By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 10:46-52
About ten years ago I had major eye surgery. For the first week after surgery, my eyes were stitched shut. (A reality my surgeon failed to mention in advance. He’d actually given me an informational handout that indicated I could read following surgery if I so desired… apparently they thought I read Braille.) Before that surgery, I’d never realized how vulnerable I could feel without my vision. So much information and stimulus enters through our eyes. Even in our connections to other people, we rely on being able to see their expressions, their gestures, and their posture.
Being blind in the ancient world would have been even more difficult because it also involved social stigma. Blindness and many other physical disabilities would have been judged by people in the ancient culture as being the result of sinfulness. In other words, they believed that things like blindness or the inability to walk was God's punishment for the sin of that individual or their parents. We see that belief expressed in the 9th chapter of John when, coming upon a man born blind, Jesus' disciples ask him: "Who sinned – this man or his parents?" So poor Bartimaeus of this morning’s gospel story is not only dealing with a physical disability. He must also bear social discrimination and judgment. And finally, he must bear it alone. Judged as sinners, folks like Bartimaeus were shunned from the mainstream of a society that had no “safety net” or Medicaid for the needy and disabled. Bartimaeus is forced to live on the streets and beg for alms. And that is, likely, all that his days consist of until that day when the man named Jesus happens through his town of Jericho.
Now the story of Bartimaeus comes very late in Mark's gospel and so it is probably quite safe for us to assume that Jesus is now well-known for his healing power. Stories of his miracles and works of wonder on behalf of needy people likely preceded him. So Bartimaeus is not about to pass up this opportunity to tap in to Jesus’ power. As Jesus passes by, Bartimaeus starts to cry out to him: "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me." This was a big crowd and there might have been some pretty important, honorable people; so the crowd doesn’t think Jesus should be bothered by Bartimaeus. After all, they believe that he's a sinner, an indigent, a nobody. They scold him. We might imagine they said things like: "Shut up. Stop embarrassing yourself. What makes you think the teacher wants to waste his time on you?” But Bartimaeus won't shut up. He won't give up. He knows what he needs and he knows who can supply his need. And lo and behold, to the surprise of the crowd, Jesus stops in his tracks. Out of that whole noisy crowd, out of all those clamoring voices, Jesus has singled out the voice of the blind beggar Bartimaeus. "Call him here," Jesus instructs the crowd around him. Now when the people tell Bartimaeus that Jesus has called for him, we need to notice what Bartimaeus does. He throws off his cloak and he runs to Jesus. He throws off his cloak. That doesn’t sound very significant, but it is; because Bartimaeus' cloak would have been his only source of security. Remember this was a desert climate. And in climates like that, the nights, with their clear skies, get terribly cold. In the Old Testament, God gives clear instructions to the Israelites. In the book of Exodus, we read God’s command: "If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn [like collateral], you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover."[i] Likewise in Deuteronomy, God instructs: “When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind... If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.”[ii]
Furthermore, it is likely that, during the daytime hours, a beggar's cloak would have been spread out on the ground and used as their “collection plate” in much the same way that a street musician in a big city nowadays will lay open their instrument case to collect donations. So, hopefully that reveals just how badly Bartimaeus as a blind man would have needed his cloak. It was his one source of security. And yet, when Jesus calls him, he tosses it aside and runs to Jesus. Now, if that isn't faith, I don't know what is. Bartimaeus has staked everything he has on this Jesus guy that he knows only by reputation. Yet he believes in him. And he trusts that Jesus will be motivated by compassion, by mercy. That's why he cries out to him, "Have mercy on me." Mercy was descriptive of God's character over and over again in the Old Testament. Hebrew scripture repeats the threefold affirmation that the God of Israel is "merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." And so the blind beggar Bartimaeus risks all that he has on the hope that Jesus is the one who can transform his life with the mercy of God. And Jesus does not disappoint him.
Now, when Bartimaeus comes to Jesus, Jesus asks him this question: "What do you want me to do for you?" Does that seem odd to you? I mean, wouldn't Jesus have been able to figure that one out? But that question was important in the culture of Jesus' day. You see 1st century Palestine was a patron-benefactor culture. That means there were just a few wealthy patrons and they would dispense benefits or help to the poor and needy. In Jesus' day, if you were wealthy, it was an honor to you (a compliment) if someone less fortunate asked for your help. Let me say that again: the rich and powerful were honored when the less fortunate sought their assistance. And it certainly wasn’t something kept on the down-low. It was proclaimed far and wide. The “thank you note” of the ancient world consisted of the needy person spreading news far and wide about how generous their patron was. And the patron earned social points – earned “cred” – as this news traveled the village grapevine.
