This weekend we will hear one of my favorite stories from the Gospels, the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who sits on the side of the road which leads from Jericho to Jerusalem. This story presents us with so many fine nuances and cultural sidebars that oftentimes are overlooked in our reading of the story. Without presenting them in any specific order, let me enumerate some of them.
1. We know his name. This is odd. No other person in the synoptic Gospels who is the beneficiary of Jesus’ healing power is named. We know of Peter’s mother-in-law, but not her name. We know of the widow of Nain, but not her name or the name of her son. We know of the daughter of Jairus, but not her name. As a matter of fact, some of the characters of the Gospels actually are named centuries later. Case in point, the Magi are named hundreds of years after the Gospel of Matthew was written.
2. He sits outside of the town on the roadside. As a blind man, he would have been considered ritually impure and would have been forbidden to enter the homes of even his family members. He is an outcast much the same as the lepers who appear in the Gospels.
3. The crowd clearly tries to silence him. As an outcast, he would have been unwelcome in their company.
4. He accords Jesus the title of “Son of David,” a clear sign that he accepts Jesus as the Messiah. Once Jesus calls him, he refers to Jesus as “Teacher” or “Master,” sometimes translated as “Rabbi.” This may be another reason why the crowd wants him to remain silent. Perhaps they are in Jesus’ company out of curiosity rather than out of faith in the person of Jesus.
5. Jesus asks the man what he wants. At first glance, this may not seem important. However, throughout the synoptic Gospels, Jesus never acts before being asked. Only in the Gospel of John does Jesus initiate a contact or an exchange. This seemingly insignificant detail points to the chief distinction between the synoptics and the Gospel of John. The sacred writer of the fourth Gospel believes that Jesus is God in the flesh. The synoptics portray Jesus as the Son of God, a title that was accorded to all the prophets, all the high priests down through the ages, and all of the kings of Israel. The title “Son of God” does not necessarily carry with it the connotation of divinity. The fourth Gospel clearly does. God initiates, but human beings react.
All of these details present us with this question. Is the story of Bartimaeus a “healing story,” or a “call story.” It really depends upon your perspective and where you place the emphasis in the story.
However, for me, the most telling moment is found in the very last verse of the story: “Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.” (Mark 10:52b) Having asked Jesus for the gift of sight, Bartimaeus responds to Jesus’ gift as only a man of faith could; he follows Jesus on the way. Remember, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. We all know what happens there. Also, the evangelist uses the term “the way.” Early disciples were known as followers of “The Way” until St. Paul preaches in Antioch where the term “Christian” was coined. It seems fairly clear that the evangelist is weaving a call story into what seems to be just another healing. Bartimaeus becomes a model for all who have come to believe that Jesus, the Messiah, is our Master.
Finally, let us not forget the crowd. They were all too willing to push Bartimaeus to the side of the road until Jesus called him. All of a sudden, the crowd realizes that something important is about to happen. They change their tune rather quickly: “Take courage; get up, he is calling you.” (Mark 10:49c) It becomes very clear that in Bartimaeus they see an opportunity to have their curiosity about Jesus satisfied. They lack the faith that he displays.
Paired with the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah this Sunday, the story reveals that the restoration of Israel promised by the prophets is accomplished in Jesus. He opens the eyes of the blind so that they can find their way to discipleship. Indeed, he does all things well.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator