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Sermon, October 24, 2021 Pentecost 22

What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Our Gospel reading this morning marks a turning point in Mark’s Gospel.  This is the last healing miracle Jesus performs.  He and the disciples are heading to Jerusalem where eventually he will be arrested and crucified.  He is in Jericho taking the pilgrimage route from Galilee, down the Jordan River valley (thus avoiding Samaria) and begins the climb to Jerusalem.  When the New Testament talks about “going up to Jerusalem” or “down to Jericho” it means what it says.  Jerusalem sits at 1400 feet or so above Mean Sea Level (MSL) while Jericho lies near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea at approximately 1250 feet below MSL.  The lateral distance between the two cities is approximately 20 to 25 miles.  So you can imagine how steep the road was (and still is).

The Gospel story of the restoration of sight to Bartimaeus (cf Mt. 20:29-34; Lk. 18:35-43) provides an example of a new way of seeing — on both a literal and a metaphorical level.

As the passage begins, Jesus and his disciples are part of a large crowd leaving the city of Jericho. The blind beggar Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:47). Evidently Bartimaeus was familiar with Jesus’ reputation as a healer; but the people around him did not want to be bothered by the demands of the blind man and ordered him to be quiet.

However, Bartimaeus would not be silenced, and he called out again even more loudly. His use of the title “Son of David” is a messianic reference (cf 2 Sam. 7:4-17; Ps. 89:3-4; Mk. 12:35-37). Whereas Jesus had previously refused to encourage such a title (Mk. 8:30), he does not prevent Bartimaeus from using it here.

Hearing the cries of Bartimaeus, Jesus stopped and said, “Call him here” (v. 49). In response to Jesus’ authority, the crowd now encouraged Bartimaeus to come forward. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you” (v. 49). Immediately he threw off his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. In contrast to the rich man (Mk. 10:17-22) who could not give up his riches to follow Jesus, Bartimaeus readily abandons his only possession to come to the Lord. His cloak, which would have been spread out on the ground to catch coins tossed from passers-by, may also serve as a symbol of his former way of life that he now leaves behind.

Jesus then asks Bartimaeus the same question he had previously asked James and John (Mk. 10:36): “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51a). Bartimaeus’ simple request for restored sight — “My teacher, let me see again” (v. 51b; cf “Rabbouni” in Jn. 20:16) — is in sharp contrast to the previous request of James and John for preeminence among the other disciples (Mk. 10:37). Bartimaeus was not asking for money or other material gain; he was requesting that Jesus, as the agent of God’s mercy, heal him.

Just as in our own prayers, God knows our needs before we ask, it was obvious what Bartimaeus lacked. But if we are truly to receive God’s provision, we must first acknowledge our own helplessness. So here, Jesus requires Bartimaeus to name his need.

In the C. S. Lewis “Narnia” book The Magician’s Nephew (N. Y.: Macmillan Publ., 1955), one of the children is hesitant to make a request of the ruling lion Aslan.

“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly. “I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse. “But I’ve sort of an idea he likes to be asked.”

What about our own requests to God? Although God knows our needs before we ask, the act of articulating our desires in prayer helps us to discern what we want to bring before God, and whether or not our desires conform to God’s. In response, God may say “yes” or “no” — or surprise us with something else entirely.

As soon as Bartimaeus asks to have his sight restored, Jesus assures him that his faith has made him well. In contrast to a previous healing of a blind man (Mk. 8:22-26), this healing is instantaneous, without touch or further words.

“Go; your faith has made you well” (v. 52a) is also what Jesus said when he healed the woman with a hemorrhage (Mk. 5:25-34). Like Bartimaeus, this woman was considered an outcast, and she also took a bold initiative to bring her needs to Jesus. The persistent faith of both of these individuals meant that their lives were restored to health and wholeness. Bartimaeus and the unnamed woman bear out Jesus’ saying that the first shall be last and the last first — as the marginalized and powerless are given a prominent place in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.

Bartimaeus, his sight restored, followed Jesus on the way (v. 52b). To follow someone can be used in the sense of becoming that person’s disciple; or here it could simply mean that Bartimaeus joined the crowd on their way to Jerusalem. In either case, once Jesus calls us and touches us with God’s healing power, our eyes are opened and we make the way of Jesus our way as well.

This section of Mark’s Gospel (8:22 — 10:52) began with the healing of an anonymous blind man and concludes with the healing of blind Bartimaeus — the only person healed by Jesus who is called by name in Mark. The emphasis here has been on helping others, primarily his disciples, understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus — a call to service and sacrifice rather than prestige or power. Ultimately, the healing of Bartimaeus holds out the hope that the disciples’ spiritual blindness will eventually be overcome as well.

As the last of the healing miracles in Mark, the story of the faith of Bartimaeus brings this portion of the Gospel to a close and serves as a bridge to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the Cross.

The Gospel theme of a new way of seeing is reflected in the Old Testament reading, with Job’s declaration that “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). To have one’s eyes opened, both literally and figuratively, is a manifestation of God’s grace.

The series of readings from Job concludes, as Job makes his final response to God (42:1-6). Throughout his ordeals, all Job asks is the opportunity to bring his case directly before God. Thus, when God finally speaks (38:1 — 40:2; 40:6 — 41:34), Job begins to understand that there is transcendent purpose and order in God’s created universe beyond what Job is able or expected to understand (42:3b).

In the end, God does not directly answer Job’s questions, but through his direct encounter with the Divine, Job’s eyes are opened to new perspectives. Ultimately, to be human is to be vulnerable to suffering; and as mere mortals of dust and ashes, we can never truly comprehend all of God’s ways.

All in all, when we come to Jesus here at this table, we come with but one deep soul stirring request when he asks us “what do we want?”  Our answer which sums up all the other answers we could give is, “Lord, let me see again.”

Amen.

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