Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
28 October, 2018
We’re inhabiting a moment in history characterized by an increasingly deep social and political divide. Groups from both ends of the spectrum are constantly trying to discredit, disenfranchise, drown out, or at a bare minimum diminish the voices of those who don’t echo their own agenda. Those who are not clear about our spiritual call and personal commitment to the wholeness and collective flourishing God has in mind for us all, are probably blind to their own contributions to our current strife. So, today’s lectionary gospel text is particularly relevant.
The scene opens as Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho. They’d just had a discussion about how, in the divine kingdom, whoever wants to be great must first become a servant—because that’s what the Son of Man came to do: “He came to serve, notto be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.” So, the disciples went into Jericho with that playing on their minds, though as we’ll see, it doesn’t seem to sink in immediately. We don’t hear what happens while they’re in Jericho—presumably Jesus is teaching, because the next verse tells us that he and his disciples are departing from Jericho along with “a large crowd.”
You can imagine the convoy ambling out of the city, continuing whatever new lesson or conversation they’d started there. And as they approach the edge of the city, there was blind Bartimaeus, sitting in his usual spot by the roadside, begging. Because that’s how so many blind and other disabled people were forced to survive—by taking up a post and begging for the charity of others. The folks in the crowd seem to have known who he was, because when “… he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.”
As Walter Brueggemann points out in his wonderful little book, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, “We are not told why the crowd ordered Bartimaeus to shut up. Perhaps they wanted to protect Jesus from such an annoyance. Perhaps they thought Jesus had more important matters with which to deal. Perhaps they knew that Bartimaeus was a recurring social pest and embarrassment, and they thought, ‘Not him again.’” It’s possible they heard how Bartimaeus was addressing Jesus (as “Son of David”) and they didn’t want to evoke the hostility of Rome, much less the guardians of Jewish tradition. We’re just not told why. All we know is that the crowd was resisting the outcry of the vulnerable blind man, trying to silence the one who was pleading for attention and mercy.
But Bartimaeus persisted in spite of the attempts to silence him. He would NOT be quiet; he dismissed the din of the throng surrounding Jesus. Mark tells us, “…he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” At which point, “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’”
It was a moment that must have brought a hush to the crowd—an inversion of their attempts to shush Bartimaeus. It’s a surprise deviation from what usually happens. And it’s why the story is remembered and told: it’s a miracle story from the moment Bartimaeus discovered and claimed the courage to use his voice to change his world.
Brueggemann writes, “The crowd might have prevailed, as it often does. Bartimaeus could have settled in resignation about his poverty-stricken disability. He might have surrendered to the silence and left the world unchanged. That is what the crowd hoped for. The crowd, in its uncritical political engagement, is not always discerning about new possibility that comes with risk and often votes in fear for the status quo.”
Remember the frustration with which Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail cell imploring his white clergy colleagues that he could no longer keep quiet and “wait patiently” for civil rights for African Americans and other people of color in this country to evolve? He decried the complacency of his Christian and Jewish brothers in faith, lamenting those “who constantly say: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believe [they] can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who live by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advise the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” . . . “For years now”, he continued,“I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Too often, the individuals that comprise a crowd aren’t willing or able on their own to examine the fears and prejudices behind their allegiance to the status quo. Often, it’s rooted in a fearful sense that enfranchising others will somehow diminish their own power. But that’s not how things work in God’s economy. When the greatest of all is the servant of all, there is no danger of too many arriving at the apex.
Thank God for the example of courageous persistence and determination in what is often a slow, arduous campaign for God’s vision. God’s design envisions the flourishing and wholeness of every human being. Had Bartimaeus not persisted—had he simply resigned himself to his state of imposed inferiority and poverty-stricken disability—Jesus might not have heard him. But Bartimaeus did persist. And Jesus was attentive. You see, Jesus was always on the lookout for those elbowed to the edges. He constantly had an ear cocked for the cry of the desperate. He endlessly reached out to those whom others deemed “untouchable”. Regularly dined with the ne’er-do-wells that made the “properly-groomed”, status quo types uncomfortable. It’s one of the reasons why being (or becoming) a Christian can be so hard for us—because if we truly want to be a follower of Jesus’ way, we persistently need to be assessing what or who it is we’re avoiding. If we truly want to go deeper in faith, hope, and love—that is, if we want to go where the real and eternal power in life resides—then we need to be weighing up our complacencies, our willingness to settle for the status quo. Because Jesus never settled.
