Sunday, 28 October 2018

Courage, faith and healing: a sermon on Bartimaeus as a model for discipleship

Sermon preached at The Headlands URC, 28 October 2018. Text: Mark 10:46-52.

NB: As an 'introduction to the theme', I spoken about healing in the understanding of the Iona Community (and my own recent experience of the Iona healing service). In particular, I stressed that 'success' in healing is not an indicator of one's level of faith; and that healing may take many forms, not just physical. I did not stress these points further in the sermon but they form an important backdrop to the sermon.

Image: Jesus Mafa
We have here one of the great healing stories in a gospel full of healing stories. But more than that, this is a story about the faith and courage of one man, and what that tells us about discipleship. Bartimaeus is a man who suffers but he’s also a man who shows great courage, and who begins to follow Jesus before he’s healed. It’s also a story about how one of the most marginalised people was able to see things that the privileged people couldn’t.

A few words about context before we look at the content of the story. This encounter is the very last passage described before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, before Palm Sunday. Jericho is about 15 miles from the edge of Jerusalem, a day’s walk or so, and there wasn’t much between the two. Remember that the parable of the Good Samaritan happens on the Jericho road, and preachers often talk of the isolation of that road. So it’s next stop Jerusalem, the donkey and palm branches, the events in the temple, and ultimately Jesus’ betrayal and death. There are no other healings in this gospel. Bartimaeus has no further chance to be healed by this electrifying young rabbi. So he simply can’t afford to be denied by those around Jesus.

That’s looking forward in the text. Looking back, the story of Bartimaeus comes after a series of dialogues that Jesus has with his disciples and with those around him. We’ll come to a few of them, but in short, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, shows himself to have more insight than any of the disciples, more wisdom than James and John, and more courage than a rich man. The ongoing theme of Jesus’ dialogues before entering Jerusalem is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and we see this really clearly in Bartimaeus. He’s a disciple for our times.

The first thing we learn about Bartimaeus is his name. He’s the only person Jesus heals in Mark’s gospel who gets a name. As I’ve said, there’s a lot of healing in 10 short chapters of Mark, but the healed person only gets a description – the leper, or the person with unclean spirits, and so on. So he could have been just the blind beggar, and in fact that’s how he appears in Luke and Matthew’s versions of the story. But it’s an odd name. Bartimaeus simply means ‘son of Timaeus’ in Aramaic, as Mark tells us. Naming someone as the son of someone was common enough – Jesus would have been called ‘Yeshua bar Yosef’ in Aramaic, just as the most famous holder of my first name was called Magnus Magnusson because that’s still the style in Iceland. But Bartimaeus only gets his father’s name – it’s as if in his misery he doesn’t really have an identity. Commentators disagree about the meaning of Timaeus as a name, but it’s a Greek word not an Aramaic or Hebrew one, so there’s a further sense of distance, and at least one possible meaning is ‘unclean person’. Bartimaeus does get a name, but it’s the name of a downtrodden and marginalised person.

Carrying on with the story, he’s told that Jesus is here, and he starts to shout out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. This is the first time that Jesus is referred to as the Son of David in Mark’s gospel. It’s a pretty political statement, fifteen miles from Jerusalem and just before the Passover. Son of David is a way of saying that Jesus is heir to the throne of David, that he’s a ruler; because David was an anointed king, it’s also a way of saying Messiah. The fact that the crowds are quick to silence Bartimaeus may have been simply because he was yet another person wanting something from Jesus, just as earlier in the chapter the disciples rebuked those who brought young children to Jesus. But I think there may have been a political fear as well. The Roman occupation of Palestine, and its client rulers, kept a watchful eye for political insurgents and often stamped hard on it. So close to Jerusalem, in a town such as Jericho where lots of priests from the temple lived, and so close to the Passover, they would have been really watchful. By calling Jesus the son of David, Bartimaeus was putting himself in immediate danger and possibly also those around him in danger. So they’d want to silence him for his sake and for their own.

But the attempted silencing has no effect on Bartimaeus, and he shouts all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”. He’s quite insistent – he will be heard, he won’t be silenced. As one commentator writes on this passage, the last time there was shouting like that outside Jericho, the walls came tumbling down. Because another aspect of kingship is a care for the downtrodden and the ability to heal. So Bartimaeus is almost issuing a challenge to Jesus: if you really are the Messiah, then do your job and heal me! Of course, Jesus had the compassion and healing ability of the expected Messiah, but the kingdom he was bringing was a very different kind, not based on violence and power but on justice and sacrifice.

