “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” But their scoldings don’t stop Bartimaeus. He continues to cry out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

As you walk along the road with Jesus, what are you seeing?  Are you seeing a nuisance? Are you glad that someone’s taking charge of the situation—that someone is telling this man to stop making everyone uncomfortable by pushing his blindness and his need in our faces? Maybe you’re thinking, “This isn’t the time or the place to be making a statement or trying to draw attention to himself. It’s downright disrespectful. I just want to enjoy this walk with Jesus.” Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s too bad that he got a bum deal, but hey! Life’s not fair. Just because he faces poverty and discrimination and bigotry every day doesn’t mean he has to make a big deal out of it. That’s just the way the world is! It’s not my fault.”

We may never have shouted down a blind man. But there was plenty of shouting at Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest the racism they endure on a daily basis. There were efforts to silence the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrators against racial bias in law enforcement. Plenty of people wanted the women in the “Me Too” movement to be quiet about sexual harassment and abuse. There are stern demands that asylum-seekers shut up when they cry out for safety within our borders, or same sex couples make known their desire to be treated with dignity and legal equality, or those with physical disabilities insist that public spaces be made accessible.

Too often, we see these people as nuisances. We hear their voices as affronts and disturbances to our comfortable ways of life. Their problems are not our problems, and we really don’t want to hear about them. So, we try to silence them. We sternly order them to be quiet.

My friends, if you see Bartimaeus and the Bartimaeuses of our world as a nuisance, then I’d say you’re not walking close enough to Jesus. If you’re annoyed by their insistence that we pay attention to their suffering, then I’d say you’re not walking close enough to Jesus. Because if you were walking close to Jesus, your view would be entirely different. You’d be seeing what and who Jesus sees. Where you stand makes a difference in what you see.

Bartimaeus continues to cry out. And Jesus hears him. And Jesus stands still. And then Jesus does a remarkable thing. He doesn’t walk over to Bartimaeus. He doesn’t shout out an invitation to Bartimaeus. Instead, he speaks to the ones who have been telling Bartimaeus to shut up. He tells the ones who had been trying to silence him to call Bartimaeus to Jesus’ side.

Now these people, who thought they had the authority to sternly order another human being—a suffering human being—to be quiet, fall all over themselves to follow Jesus’ instructions. “Take heart. Take courage,” they say, as though Bartimaeus hadn’t already been courageous enough to insist on his right to speak and to make his reality known in the face of their efforts to silence him.

Jesus hears those who are crying out for healing and justice, and Jesus sends those who would follow him to those we would rather silence. Jesus expects us to listen to those who have the courage to speak out, even when it makes us uncomfortable to hear them shouting. Jesus sends us to begin a conversation with those who are crying out along the roadside.

Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus is the polar opposite of the response from the rich man of last week’s story. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak—possibly his most valuable possession, maybe his only possession. He springs up, he jumps up; even though he still can’t see, he rushes impetuously to Jesus, in contrast to the rich man who walked sadly away from Jesus. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

The ironic thing about his request is that he already sees better than those who are closest to Jesus. This “son of impurity” recognizes that Jesus is the Son of David, the king who had been prayed for, who would rule over Israel in the time of God’s own choosing. Bartimaeus is confident that Jesus has the power to heal him. This faith—this 20/20 spiritual vision—enables him to physically see again, but his heart had already seen perfectly. Whereas the rich man walked away from Jesus, Bartimaeus began to walk with Jesus, toward Jerusalem, toward the cross.

As we witness Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus, we find that those who seem the least likely to know Jesus are the ones who know him best. They understand that he is the one who will hear their cries in a world that would rather silence those who suffer than try to understand their suffering. They know that he is the one who came to bring healing to a world that would rather pretend that brokenness and injustice rather than do anything about it. They know that he is the one who came to bring reconciliation to a world that would rather erect barriers that keep us comfortably separated than build bridges of greater understanding and compassion. from those whose problems we would rather ignore.

In every protest for justice, in every demand for dignity, in every claim for compassion, Jesus encounters suffering people—men, women, and children who are crying out for mercy.  As we walk with him, we encounter them, too. We encounter them where we work and where we play, in the headlines and in person, next door and across the globe. How close we’re standing to Jesus when we do will determine what we see.

If we haven’t been standing close enough to Jesus to see what he sees and hear what he hears, we can always move closer. Jesus always has room for those who want to be close to him. Jesus always welcomes those who are willing to throw off their cloaks and follow him. Jesus always opens the eyes of those who wish to see. And the good news is, the closer we get to Jesus, the less blind we will be. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young