A while back, I wrote this reflection on the following story from the Gospel of Mark. Yesterday’s Gospel reading featured the very same passage, so I thought it was fitting to dig up my writing again. Here is the reading, and below that, my reflection.
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
I imagine the life of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, in order to comer up with a ”backstory” if you will, to this incident recounted in Mark.
Here he sits, on a road outside town, or perhaps near one of the gates through which people pass on their way, in and out, of Jericho. Imagine how much traffic must flow by, every day, into and out of the city. Those on foot, or riding animals, those with families, those with goods to trade, or goods just purchased.
Jericho, from various sources I found, is described as having a good water supply, a favorable climate, and fertile land. Described in the Hebrew Bible as the “City of Palm Trees”, copious springs in and around Jericho have made it an attractive site for human habitation for thousands of years. It was a rich and flourishing town, having a considerable trade, and celebrated for the palm trees which adorned the plain around. Jericho’s name means “fragrant” and derives from the Canaanite (as well as Arabic and Hebrew) word Reah, of the same meaning.
Imagine being blind and sitting on this road because of the heavy traffic. Odds are, a few folks, out of all those passing by, would take pity and throw a coin onto his cloak. And, as Bartimaeus sits there, day after day, the rythyms of the city become familiar to him…
- times of bustle and times of quiet
- days of heat and drought, and other stretches of mild weather
- religious occasions, with their higher pitch of activity
- Roman soldiers moving in and out
Bartimaeus can eventually discern the identities of certain folks as they pass in and out, maybe by their speech, their laughter, the noises of their animals. Perhaps he has even come to know a few in the way we know people we encounter regularly on our daily paths…
- that sweet check out girl who always says “good morning”
- the surly gas station owner who always mumbles something when we say “hello“
I imagine that Bartimaeus calls out to some of the folks he recognizes
- “Good morning, widow. How are your children?”
- “Ah, flute player. Your song sounds sad today”
- “You! Camel driver! Be careful. Your beast nearly crushed me!”
Since he depends on them for their kindness and contributions, he may know that it’s easier to care when one is in relationship, even if it is with a blind man. He knows that hectoring people for money only annoys, wears them down and creates defensiveness – surely not a recipe for success. Not so with cajoling and conversing, which he uses to call people into relationship with him. In this way, he leaves the door open, makes an invitation, and waits for a response. Will they drop a coin today? If not, then maybe tomorrow. They will come back to Jericho tomorrow…they always do.
How often do we resist when we are called into relationship? When a stranger, or even someone we do know, acknowledges our presence? Or, when they desire us to acknowledge theirs? In NYC I walk past hundreds, or thousands, of people each week, and I rarely look them in the eye, we rarely engage. Relationships imply response-ability – some give and take. And, what if, heaven forefend, that other person actually wants something from me? It may be someone who looks down-and-out, and then the predictable reaction is “he’s not getting my spare change.”
When I cut someone off in the race to the last seat on the subway, I always avert their eyes – it’s a way of denying their existence, and therefore my rude behavior. If I acknowledge their existence as another human being, then I put myself in relationship to them, and I become response-able.
And, even worse, I have avoided people I know out of fear that they want something from me! What could that be? My time? My energy? My sympathy? Do I somehow not have any spare in my pocket? Do they want me to acknowledge that we share the human condition? That we are both in need of the same things? I am too busy for that.
Or, perhaps I have told myself that we are different – that I am well and she is not. That I am successful and he is not. Or I have risen above, and they have not. That I am invulnerable and they are not. Or, even worse for me, that I am not well, and he is. That I am not successful, and she is.
And, how human it is to be vulnerable, to be powerless. “Not today”, I tell myself. I don’t need to be reminded of how human I am.
In Bartimaeus’ world, some refuse to acknowledge his presence, and don’t accept his invitation. And others, perhaps even fewer, engage. And, in his own way, from the place on his cloak, he observes the city scene, and comes to know what life inside and outside Jericho is like.
