Friday 23 October 2015

I once was blind but now I see

Bartimaeus gets a name.

Even if you're familiar with the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar who's name is Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), that might not seem like a big deal, but I think it is.  Many bible scholars have researched it and there's some fascinating theories about his name and what it means.  They're very interesting, but I just think it's important he got a name.  Any name.

Jesus heals a lot of people and nobody gets a name except Bartimaeus.  Well, there's Lazarus, I guess, but that's more a resurrection than a healing.  And people seemed to know Lazarus.  He even gets a second mention and the people's awareness of Lazarus seems to have made the Temple authorities nervous: "so the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus" (John 12:9-11).

I wonder if that isn't why Bartimaeus gets a name.  Maybe the author of Mark thought people would recognize him, hearing this as an origin story for a figure they knew.  Maybe they knew Bartimaeus for more than this story, because of this story.

Following Mark's narrative, we've just seen three episodes in which Jesus tries to explain to the disciples what he's all about and they just don't seem to understand.  Peter earlier correctly identifies him as the messiah, but then doesn't seem to understand what that means: Jesus is not the kind of messiah they were expecting.  Or that anyone was expecting.  They just don't see what he means.

And then there's this blind beggar at Jericho.  He seems to know who Jesus is, calling out to him "Son of David," another name for the Messiah.  The son of Timaeus (that's what Bar-Timaeus means) calls to the Son of David.

How does he know who Jesus is?

Probably the same way we all know what's true: both by knowing it intuitively and by what we've experienced.  This little story begins with "they came to Jericho" and the very next thing is "as they were leaving Jericho," there's Bartimaeus.  What happened in Jericho?  Maybe Bartimaeus heard Jesus doing what Jesus does, teaching and healing, and put that together with his own sense of what was true and realized who it was.  We can all do that with what's true, can't we?  What we know and what we experience?  Maybe Bartimaeus is really good at discerning truth, but, still, I don't think it's why he gets a name.

He's persistent, too, with his calling to Jesus, even when others try to silence him.  And when he finally has Jesus' attention, he leaves behind his cloak, probably his one possession of any value, and comes to Jesus, asking only for his sight to be restored.  "Go," says Jesus, "your faith has made you well."  That is a powerful faith, but, still, I don't think that's what makes him name-worthy.

"Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way" (Mark 10:52).

Wait.  What?  Jesus told him to go, but he didn't.  Instead, he "followed him on the way."  I think people might have known Bartimaeus, not by who he had been, not by what happened here with Jesus, but what happened next: "he regained his sight and followed him on the way."  Isn't that the lesson of this story for us?  Not just that he believed, but that he followed on the way.  With his physical sight restored, he lived into the what his heart saw to be true.

The 2009 film Amazing Grace is about the campaign to end slavery in the late 18th century.  The title refers to the supportive influence of John Newton, a former slave ship captain and author of the famous hymn, on William Wilberforce, the key figure in the campaign.  In one scene, Wilberforce visits the aging Newton, now physically blind.  Newton has written down all the ships, routes and slave traders he recalls and offers it to Wilberforce as evidence to help the cause.  He quotes his hymn, "'I once was blind but now I see.'  Didn't I write that, too?"  Wilberforce replies "yes, you did."  "Well, now at last it's true," says Newton.

It became true not just in faith, but living that faith into action.  I think that's how we should know Bartimaeus.  It should be how we know each other, too.