In response to intimidating personalities trying to stifle him, Bartimaeus was not deterred. He knew what he needed. And he knew, or suddenly realized for certain when Jesus called him, that healing and wholeness is what God wanted for him, too. Mark says that when “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here’, . . . they called the blind man, saying to him ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’”
I just want to pause for a moment and point out how amazing it always is that crowds, once it’s been revealed that they’ve been on the wrong side of justice or righteousness, suddenly seem to forget that they’ve ever resisted the positive change. “Take heart!” the crowd says to Bartimaeus, as if they’ve been encouraging him all along, “Get up, he’s calling you.” Isn’t that amazing? I think it must make God laugh somehow. I suppose the grace-filled theological interpretation of their response is that, now that they’re no longer blind to their prejudice and fears about the disabled man having an audience with Jesus, they can see how exciting the future might be with him no longer having to sit by the side of the road and beg. They suddenly want to be participants in the healing.
“So, throwing off his cloak, [Bartimaeus] sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
As those seeking to follow Jesus’ example, it’s worth noting that not only was Jesus attentive to the cry of those seeking compassion and recognition of their full humanity, he also dignified this man by asking him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
According to Brueggemann, “Surely [Jesus] could have guessed what Bartimaeus wanted and hoped for. But he required Bartimaeus to verbalize his need, a verbalization that amounts to an act of uncommon hope. He has come to Jesus with the expectation that he can and will be healed. . . . Bartimaeus has screened out the crowd noise . . . Now there is only Jesus; he is in the presence of Jesus, and his breaking of the [social expectations that he remain subdued] has gotten him there. As is characteristic in these narratives of restoration, nothing is explained. The [story] evidences no need to know more, and no curiosity. It is enough to know and to see that interaction with Jesus is restorative.” He immediately regains his sight, and he follows Jesus on the way.
It’s a short story, but packed with meaning and depth. What might this story mean for you and for me, I wonder? What might it have to say to people of faith who participate in a deeply divided political landscape, when our identity as those trying to conform to Jesus’ example challenges us to listen for the voices pushed to the margins, to empower and call forward those who are effectively being silenced? How hard are we working to resist the world’s power structures—or are we unwittingly, unreflectively resisting God’s power and agenda by our complacent acceptance of the status quo?
I think Mark wanted us to understand that you and I just might be the blind man. That it’s possible we’ve gone blind to hope and spiritual health by our cynicism. Or, that our spiritual vision has become increasingly clouded by things in our life that crowd out time for prayer and intentional time spent with Jesus, meditating on Scripture and the ways of God. I think we’re meant to understand that when we have our own “Bartimaeus moment”—when we recognize our longing or need for something in life to change—God wants us to dig for the courage embedded within each of us to cry out for mercy in spite of the countless voices trying to silence us. Those voices are in our heads, and from our past, trying their best to shame us into “remembering our place”, or persuading us not to disclose our vulnerability because of the lie that vulnerability equals weakness.
I also think Mark wanted us to understand that it wasn’t just Bartimaeus who was blind. In this story, there was a man who knew he was blind—but who could see clearly what he needed, spiritually, to be made whole again. And then there was the crowd, who were able to see a man in need, but were oblivious to their own spiritual lack of vision as they tried to squelch him, to keep him in a socially-imposed status of inferiority and poverty, when God had designed him as equally precious and worthy of abundant life. Sometimes, the voices trying to shush us are friends or family members, sometimes even members of our faith community, who have learned unhealthy ways of being in relationship and are blind to their own destructive behaviors and ways. For the sake of mutual flourishing, we need to find the courage to cry out in response to conscious or unconscious attempts to silence others, with faith and hope, for healing and wholeness.
Finally, do we (or going forward will we), like Jesus, be attentive to the cries of those longing for mercy? Will we invite, and truly listen, as others tell us their truth? Will we create an atmosphere that honors their humanity so clearly that they feel safe being vulnerable, and both of us are able to experience the strength and mutual wholeness that emerges from such an exchange? Because this is God’s vision for us, from the greatest to the least—one where the least possesses and claims the same world-changing power as the greatest, where all become servants and respecters of one another. It’s not an easy path we’re called to. But it’s the only one that leads to the life and spiritual home our souls yearn for in the presence of God. Amen.