More than Meets the Eye

More than Meets the Eye

    Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

  Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside, begging.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

So they called to the blind man, “Take heart! On your feet! He’s calling you.”

Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has made you well.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

Mark 10:46-52

Some years ago (about twenty), I got a surprise visit from a man I hardly knew. He was a retired corporate executive of a big name company who had just moved to the town where I served as pastor. I’d only met him once before, after he visited the church for the first time and then we’d only spoken to each other for a few minutes. He was sitting in the corner of my office, sort of fiddling with his fingernails and gently holding a homemade cassette tape. (Yes, this was some years ago.) I was guessing that small talk wasn’t what he had in mind. He broke the ice. “I’ve come to see you because there’s no one else I can tell. I want to change my life and be a Christian. You don’t know me, but that’s what you have to hear. Last night I got up in the middle of the night and made this tape and it says what I want to say and I want to leave it with you because there’s no one else I can give it to.”

I think he really began to believe the moment he gave me that tape. Sometimes it takes an intentional act. Of course there were probably years of wrestling and who knows how many sleepless nights spent pacing around in his home. But in the end, he just went to the one pastor he knew, handed over the tape, and that was that. Looking back, I think that moment was the closest I’ve come to meeting Bartimaeus.

As brief as his tale is, Bartimaeus is one of the most significant characters in this Gospel. This is the ‘hinge’ story of Mark’s account.

Mark’s Gospel is divided into halves. The first half is set in Galilee. Jesus heals people, calls disciples, teaches in parables and gets into trouble with the authorities. The story of Bartimaeus is the climax of the first half of the story.

In the second half the scene shifts to Jerusalem. There Jesus faces controversy, his identity is revealed, and he’s led to crucifixion. There is method in Mark’s writing that brings Jesus’ teachings, and especially his parables to life with how things actually play out in the Gospel story.

To understand what Bartimaeus is really all about, you need to go back to the Parable of the Sower that Jesus presents in Mark chapter 4. You remember how Jesus talks about four kinds of earth: the path, the rocky ground, the thistles, and the good soil. The first half of Mark’s Gospel illustrates these four kinds of discipleship. Some seed falls on the path: referring to those who reject Jesus outright, the Roman authorities, scribes and Pharisees. Some seed falls on stony ground: this is the disciples, especially Peter, James, and John, who accept the word immediately but wither in the face of trial and persecution. Some seed falls among thorns: these include King Herod, who takes to Jesus at first but is mired in a network of unsavory associations. And then there’s the good soil. This refers to those who hear and accept the word and produce plentiful fruit. There aren’t a lot of examples of these people in Mark’s Gospel, but Bartimaeus is certainly one of them.

One of the central themes of Mark is that ‘the first become last, and the last become first’. This surely applies to blind Bartimaeus, and it might also apply to each of us, too.

So it’s helpful for us to get to know Bartimaeus a little better this morning, that we might learn something from him.

The name Bar-timaeus means the “son of Timaeus,” which doesn’t mean much to us, but meant a lot to ancient people who were ‘in the know.’ “Timaeus” may well be a ‘coded’ reference to one of Plato’s most famous works, “The Timaeus.” We don’t often think about this, but Jesus may well have known the work of Plato, and Aristotle, for that matter, the most famous thinkers of the ancient world from 400 years before. Their work still carried weight in popular thought, stories and imagination.

So you could say that in this story, speaking both literally and metaphorically, Bartimaeus’ eyes are opened for the first time to a new life following Jesus, as opposed to his previous lifestyle, blind in whatever way that may have been.

It first goes like this. In Plato’s dialogue, Timaeus reflects upon the gift of sight, that humans were given the innate wisdom to discern the purposes of the universe, distinctly apart from the goodness and mercy of a creator God.

Much like the notion of a ‘watchmaker God’ conceived by Isaac Newton centuries later, perhaps Bartimaeus first saw the world as a mean and merciless place, set in motion by an unseen mover where only the strongest survive. Or perhaps he was taken in by the notion of the ‘invisible hand of market forces‘ of later economists like Adam Smith. Thus understood, the world was made just so, and all was set in order, regardless of the disorder that actually existed. Bartimaeus was blind, at least insofar as seeing life as Jesus saw it.

Whether Bartimaeus was actually physically blind or morally/ethically blind is an open question we can legitimately ask. What we know for sure is Bartimaeus’ reaction when he hears that Jesus is coming his way. First he shouts, “Jesus, Bar-David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus’ reputation obviously precedes him. The disciples seem to have dismissed Bartimaeus, but not Jesus.

“Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This time, Jesus stops. Then he asks his disciples to address this man.

“On your feet; this is your lucky day. Jesus will see you.”

What Bartimaeus does next is significant any way you look at it. He throws off his cloak, rises up, and walks toward Jesus.

Some say that the key to the story of Bartimaeus lies in his cloak. The cloak is the one thing he owns. It’s his source of protection from dirt, wind, rain and cold. And it’s his source of income, like a street musician’s open guitar case. This is the crisis of the story: Bartimaeus has one thing and he wants one thing. He has a cloak and he wants to see. How much does he want to see? Enough to part with his cloak? Absolutely. He leaps to his feet and hurls away his cloak. He parts with the one thing he has in order to receive the one thing that really matters.

And Jesus stands still, as if to emphasize the timelessness of this moment, and asks Bartimaeus the definitive question. “What do you want me to do for you?”

Bartimaeus has no hesitation. He knows exactly what he wants: “Teacher, let me see again.” The rest of Mark’s gospel gives us plenty of examples of people who, unlike Bartimaeus, can’t bring themselves to shed their cloak. Whether this is coded language of Bartimaeus throwing off the philosopher’s cloak as he comes to Jesus, or whether it was the tattered rag of his only earthly possession, he enters into the way of discipleship.

This way involves more than ideas and reason. Bartimaeus’ eyes are opened to the jarring, practical truth of Jesus for the very first time.

Was it Bartimaeus finding himself in the presence of Jesus that made him believe? What was the straw that broke the back of Bartimaeus’ blindness?

In this story, what finally gave Bartimaeus the power to see was simply Jesus’ presence. Jesus was there, available.

Now, what would you do if you found yourself in Jesus’ presence, really?

You’d likely move toward Jesus just as Bartimaeus did. Think about it. What else could you do?

And just as likely, Jesus would ask you the same question he asked Bartimaeus:

“What do you want me to do for you?” (What might that be, after all? )

Now, salvation is not a human self-help help program, but even so there are some things one can say or do that make it possible to acknowledge salvation as a gift, and with it- the gift of God’s free grace. Bartimaeus knew that there was nothing he could do to earn or deserve anything. When he hears that Jesus is passing by, he utters the perfect plea, the perfect prayer. Christians have been whispering it for centuries: “Have mercy.”

After the chief executive left my office all those years ago, I found myself with an audio cassette in my hand. I made my way to my little tape player and put it in. I heard on the tape the sound of my visitor clearing his throat, in a rather self-conscious way.

Then there was a long silence. Then he cleared his throat again. And then to my astonishment I heard this distinguished man begin to sing a simple song.

“I have decided . . . to follow Jesus. I have decided . . . to follow Jesus. I have decided . . . to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back.”

So may we also follow. Amen.