by Br Julian McDonald cfc

So, throwing off his cloak, he (Bartimaeus) jumped up and went to Jesus. Then Jesus spoke: “What do you want me to do for you?” Mark 10, 46-52

It is no coincidence that chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel concludes with the story of Bartimaeus, today’s gospel reading. Bartimaeus stands in stark contrast to the Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with their questions about divorce, to the rich young man who could not detach himself from his wealth and to James and John whose focus was on power, status and glory. All that Bartimaeus wants is for his sight to be restored. He doesn’t grasp onto anything, and he is not invited to be a disciple. However, when he was invited to stand before Jesus, he threw off his only possession and security – his cloak, and, immediately his blindness was cured, he followed Jesus voluntarily to Jerusalem.

There are many details in this story that are worthy of note. Notice that it opens with Jesus leaving Jericho with the disciples and a “great crowd”. Now Jericho was once of those towns that had a reputation for violence. It harboured dissenters and groups that prided themselves on being a thorn in the side of the Romans. Ironically Jesus and his companions were headed for Jerusalem where he would be treated with everything but justice, where he was reviled, tortured and executed in a parody of justice. The residents of Jericho were angels in comparison to the upholders of law and order in Jerusalem.

When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by, he was determined to attract Jesus’ attention. So, he started screaming out: “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me.” Clearly, yelling out like that and making a scene was thought by those in the company of Jesus to be quite inappropriate. They were embarrassed by such coarse behaviour. We have to remember that the prevailing view was that any physical or mental disability was attributed to the sinful behaviour of the person with the disability or of one of his or her family. As the story unfolds, we hear that Bartimaeus asks to see again. Presumably he was once able to see. That, of course, suggests that his blindness was the consequence of his own sin.

However, Bartimaeus was not going to be put off. He ignored the rebukes he was given. His faith in Jesus led him to persist, and he succeeded in attracting Jesus’ attention. The crowd quickly changed its tune when Jesus stopped and asked for the man to be brought to him: “Courage”, they said, “get up; he’s calling you.” Then, without any small talk or introductions, Jesus put to Bartimaeus the very same question he had asked James and John: “What is it you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus, equally direct in his response, said: “Master, let me see again.” James and John had the gift of physical sight but were morally blind. Bartimaeus was physically blind, but morally alert and full of insight.

In calling out to Jesus for mercy, Bartimaeus called him “Son of David”, a title recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. Bartimaeus’ request was for mercy and compassion, based on his understanding that Jesus’ mission to the world was based on service to those in need of care, love and compassion. Though physically blind, Bartimaeus was able to “see” what Jesus’ mission was all about. James and John and, indeed, the other chosen disciples were still hoping for position, status and power. They were still blind to the real purpose behind Jesus’ teaching and preaching.

The point of all this for us is to stop and look at our own lives in order to identify our own blind spots. Jesus confronts us with the question he put to James, John and Bartimaeus: “What is it you want me to do for you?” In response, am I courageous enough to ask for the depth of faith and the level of moral insight that Bartimaeus displayed?

For instance, am I sufficiently open to enumerate all the ways in which my life has been blessed and to take time to express my gratitude for them? To what extent do prejudice and bitterness influence my attitudes to the people I encounter in the shops, on the street and on buses, planes and trains? How blind am I to the creativity, insights and suggestions of those with whom I live and work? Or am I threatened by what they have to offer? Does self-pity or self-importance so blind me that I fail to recognise God’s kindness and compassion expressed to me through other people?

The real irony in today’s gospel reading is that one of society’s blind discards was able to “see” God’s love and compassion alive in the person of Jesus and to understand their potential for healing his own brokenness. Others who had received privileged opportunities could not match the blind man’s insight. It may well be that our favourite preoccupations and the clutter and busyness of our lives blind us to the people and events that reflect to us the goodness, compassion and love of God. When that happens, we also lose sight of our own potential to bring meaning, encouragement, compassion and care into the lives of others. In order to restore the balance that is missing, we might well start with the prayer uttered by Bartimaeus: “Master, let me see again.”

In recent decades, the hymn “Amazing Grace” has regained its lost popularity. It was written by John Newton, a man who had a profound conversion experience and became an Anglican pastor. In the church of St Mary’s Woolnoth, in London, whose congregation Newton served for twenty-eight years, there is a memorial plaque bearing some of the pastor’s own words:

“John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy. Near sixteen years at Olney and twenty-eight years in this church.”

It was, therefore, with some credibility that he was able to write:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost and now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.