But in order for that whole process to take place, the one asking for help had to admit to their need; had to admit to their vulnerability, their insufficiency. And that’s a part of the story that most of us as 21st century mid-western Americans probably don’t want to think about very much cause we don’t like to feel vulnerable. Oh, we might be OK with asking a close family member for a little help; but, generally speaking, we don’t want to put our neediness on display. We don’t want people to feel sorry for us or to see us at our weakest point. We like to do for ourselves (“God helps those who help themselves” right? A verse, by the way, which isn’t anywhere in the bible). Many of us would feel embarrassed to admit we can’t handle things on our own. But, in Jesus' culture, the needy didn't get uptight about that sort of thing. It was OK to rely upon a patron. It wasn't embarrassing. It wasn't humiliating. Your patron's good reputation depended upon them fulfilling their obligation to those who had placed themselves under their care. So, when Jesus asks Bartimaeus, "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus is offering Bartimaeus the opportunity to place himself under Jesus' care, to publicly affirm his dependence upon Jesus' mercy and benefaction.
You’ve heard me say plenty of times that Christianity isn’t a belief system; it is a relational system. Being a Christian isn’t about believing in the existence of God; it isn’t even about simply believing the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. Being a Christian is about not only acknowledging who Jesus is and what he can do; but admitting and acknowledging that we need Jesus to be who he is and do what he can do for us. It’s about acknowledging that, every day in a myriad of ways, we need the grace of Jesus to get us through. And being part of a Church means – at least in part – that we acknowledge that that much-needed grace of Jesus is expressed to us – experienced by us – through our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus was honored by Bartimaeus’ trust in him. By casting that cloak aside, Bartimaeus communicated to Jesus that he was all in; he had no contingency plan. Relying on Jesus was his one and only plan.
Friends: I have a theory that one of the primary reasons why the church in America today has so much difficulty carrying out our mission of reaching those in need is because we don’t want to acknowledge our own needs and vulnerabilities. Some of us are reluctant to ask anything of Jesus and we’re sure not going to “impose” on other church folks by asking them for help. We’ve bought in to the rhetoric of our broader culture that teaches us that if we want to be successful and respectable and good citizens, we’d better have it all under control and not let our weaknesses, insecurities or vulnerabilities hang out.
Back when I had that eye surgery I referenced earlier, I was forced to embrace my own vulnerability. Britt was working and he couldn’t be with me 24/7 and, for the first few days, I was really too helpless to be left alone. So people from my church – you know, the people I was supposed to be taking care of as their pastor – well, they came to the parsonage and took care of me. They brought me books on audio. They dropped off groceries and cooked for me. They’d drive me places and even pick up dog food. They’d read to me out of books. And it wound up making the whole congregation stronger. My willingness to admit to my weakness made all of us stronger. For just a few weeks, I was a living sermon, a visual illustration and reminder to all of us that we really can’t get by on our own: that we need God’s grace and that God’s grace ministers to us through one another. Friends: when we are unwilling to give voice to our needs and to acknowledge our weaknesses, we really wind up limiting the flow of God’s grace because grace is a gift that we have to be willing to receive and embrace. Jesus asks each of us exactly what he asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” and he invites us to make known to him our deepest needs and desires.
Next Sunday you’re going to hear a little bit about Trinity Fusion, a new gathering and outreach Trinity will launch this fall, beginning September 17. Recently Morris DuBose has been talking about opportunities for us to share our stories with one another. Friends, if we really do want to reach people with the grace of Jesus, we need – like Bartimaeus – to seek the grace of Jesus for ourselves, to acknowledge our needs and vulnerabilities; to tell an honest story about ourselves because our willingness to call out for the mercy of Jesus gives others the courage to do the same. And our celebration of the grace of Jesus encourages other to identify the places in their own lives where God’s grace has healed them. Without the grace of Jesus, we haven’t a hope or a prayer. We all need the mercy of Jesus.
[i] Exodus 22:26-27. NRSV.
[ii] Deuteronomy 24:10-13. NRSV.
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