Bartimaeus is well known in our church, as I’m sure he is in many of yours. He (or she) is on the sidewalk or on a median somewhere, maybe even at this moment, asking for money to survive. Most of the passersby will ignore him entirely. It’s easier to pretend that he doesn’t exist than to have to fumble with excuses and/or whatever change you have in your cup holder. As a result, the community comes to see Bartimaeus only through its periphery vision. As we stare ahead, eyes focused on nothing in particular, he is a blurry figure, off to the side, who makes us feel uncomfortable.
Of course, the experience is worse on the other side. Bartimaeus feels invisible. Rejected. Hopeless. Ask anybody who has been in Bartimaeus’ shoes, and they’ll tell you that being ignored over and over again is the worst part of panhandling. The invisibility slowly drains your sense of humanity. It would be easier for others if Bartimaeus would just disappear. Bartimaeus can sense the communal desire for his non-existence. He is already treated like he doesn’t exist. He might even wish for his own non-existence, sometimes. He knows that he doesn’t really belong to the mainstream community. That community thinks that he deserves this, or, maybe worse, just doesn’t care.
In the United States, there are usually multiple factors that contribute to somebody’s descent into homelessness. Disability is very often one of those factors, whether it is physical or mental. In 1st century Palestine, blindness alone was just about enough to lead somebody into abject poverty. A person’s family would have had some responsibility to take care of him or her, but if they were unable or unwilling, there were few other options but to beg. So here we find Bartimaeus, begging on the side of a busy road.
Jesus and his posse are moving fast. Mark notes their entry into Jericho, and before the verse even ends, they are already on their way out of town. The next stop is Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, and the “triumphal” entry. Jesus’ business isn’t in Jericho; he and his folks are just passing through.
But Bartimaeus has heard about Jesus (he’s not deaf), and cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He is shushed and sternly ordered to be quiet, but he has nothing at all to lose, so he cries out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks and tells them to, “Call him here.” They do, telling him to “take heart” or “be courageous.” Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up to go and meet Jesus. Jesus asks him the same question that he asked his glory-seeking disciples in the previous passage, “What do you want me to do for you?” Unlike them, Bartimaeus isn’t interested in position or status, he simply responds, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus tells him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” He regains his sight, and he follows Jesus along the way.
In Mark, Jesus is quite mysterious. He goes from town to town, stirring things up, performing miraculous healings, and casting out demons, but nobody seems to understand much about him. Peter is the only other person in this story so far to spontaneously recognize his messianic identity. Most people in Mark think of Jesus as a prophet, maybe Elijah or John the Baptist. And Jesus’ ministry does look quite a bit like those prophetic ministries. But here, Bartimaeus, who literally cannot see, recognizes Jesus as the “Son of David,” which is a messianic designation. Bartimaeus calls him this twice, the second time forgoing the name “Jesus” altogether and simply calling him “Son of David.”
The difference is significant. Prophets are typically reformers, inwardly focused, calling the people of Israel to repentance. The messiah is a deliverer, a king. The messiah comes to set the people of Israel free. The messiah brings with him a new kingdom that does not yet exist. Jesus, of course, is both.
The blind man seeing Jesus’ true identity is both poetic and practically significant. So often in the gospels, the people Jesus’ disciples want to keep away from him are the ones who become examples of true discipleship. Bartimaeus rightly recognizes Jesus’ identity, is commended for his faith, and commits the ultimate act of discipleship in Mark – he follows Jesus along the way.
That last detail might seem insignificant at first, but it is perhaps the most radical part of the whole story. This man, who has demonstrated his able body by throwing off his coat, springing up, and coming to Jesus, has just regained his sight, and would seem to be well-positioned to take a place among the community in Jericho. But that’s not what he does. Instead, he is healed only to follow Jesus directly to Jerusalem, which in Mark, is to follow him to the cross.
Those of us who fall easily into the “normal” life of the wider community are often tempted to try to pull those on the fringes into some semblance of mainstream, maybe “middle-class” life. But Bartimaeus is more interested in taking his newly healed, newly whole body to the cross with Jesus. Why wouldn’t he? The community that has left him to beg on the side of the road might make a place for him now that he can see. But their hospitality to him is predicated on his ability to work, on his ability to be whole on his own. Any possible relationship with that community has already been exposed as transactional in nature. Bartimaeus has found a deliverer. He has found one who has offered to make him whole, asking nothing in return. He has received this gift from Jesus, given freely with no expectation of compensation. He has found someone who loved him as he was. So, he joins this motley procession into Jerusalem, this new community that is rooted only in the hope and love they have found in Jesus. He follows the messiah into the new kingdom.
Is this what our churches look like? Are we a procession of people uprooted from the world and on our way to Jerusalem with Jesus, or are we simply an extension of the community in Jericho? Do we invite the exiles among us to join us on the way to crucifixion and resurrection, or are we just trying to sneak them into “normalcy” so they can join the comfort of the mainstream?
There’s a reason it can be so frustrating to try to help somebody who has been excluded or stigmatized push into the life of the mainstream community. There’s a reason people “self sabotage” and resist the “help up” that is offered to them. They have seen the emptiness of that communal life. They have been unwanted there. On some level, they know that there is no hope there. There is no love in that community, only transaction. Will they find true hope and love in the church? In the people of the cross? Can the blind see the messiah, the Son of David, in your congregation? And if they do, will they join your procession to Jerusalem, or will you see them walk down the way with Jesus, leaving your Jericho behind?