Scripture reading: Mark 10: 46-52
Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. In Jesus’ day there was no welfare or social security net. I imagine him dressed in rags, with an ill-kempt beard. He looks scrawny because he doesn’t get enough to eat. He might be on the streets in Toronto or Hamilton.
Bartimaeus declares that Jesus is the Messiah
Bartimaeus was begging at the side of the road when he learnt that Jesus would be coming by. At first sight, this story is just another of Jesus’ healing miracles.
But it’s much more than that. Bartimaeus said something quite extraordinary. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” It is the first public declaration in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter was the only person to have made this claim previously. That happened when Jesus asked his disciples who other people thought he was and who they thought he was. In that case, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” So where did a blind beggar get such an idea? “Son of David” is how the Jewish people described the Messiah. We recognize the one “born of David’s line” in the Christmas carol, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.”
What Bartimaeus did was also extraordinary
He was self-confident, something you wouldn’t expect from a blind street person. Of course, people didn’t sit up and take notice of what such a nobody had to say. They just told him to shut up. But he shouted louder, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” until Jesus noticed him. Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want? Bartimaeus said, ”Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus replied, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
Is this a story about an event, or is it a parable?
Perhaps it is both. I often surprise myself when I find different meanings in a given passage on different occasions. More than that, we all probably approach a piece of Scripture – or any other situation – differently. Each of our brains reacts up differently based on our unique experiences. So there is no one correct way to approach the story of blind Bartimaeus. Perhaps he was physically blind. Maybe he wasn’t sightless but spiritually blind, in which case “seeing” means coming to faith.
Amazing Grace: coming to faith
The second explanation parallels the famous story of John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
John Newton’s blindness wasn’t physical. He was the captain of a slave ship that took slaves from Africa to work on plantations in the Americas. He returned to England with consignments of sugar. Newton came to realize that he had been spiritually blind to what he was doing. He had viewed his slave passengers as commodities, like sugar, not people. Through God’s grace, he came to see his error. He gave up the sea, and spent the last forty years of his life as a preacher among the poor in London, England. The movie “Amazing Grace” tells his story.
The writers of the Gospels were consummate story-tellers
They had to be. They told their stories orally, because few people could read. A good story begins with some kind of a problem or conflict that draws us in, and makes us want to read or hear more. A mere narrative – this happened, then that happened, then something else happened – is not interesting. The “hook” in the story that keeps us interested is: “How did the conflict or the problem get resolved, or not?” Mark’s miracle stories about Jesus follow a formula that suggests we should read them both as miracle and parable.
Besides Bartimaeus, I think of other stories. Jesus calmed a storm; Jesus healed a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for many years. Here’s the formula. There is a problem. The disciples are afraid of a storm. The woman is sick. Bartimaeus is blind. Jesus reassures the person with the problem. Then the miracle happens. The woman’s bleeding stops. Bartimaeus receives his sight. The storm calms. The formula almost always end with a comment about faith. Jesus says something like, “Your faith is what saved you.” Or, in the case of the storm, “Why didn’t you disciples have faith?” The repeated emphasis on faith points to the parable-like meaning of the stories.
Jesus’ miracles are miracles of faith
Today’s Gospel story tells us explicitly that Bartimaeus’ faith was what made him well. Jesus did not claim personal credit for the miracle. He didn’t say, “I made you well.” He said, “Your faith – yours, Bartimaeus – made you well.” This is very profound. Scripture does not tell us to wait around passively for God – or Jesus – to do something magical for us. Coming to faith is work that we must do for ourselves, even though we recognize that it happens through God’s grace. Think of the doxology that we say or sing every week. “Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
In our translation of the Bible, Jesus told Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.” Other translations say, “Your faith has made you whole.” Wholeness – completeness – puts a slightly different perspective on the healing miracle. Bartimaeus became whole spiritually as well as physically.
Bartimaeus was a beggar. He was an outsider. He was dirty and in rags. In Jewish society he was ritually unclean. Other people ignored him, apart from telling him to shut up. But after he regained his sight (or came to faith), we read that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way. “Followers of the Way” was what Christians were called before the word ‘Christian’ existed. He became one of Jesus’ disciples. The encounter with Jesus – the encounter with God’s grace – made him whole. It not only brought him back into Jewish society. It made him a member of the community of disciples.
“Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
I want to finish by repeating this doxology, which was written by St. Paul (Ephesians 3: 20). Many Christians imagine that God can swoop down and do miracles for us. But in the Bartimaeus story and elsewhere, Jesus is very clear. “It is your faith that has made you well.”
The germ of faith is within us, but God’s grace is what allows that faith to develop. John Newton expressed precisely this idea in his hymn. Verse 1: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” He came to realize that slaves are people and not mere commodities. But verse 2 of the hymn continues, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
Neither God nor I is solely responsible for coming to faith, but God and I together. That’s what the doxology says. God’s power must work through us. We have to participate in the drama. We cannot just be passive spectators.