Every now and then a familiar story comes to new meaning. A recent re-reading of the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 pushes me into an area of discomfort that challenges my identity and my understanding of our identity as a faith community. It makes me question our responses to Jesus' unexpected ways of transforming people. It causes me to wonder how good my vision is after all.
To give a bit of context to the story, this takes place on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus' disciples have already had some adventures together and this story is the last story of healing before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. For the second time in his ministry, Jesus heals a blind man. The other incident is located in Mark 8:22. It seems there's something to pay attention to here about sight and blindness.
The disciples not catching on, though. They're busy thinking about what they will do after their dreams of triumph and success come true. Even after all the feeding, healing, and teaching, they've missed much of what Jesus' point has been. They still seem blind in a way.
Just before this story, the disciples were arguing over who will sit at Jesus' right hand. Jesus tells them “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." The point is definitely not about going for more power or status, but about letting go and aim down not up.
In v.46, they came to Jericho and met Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, who was sitting by the roadside. Jericho? Is there anything significant about this place? Amazing things have happened here in the past. Given the large crowd, something has been happening here now too. But Jericho was a dangerous place at the time. People who were fighting the Roman Empire were hiding out there. It was a place of turbulence, of disturbence.
Then the story says, "When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" I wonder about the language Bartimaeus uses. "Jesus the Nazarene" vs. "Jesus Son of David" Is there a reason he used the more political identifier rather than the typical indication of hometown? Is this a protest perhaps? A marker of more knowledge about this Jesus?
It's also interesting to note that it's the first time “Son of David” is used in Mark. The next reference is the triumphal entry. In any case, Bartimaeus seems to know about Jesus. He had heard the stories.
People ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet. One reading of this might be that he was simply annoying the group. Perhaps, though, this was more of a class disturbance. The hushers were just enforcing the normal social codes. A blind man shouting at a rabbi would be like a homeless person accosting a CEO for help.
But Bartimaeus keeps yelling. Normal social codes haven't worked in the past for him, so he decides to go all out. Ironic that these are the very social codes that Jesus had just been talking about subverting – being great by being a servant, the Son of Man coming to serve. The disciples and crowd had just heard the message, but slipped right back into the habitual ways of treating the outcast and marginalized.
Jesus' response, though was different. He doesn't respond as the CEO is expected to respond. Jesus hears Bartimaeus crying out and he responds to that cry. He stops what he is doing (stands still) and offers his time and attention to Bartimaeus.
In turn, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and approaches the Teacher. The cloak here is used as a visual cue for blind person or beggar. It was often the only source of shelter, or lay it on the ground to collect alms. Interesting that the rich man in v.17-22 had trouble giving up his riches, but Bartimaeus immediately throws it all away.
Jesus stands still and listens to Bartimaeus, giving the opportunity for him to step outside the identity the Israelite culture had placed on him as marginalized. Bartimaeus responds by throwing away the symbol of his place as beggar and with energy comes to Jesus.
Bartimaeus is bold with responding to Jesus' question: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ when he answers ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ It's the same questions as the disciples got in v.36, but a very different answer.
And Jesus' response to the request is different too. He says, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed him on the way. In Mark's Gospel, he is the only one of the people healed by Jesus who then followed him.
Bartimaeus has a clear identity in the Jericho community. He is a beggar; he can beg, but he is not to cry out and bother people, particularly rabbis leaving the city. Our identity is based on our social relationships. Bartimaeus' relationships are based on him being the one receiving assistance and speaking when spoken to, not speaking out. But Bartimaeus pushes the boundary of this identity by crying out to Jesus, and by declaring Jesus as “Son of David” - a strong statement linked to the Messianic vision.
We then see Jesus using his identity as rabbi with his position of culturally-granted power to call Bartimaeus forward. I wonder if Jesus might have also heard the “Son of David” phrase (the first time in the book of Mark) and been reminded of his identity beyond the socially-assigned ones. Did something stir in Jesus to act?
In any case, Bartimaeus pushes the boundaries of identity again and throws off his identifying beggar clothes to approach Jesus. Finally, we see Jesus using his position of God-granted power to give Bartimaeus a new identity of someone with the ability to see and Bartimaeus takes on the identity of a follower of Jesus.
By choosing to approach Jesus, and crying out for God’s help, we start to let go of the identities given to us by the world. In the process, we are better able to see. And with our better vision, we see what Bartimaeus sees: the Messiah in the Nazarene, the one who can and does change our identities, our relationships to each other in society, who turns the social structure upside down in which the least are greatest and the greatest are the least -- God's plan for shalom in the world.
When we see what God's mission is in the world and the beauty of the transformation taking place in people's relationships and identities, we want to respond by becoming followers of Jesus and participate in this amazing work.
What would it look like for us as a faith community to cry out to God, step away from our assigned identities, and take the risk of following Jesus into a new identity? What kind of healing would we find if we would surrender what we hang on to from our past identities, like certain structures and images of church? Could we even shed the cloaks of our patterns of interaction, and embrace new ways of being a faithful community in our society? What would that mean for our relationships with recent immigrant communities? With our indigenous neighbours? With the stories we tell and conversations we have about the world around us?
This is a challenge. And I may not be up to the risk that it takes. But I believe that we are not alone in the journey. The fumbling, blind, inept disciples of Mark went through this and somehow were granted the grace to become the body of Christ. This faith community continues the journey, constantly crying out for healing and being transformed by God's power. All we need to do is be willing to throw off our cloaks and step out in faith to follow Jesus' way.