One day, things change. Something unusual happens. A large crowd exits the city, all abuzz about a miracle worker named Jesus. In fact, Jesus is in their midst, and some of them are vying for his attention. Others, on the perimeter of the crowd, are talking about what they had heard him say – new things about the Hebrew tradition that brought it back to life. Or, they talk about things they had seen Jesus do – like healing impossibly sick people.
The excitement is palpable. There’s a higher level of energy in their exchanges. A sense of hope that things could be different. That some things already ARE different, right now. And certainly, HE is different. The crowd hasn’t seen someone like Jesus before. Could he be the one for whom they have been waiting?
If all this is true, then this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bartimaeus. No time for cajoling. This is not the time to ask for a measly coin. This is a time to shout what he needs. Shout. Now.
‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
And the crowd tries to manage him, but he persists:
‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Jesus stops. He stands still.
The crowd stops and looks at Bartimaeus. Jesus asks that they call him over.
The blind beggar has called Jesus into relationship and Jesus has responded.
And, then, I think the most beautiful, unexpected question comes from Jesus:
‘What do you want me to do for you?’
How amazing. And a little confusing.
Doesn’t Jesus already know that Bartimaeus is blind? I mean, it’s obvious that blindness is his problem. Why else would he be sitting on the roadside, begging? Is Jesus that genuinely interested and open to a request?
I maintain that the answer is “Yes”, to all of the above.
I interpret this as being invited to say what we need, not being told what we need. What a powerful model of service. How often do we think we know what others need?
- “If only Mary would look on the bright side of life – she would be much happier”
- “If only John would stop blaming the world for his troubles and get on with his life.”
It is said in 12-step recovery programs that one first begins to get well by acknowledging personal powerlessness over the problem. Notice it doesn’t say “when others tell you it‘s a problem”!
I interpret Jesus’ question as an invitation to participate in our own healing, rather than having it done to us. I think that Jesus is consciously engaging our own desire for wholeness.
Perhaps He is also assessing if we truly know what we want and are ready for it. How often do we, or, do I, ask for things for which I am not quite ready? And, I don’t mean because I am sick of my suffering. But, rather, because I am not even aware of what I will have to give up – like my attachment to my own “dis-ease”, which can very much define me – if I am to be well. How compelling and all-defining it can be to have an identity rooted in “dis-ease”. How comforting, in a way, to know who we are, even if it’s through “dis-ease”.
- “Yup, I am the uncle who passes out at family parties”.
- “I am the daughter who doesn’t eat”
- “Yes, I’m the family doormat.”
Jesus has handed Bartimaeus a tremendous opportunity. One that I think we are offered as well.
What do we want so badly from Jesus that we would be willing to shout it, again and again, despite the crowds? Despite being told to keep quiet? What would compel us so forcefully? What would we want so desperately?
- Is it forgiveness?
- Peace of mind?
- Relief from life’s struggles?
I am, sometimes, either unwilling or unable to articulate an answer to Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Sometimes “help” or “mercy” is all I can muster. Nothing more specific than that. And, I think this is OK in that moment. Jesus doesn’t demand more specifics.
But sometimes I am unable to, or unwilling to, articulate what I want because it is such a powerful want. A want that makes me feel very vulnerable. I feel extremely exposed when I say it, or even think it, to myself, much less utter it in prayer. I feel so needy, so bare. So human.
I feel ashamed of its urgency and power, because it sometimes swells up within me, unbidden, unexpected, and unwelcome.
And, this “crowd” in my head compels me to be silent. This crowd that includes my fear, my shame, my unworthiness.
And, yet, an unspoken need is a need unfulfilled. And, hence, when I least expect it, it reminds me of its hunger. It surprises me again with its power. And again I feel swept up in its current.
And, then I remember that the beggar’s faith, not his fears, made him well.
If his fear were bigger than his faith, he would have never called out to Jesus and then been healed. He would not have heard: ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’