St. Stephen’s, North Myrtle Beach
Proper 25; October 28, 2018
In a display of faith as extraordinary as any in all of Scripture, the blind beggar Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus. That simple act of wild abandon is a detail too easily missed. The cloak was likely Bartimaeus’ only possession. Not only that, as a beggar, it would have been the receptacle placed on the ground to receive coins tossed his way.
Contrast for a moment the beggar’s wreckless gesture with the response of the rich man earlier in this same chapter of Mark read two weeks ago. Bartimaeus gives up all that he has to come to Jesus, but the rich man apparently is not able to give up even a small part of his fortune. The man at the top of the pecking order in terms of wealth, status and virtue (remember, he said he had kept all the commandments since his youth), gets a direct call from Jesus and walks away grieving because of his many possessions. The blind beggar Bartimaeus on the other hand, jumps at the chance to be with Jesus. The well-heeled can’t say yes and the destitute blind beggar can’t wait for the opportunity. The first have become last and the last have become first. Once again, Gospel surprise. What does it teach us?
Then there is that question, that strange question Jesus asks of Bartimaeus that he also asked of James and John last week in the Gospel, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Mark, the gospel writer, continues to be clever with irony. The Zebedee brothers had been with Jesus from the outset. They had listened to him teach and witnessed his mighty works. Of all people they should get it. Yet when Jesus asks what they want from him, James and John respond they want to be top-dog, numbers one and two with Jesus, thus showing severe spiritual blindness. In contrast, poor, blind Bartimaeus shows his capacity to see by wanting Jesus to restore his sight. Another Gospel surprise. What does it teach us?
We are caught in a tension aren’t we? We know we are called to trust in our Lord totally as the readings from Job, the Psalm and Hebrews make abundantly clear: “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed” (Psalm 126:3). Like Bartimaeus we are called to toss aside our garment, whatever that may symbolize for us, and go to receive God’s love and wholeness for our life. Just as we discover in the life of Job, it is God’s desire to restore all things.
Yet we continually hear the lies being proffered around us: “Be strong. Take control. Don’t show your weakness. Never apologize. Fear those different from you. Be rid of ‘the other.” You come first.” Left unchallenged, buying into such lies results in our inability to see the blind beggars around us or even our own blindness. In the extreme, it can end up expressed in hatred and bigotry such as what we saw manifested in the horrors of Pittsburgh yesterday. Our blindness divides us and refuses to acknowledge that all are made in the image God. What does it teach us?
I’m thinking that this is precisely why Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer may seem obvious to some—of course he wants to see. Yet the truth is, often we are content to remain blind. If we remain blind we don’t have to change, be challenged or walk in a new direction. Our presumptions and prejudices can remain intact. We don’t have to recognize God in the other.
Some fascinating research has been done about the response of blind people who are given sight through medical treatment. Their transition is remarkable. Even after being able to see, they would crack their shins on tables and chairs that before had not been a problem. They had issues judging distance. For many, suddenly having sight was not the wonderful gift the sighted would have imagined. One individual is reported to have simply closed his eyes and went back to the comfortable and familiar world he knew. Another said that he couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to tear his eyes out. Seeing was too painful.
To receive God’s sight as shown to us in Jesus is to see differently, through different eyes if you will. It can be difficult. It cost Jesus his life. It has been costly for other prophets of God over the centuries. The call of our baptism and as being renewed today in those coming forward for the laying on of hands, is to acknowledge that Jesus has given us new eyes through a new identity. The reason Bartimaeus can get up with such self-abandon and throw off his only security to then trust in God alone, is that he has come to some awareness of the depth, magnitude and beauty of the gift. When Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well,” the verb Mark uses there signifies a physical cure to be sure, but it also indicates the gift of salvation itself. What it teaches us is that until we see, really see, and know deep within ourselves the immensity and wonder of the gift of God in Jesus, we will too often be content to hold onto our cloak, remain in blindness, what we think we already know, and seek the comfort of the status quo.
Our invitation today, as always, is to follow Jesus “on the way” as Bartimaeus did. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says in his little book, Here and Now: “If we could just be, for a few minutes each day, fully where we are, we would indeed discover that we are not alone and that the One who is with us wants only one thing—to give us love.” “Start by doing what is necessary,” St. Francis of Assisi said, “then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
As you renew the baptismal covenant today, throw off your cloak, whatever that may be. Then begin to see, really see, like Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.