And Jesus listens and calls Bartimaeus over, and then we have a key pair of verses, perhaps the heart of the passage. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up and comes over to Jesus. And Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do for him, to which he replies that he’d like his sight restored. There’s so much in that about discipleship.

First is Bartimaeus’ trust and courage in throwing off his cloak. He was blind and a beggar, so his cloak was quite likely his only possession. It kept him warm, it kept him safe. He would spread it out on the road to beg for money to live on. In throwing it off, he was making himself incredibly vulnerable for the sake of this Jesus. Now that is a sign of trust. And it compares amazingly to the rich young man who spoke to Jesus earlier in this chapter, who Jesus said had to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, in order to gain life in all its abundance. The rich man refused and went away grieving – we might imagine him walking head down, dejected, his enthusiasm lost. By contrast we’re told that Bartimaeus leapt up and came over to Jesus – full of hope and trust in this new opportunity for life.

Then we see Jesus ask a question which might seem surprising but is entirely in line with his way of thinking. He asks Bartimaeus “what do you want me to do for you?”. He doesn’t assume what Bartimaeus wants or needs, he doesn’t tell Bartimaeus what ought to happen. He waits for Bartimaeus to tell Jesus for himself. Too often, the church has told people what ought to happen to them, what’s best for them. But people know themselves what they need. This requires Bartimaeus to articulate for himself what’s wrong with him, to admit that he’s blind. This matters as well: we have to face up to what’s wrong with us. The first step to healing for anyone, whatever is wrong with them, can often be to name their condition. And if you’re not willing to give your condition a name, not willing to say out loud that you need to be healed, it’s often much harder to help.

Last week’s gospel reading had Jesus talking with James and John, who asked to sit on his right hand and left hand when he came into his glory. His question to them was exactly the same: “what is is you want me to do for you?” – but their answer was about power, about maintaining the same kind of authority structures in the kingdom of God that we have on this earth. And Jesus told them off for it, because that was precisely not what he was here to do. He came to turn upside the power, to put the first last and the last first, to give sight to the blind and hope to the downtrodden. So Bartimaeus had it right – he didn’t ask for power, he asked for sight. He asked to be able to see the world clearly, to live a life like others.

One more point from Jesus and Bartimaeus’ conversation that fascinates me. When he replies to Jesus, Bartimaeus uses the Aramaic word ‘Rabbouni’, my teacher. It’s a version of the word Rabbi, but more intimate and direct. It occurs only one other place in all the gospels, in the beautiful encounter of Mary Magdalene with the risen Jesus on Easter morning. Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus at first, until he says her name, and her response is that word Rabbouni. For it to be said by a blind beggar on the roadside in Jericho is a sign of enormous trust and faithfulness. And of course he follows Jesus on his way to Jerusalem – where else would he go now?

The story of Bartimaeus is a fascinating one, as much about the nature of discipleship as about healing. It can give us hope – if we want to be a disciple of Jesus, or if we want to be healed, or both, we must first learn to name our needs and be willing to trust Jesus. And as the church, if we really want to be able to follow the gospel, we need to look to people like Bartimaeus rather than the rich young man – to be willing to say, our mission is to these people. And then to be able really to listen to them and their needs, to build relationship with them, and answer their needs.

I want to give the last word to an American writer and activist called Ched Myers who has written and preached and based his ministry on Bartimaeus for forty years. He writes that:
What this tale has taught me over the years is this: that embracing Jesus’ call is not a matter of cognitive assent, nor of churchly habits, nor of liturgical or theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor of religious piety, nor any of the other poor substitutes that we Christians have conjured through the ages.  Rather, discipleship is at its core a matter of whether or not we really want to see.  To see our weary world as it truly is, without denial and delusion: the inconvenient truths about economic disparity and racial oppression and ecological destruction and war without end.  And to see our beautiful world as it truly could be, free of despair or distraction: the divine dream of enough for all and beloved community and restored creation and the peaceable kingdom.  Discipleship invites us to apprehend life in its deepest trauma and its greatest ecstasy, in order that we might live into God’s vision of the pain and the promise.