I have heard all sorts of explanations as to why the crowd traveling with Jesus tried to quiet the blind beggar Bartimaeus. The actual text simply tells us that they rebuked him, telling him to be silent. Some have said that Bartimaeus was an embarrassment; others have suggested that he was simply disturbing the peace. However, if we read the story with an understanding of the Middle Eastern culture, we would realize that Bartimaeus is playing a very shrewd game.
By addressing Jesus as the Son of David, Bartimaeus is announcing to the world that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah. In this culture, paying Jesus that kind of compliment places Jesus in the blind man’s debt. This honorable title must be repaid. Bartimaeus has also announced how he would like Jesus to repay him. He wants Jesus to show him mercy. By repeating this statement over and over, the beggar insists that Jesus owes him something. By shouting it out ever more loudly, the clever beggar makes the entire crowd aware of Jesus’ debt to him.
Jesus knows what the culture demands of him and asks the crowd to bring Bartimaeus to him. However, at this point Jesus directly asks Bartimaeus what it is that he wants in return for his compliment. In so doing, Jesus reminds Bartimaeus that if he heals him, Bartimaeus will then be in his debt. Not dissuaded by this ploy, Bartimaeus says, “I want to see.” Jesus gives him his sight. Now that Jesus has paid his debt to the man, Bartimaeus must respond. Even though Jesus tells Bartimaeus that he may go his way, St. Mark tells us that in response to Jesus’ act of mercy, Bartimaeus followed Jesus on “the way.”
This healing takes place in Jericho which lies at the base of Mt. Zion. We know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. We also know what will happen when he gets there. He will be arrested, tried, flogged and crucified. Following Jesus at this point in the narrative is a powerful statement on St. Mark’s part about the faith of Bartimaeus and about his commitment to Jesus.
After the resurrection, the followers of Jesus initially earned the nickname, “followers of the Way.” St. Mark deliberately uses this term to indicate Bartimaeus’ response to the gift of sight. We never hear about this man again in the Gospel, but that really doesn’t matter. By following Jesus, we know that he has responded to the gift of sight.
Placed as it is immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, this story also has another purpose. Traditionally, this gospel is said to have been written shortly before A.D. 70 in Rome, at a time of impending persecution and when destruction loomed over Jerusalem. Almost forty years after Jesus’ resurrection and return to his Father, the followers of Jesus are facing the beginning of what will be a time of great turmoil and great suffering. The Jews will expel the followers of Jesus from the synagogue. While Judaism was a protected religion under Roman Law, once the Christians were forced out of the synagogues, they were at the mercy of the Roman Empire. Thousands were martyred for the faith. St. Mark’s Gospel mentions “suffering” and “persecution” more than the other three Gospels combined. It is obvious that the evangelist was writing to prepare those who followed The Way for the impending persecutions.
The story of Bartimaeus is, therefore, a story that reminds us that being a follower of Jesus comes with a cost. Bartimaeus follows Jesus to Jerusalem and, by implication, to Calvary. The cruel tortures that the Romans employed when they put Jesus to death will eventually be the fate of his followers. The blood of the martyrs was that which watered the seed of faith which Jesus had planted. The fact that his followers were willing to sacrifice their lives rather than deny their faith was the testimony which convinced the world that Jesus did rise from the dead and that all who believed in him would one day rise as well. If the resurrection of Jesus had been a ruse on the part of his followers, none of them would have been willing to die to defend their claim.
What does following Jesus mean in our world? How would Bartimaeus repay Jesus if he lived in this century? While I could offer my answer to that question, the point is that each of us must answer in our own way. We have been given the gift of faith. It is now our responsibility to repay God for this gift. One way, but surely not the only way, is to be faithful to the obligation to keep the Lord’s Day by celebrating the Eucharist. In this great sacrament we have the most powerful reminder that Jesus has also given us the gift of sight through the eyes of faith. We, like Bartimaeus, must also follow Jesus on The Way.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator