The gospels give us a lot of stories about Jesus healing people. It can be one of the most exciting things about Jesus. Jesus makes blind people see, deaf people hear, disabled people walk. At the same time, it is one of the most confounding things about Jesus. How can someone walk again with just a word, or have twelve years of bleeding stopped with a touch or regain sight through saliva? Many of us, at least in this culture, want to know the “how” of these incredible healings. How is it possible? How can this happen? How can people have believed this for two millennia?
What if we are asking the wrong question? What if “how” is not the question that the gospel writers are trying to address? Maybe the questions the gospel writers are more interested in are “why” and “who.” Why does Jesus heal people and who does it remind you of? Who does he heal and why do people follow him?
This story of the blind man by the side of the road is found in all three of the synoptic gospels. Curiously, Matthew adapts the story so that there are two blind men by the road outside of Jericho. They both call out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy.” Perhaps this is the writer’s glance back to the previous episode (in Matthew and Mark) where James and John ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. James and John insist they can live up to the demands of these positions and they will be able to drink the cup that Jesus will drink. Could the two blind men at the side of the road be a commentary by Matthew on the cluelessness of James and John? How they are deluding themselves, blind to their own weaknesses?
Only Mark’s gospel tells us who the man is, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. The writer translates the name for readers. Bar in Hebrew means “son of.” The writer defines the names for the reader so that it is clear that BarTimaeus is “son of Timaeus.” New Testament scholar, Mary Ann Tolbert, posits that the writer of Mark may be nodding to “Plato’s Timaeus who delivers Plato’s most important cosmological and theological treatise, involving sight as the foundation of knowledge.” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective, 1996, Fortress Press. p189.) We don’t often read Plato in one hand and the gospels in the other. In a cursory glance through Plato’s work Timaeus there are some intriguing correlations between Plato and the gospels as well as the creation story. For those who are looking for an interesting challenge, I recommend further study.
Why does the writer tell us that it is just outside of Jericho that Jesus and his disciples encounter Bartimaeus?Jericho was a wealthy city, an oasis that was home and host to royalty and the rich. Herod built winter palaces there and it was a center of economic trade. Where there is money and power, the military is close by, and so it was in Jericho. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/road-to-jericho.aspx
The writer tells us that Jesus comes to Jericho but it seems he and the disciples are there only long enough to gather a crowd that follows him out of the city. It is here, outside the gate of the seat of power, that a blind man is banished to beg. Bartimaeus hears the noisy crowd and wonders what is going on. Someone mercifully tells him, “It is Jesus of Nazareth.”
This encourages an already enthusiastic Bartimaeus. He shouts so loud he can be heard throughout the crowd. People nearby try to shush him. How humiliating for Jericho and its fine reputation to be sullied by this blind man by the side of the road, hollering confessions at the top of his lungs. But there is no containing Bartimaeus’ urgency and eagerness; he shouts all the louder. What an embarrassment for the sophisticated city people of Jericho.
Finally Jesus stops and instructs that the man be called over. When Bartimaeus hears this, he throws off his cloak and leaps up to go to Jesus. Bartimaeus is all in. He is ready to be healed, he knows he will be healed, and he is not going back to his spot by the gate.
For his part, Jesus doesn’t go to the man; he doesn’t tell the disciples or someone from the crowd to bring Bartimaeus to him. He waits for Bartimaeus to make his way through the crowd to where Jesus stands. Jesus already knows that though Bartimaeus is blind, he has some capacity to see. He has been shouting out for all to hear. Bartimaeus “sees” and knows who Jesus is, the son of David, the messiah.
It is this ability to “see” that gives Bartimaeus the faith to holler so loud in the first place. It is this faith that gives Bartimaeus the courage to tell Jesus he wants to see. And Jesus says that it is this faith that saves Bartimaeus and allows him to see with new sight. Immediately, Bartimaeus joins the group that follows the Jesus way.
A few months ago when the worship committee talked about a series on healing I was all in. It is an important spiritual practice to talk about the heavy things we carry with us, to acknowledge the wounds we usually keep covered, to look for ways to find healing. Now in the midst of the series, I admit that I find it hard. Hard because a friend, who was a young father of four just died after a year of living with cancer. Hard because fellow Mennonite pastor in Phoenix, Hal Schrader, died this week in a motorcycle accident. Hard because I am in conversation with some Allegheny Conference leaders about what a path toward healing and reconciliation might look like in that context. Because Lancaster Conference bishops just voted to leave Mennonite Church USA.
It is hard because there seems to be no end to the way we keep people at the gate instead of welcoming them in, no end to illness and pain, no end to persistent depression and anxiety, to the ways we destroy the earth, inflict abuse, and plot war. The needs for healing seem to multiply rather than diminish. It is much easier to look at healing texts about Jesus through the lens of Plato or Greek names or literary devices than to ask for healing, than to believe that healing is possible. Perhaps my faith is just too meager.
This struggle with Bartimaeus continued all week. Friday afternoon I needed a sermon title for Jake to put in the bulletin. I was so desperate that I asked the teenagers in the carpool if they had any good ideas for a sermon title. A voice piped up, “Y’all need Jesus.” “Ain’t that the truth,” I chuckled. But that’s not how we talk here, we don’t see we need Jesus. I also knew immediately that there is truth there though it is not just y’all that need Jesus, I need him too. Whatever healing Jesus offers is also needed by me. “We need Jesus y’all.”
Bartimeaus was blind but he could see – that he needed healing, that he needed Jesus. He knew that Jesus was the “son of David,” which for the Jews means Messiah, holy one of God, the one who saves. Bartimaeus knew that Jesus was the one to give him his sight though he had no idea how it would happen. Bartimaeus could not see but he knew. And it was that spark of faith that helped him cry out for the healing he needed.
We need Jesus y’all. We can’t always see why. Sometimes we are so deep in denial of the pain, working so hard to cover up the wounds, that we don’t even know if we are blind or have Hanson’s disease or can’t hear quite right. There is something about Jesus that offers us the opportunity to look more deeply at ourselves. There is something about the way Jesus walks by on his way to somewhere else and yet stops when we call out. There is something about Jesus that is beyond “how” and “what,” that leaves room for “Help” and a little sliver of faith.
This morning, if you wish, you can make visible the wound you want to have healed by writing on the paper that the children passed out. What is your cry to Jesus? Who and what do you hope to have healed? What are those wounds that are so deep they hardly have words but may have symbols or shape or color. What do you want Jesus, the one who saves, to heal?
During the song, “Be still and know that I am God,” you are invited, if you wish, to bring your paper forward and put it into the basket. This gathering of prayers and petitions will remain in the basket as we pray, a visual sign of our need and desire for healing.
It is a step of great faith to ask for healing; Jesus recognized that in Bartimaeus. It takes great trust and faith. To reach out for healing is the first step; it is not necessarily a cure but it may be a new way of seeing, a new understanding, a new way to discover your own power, a new way of following the Jesus way with the gathered community.
We don’t know “how” but through faith we see. We need Jesus y’all. He stops and waits for us as he goes on the way.