ALMS, ALMS, ALMS—I’m sure you have heard the beggars on the street corners, crying out for alms. I can remember when I was young, I believe it was in Aberdeen, that a crippled man was always sitting on the sidewalk and having pencils in his tin cup. I don’t remember him ever saying much but he would rattle his pencils in the tin cup for attention. I don’t know if my mom ever put in any change, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had; she was always kind and soft hearted.
Well, when we were in Hong Kong a few years ago there were always people sitting among all the wares for sale, on the sidewalks, holding out a woven cup. Some of them had little packages of mints or gum to sell, but it seemed to me they were just after money, nothing else, but then, we find blind Bartimaeus sitting outside the gates of Jericho. Just sitting there waiting for someone to pass by and give him alms for the love of God. He would hope to entreat the kindness of pilgrims who happened to pass that way. Bartimaeus kept his hope alive, for something better, even though he had all those years of blindness, poverty and begging. Most people would have given in to despair long before. And what kind of sensitivity did Jesus possess, in the midst of all that commotion, to perceive such a lone individual and be willing to stop and minister to him so effectively? There was more than one surprise that day in Jericho. Let’s look more carefully at this dramatic interaction.
Throughout the whole period, Bartimaeus is depicted as a person of abounding hope. The moment he heard that Jesus was passing through Jericho, He swung into action. He began to shout loudly, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” People around him tried to hush him up, but he was undeterred by their negative attitude to quiet him. He kept on crying out insistently, “Jesus, son of David!” When Jesus heard him, he stopped and called for him. The text says that he “sprang up” and dropped his cloak and ran to the source of his hope. There was no hesitation in this response—he didn’t even ask anyone to look after his cloak. He was a determined soul to find Jesus and he jumped for joy when the door of possibility opened before him.
The question is, just what kept Bartimaeus’ hope alive during all the years of blindness, despair, poverty and sitting, day after day, at the mercy of the crowd, with nothing more tangible to look forward to than eking out a beggar’s existence? Most of us couldn’t have kept up the hope for better things to happen. Bartimaeus’ hope may have been based on honest humility. As a human being he knew only a fraction of what was going on around him; for that reason, he had no reason to be expecting more. Although, just think of the times when from your perspective certain things looked absolutely impossible. Then, out of the blue, forces of which you were not even aware of entered the picture and shifted the balance. To your utter amazement, the unthinkable turned into reality.
I found this story about Sam Keen, the author of Fire in the Belly. He was born in 1930, and grew up in the Depression years. He dreamed of owning a pearl-handled pocket knife someday, but it was out of the question for his father to afford such a luxury on a small college professor’s salary. Then one day, as Sam was walking across the town square, two well-dressed strangers came down the steps of the courthouse. Without a word, one of them handed Sam the most exquisite pearl-handled knife he had ever seen, got in the car with an out-of-state license, and drove away. To this day, Sam does not know the identity of those strangers—how they happened to be in Marysville, Tennessee, or why they singled him out for such a bounty. All he knew was that when he woke up that morning, owning such a knife seemed an utter impossibility; that night he went to sleep clutching a proud possession.
Such is the nature of this existence of ours, and Sam claims this incident taught him something that he has never forgotten, “We humans simply cannot tell what is going to happen in “the great not yet.”” We do not know enough to use the words, possible and impossible, dogmatically. It just could have been that Bartimaeus had come to this realization long before, and this kept the door of hopefulness open on the basis of what he did not know. Such honest humility is certainly in order, given the limitations of our being.
This brings us to the second miracle in this account—namely, the fact that Jesus stopped at all and took notice of such an inconspicuous one. Lots of people were swirling around Jesus at this time and he also had Jerusalem on his mind and all that was about to happen there. Yet, miracle of miracles, in the midst of so much turbulence, he was able to perceive the unique blend of need and hope that Bartimaeus represented—and stopped that procession long enough to do something wonderful for this lonely being. St. Augustine used to say that God loved each individual as if there were non other in all the world to love, and that he loved all as he loves each one of us.
Jesus than asks Bartimaeus the same question he had previously asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” “My Teacher, let me see again” is in sharp contrast to the request of James and John for pre-eminence among the disciples. It would seem that, even in his blindness, Bartimaeus has better sight than those among Jesus’ inner circle.
Just as in our own prayers God knows our needs before we ask, it was obvious what the need of Bartimaeus was. But if we are truly to receive God’s provision, we must first acknowledge our own helplessness in order to receive. So here, Jesus requires Bartimaeus to name his need.
As soon as Bartimaeus asks to have his sight restored, Jesus assured him that his faith has made him well. In contrast to a previous healing of a blind man, this healing is instantaneous, without touch or further words.
Jesus’ words, “Go, your faith has made you well”, are the same as when he healed the woman with a hemorrhage. Like Bartimaeus, this woman was considered an outcast who 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.
Now that he could see, Bartimaeus followed jesus “on the way.” To follow someone can be used in a sense of becoming that person’s disciple; or it could simply mean here Bartimaeus joined the crowd on their way to Jerusalem.
The emphasis here has been on helping others, primarily the disciples, understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Where are we as preachers and hearers? Could it be that we, like the Christian community which Mark is addressing, move along blindly in speaking Christ’s name without understanding that to which we are called? Or, perhaps more explicitly, are we blind to those who interrupt and cause discomfort to our altogether conventional religious security?
As then, now, and forever, Jesus has mercy and saves because he shares our humanity while yet being our true mediator and self-giving Lord.
The blind man does not give in to discouragement. At the beginning of the story the blind man seems to have very little knowledge of who Jesus is. But he has the courage to proclaim what little he knows, despite a hostile crowd. His faith is altered radically; it becomes a dynamic thing, compelling him to follow Jesus.
Like Bartimaeus, many of us have been sitting by the roadside for years, not moving a foot toward our eternal destination. We have been blind to our true interests; our sole preoccupation seems to be to collect the paltry alms that this world would deign to drop in our laps.
We are even more to be pitied that Bartimaeus—knew that he was blind; we are not aware of our spiritual blindness. We need to know the Gospel of Christ crucified and the challenge to live a life following the way of the cross is the cure for that blindness.
This is the time, this really is the time to follow the recipe for success once again. First individually, with the gospel as our guide; and then creating the new sight, the new vision for the church. We have so many gifts to share, so why would we rely on someone else to do what God has called us all to do?
The path has unfolded before us, ask for a new sight just as Bartimaeus did, and then use what God has restored in you to transform the world.