Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on October 25 2009.
Job 42:1-6; Mark 10-46-52
Jesus asks the same question of blind Bartimaeus that he had just asked James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Did you notice? If you were here last week, perhaps you remember. The two sibling disciples saunter up to Jesus and say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus replies by asking, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Do you recall what it was they wanted from Jesus? They wanted to sit, one on Jesus’ right and the other on his left when he came in his kingdom glory.
Now, as Jesus and his band of followers are leaving the town of Jericho, they walk by the blind beggar Bartimaeus. He begins calling out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Over and over he makes his plea, to the point that people were trying to get him to be quiet. Finally, Jesus calls for the blind beggar, and when they are standing face-to-face, Jesus asks the same question of Bartimaeus he had put earlier to James and John. “What is it you want me to do for you?”
Jesus’ asks them the same question, but their needs are very different, aren’t they? James and John want greatness, Bartimaeus just wants to see.
Have you ever heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, it is the psychological theory of human motivation. Maslow characterizes these needs in the form of a pyramid. He contends that humans begin with basic physiological needs that form the bottom of the pyramid. These needs are air to breathe, food to eat, water, sleep… the very things we absolutely need in order to survive. Once those needs are met, we move up the pyramid and seek safety: shelter, employment, family, health. When those have been attained, we move up the pyramid yet again to crave loving and belonging, then self-esteem, and confidence. Now we begin experiencing the quality of life and not just those needs that enable us to survive. Finally, once these levels of life have been met, we seek creativity and morality. We are able to do problem-solving and have the luxury of being spontaneous and free. That’s the tip-top of the pyramid.
James and John, and the blind beggar Bartimaeus, are living at different levels of need. They’re not on the same level of the pyramid. The brothers Zebedee are physically strong, have a profession, and have developed a level of self-esteem and confidence that encourages them to approach Jesus with their request. They do not ask Jesus for the basics of life… for shelter or food or health. They want places of honor when he comes into his kingdom.
Not Bartimaeus. His need is more basic. He cannot see, and he has come to believe – obviously on the basis of what he has heard and not seen – that Jesus the Nazarene is just the One who can help him. Bartimaeus isn’t asking to be a lieutenant in Jesus’ army, he just wants to see again.
Did you notice that Bartimaeus said “again”? Obviously, that implies he wasn’t born with blindness. We can speculate all day long as to how he has lost his sight, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? Except, that – as I have told you before but will remind you again just in case you’ve either forgotten it or didn’t catch it the first time around – there is a difference between not having and never having had and not having but once having had. If you don’t know what you’re missing, then you don’t miss it. But if you’ve had it and lost it, then you definitely do miss it, don’t you?
Bartimaeus knows what he has had and has lot. He has seen the blue sky and the green trees. Perhaps he has even had the opportunity to look into the dark eyes of his beloved and watched the carefree play of his children. It might even be that Bartimaeus was able to read a bit, or tie a knot or do any of the things we who have good vision take for granted. But not now. Bartimaeus is as blind as he can be, and he waits by the side of the road until Jesus comes. Perhaps the Nazarene will have pity on him and restore his sight.
He’s not going to let anybody keep him from this opportunity either, though they certainly try. Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, Mark tells us, probably the same people who walk by Bartimaeus every day and ignore him when he asks for alms. Probably the same people who knew him when he could see and was a productive citizen in the community. Probably the same people who, when Bartimaeus went blind, talked about what a great personal tragedy that was for him, but as time went by learned to ignore him because he just would not go away. Probably those people.
How many times have I reminded you that Mark is the shortest of the New Testament gospels? To the point that I don’t really need to tell you that again, do I? You can see it for yourself. His writing style is more lean than the others. He is not as verbose, though that’s hardly a word I would use to describe the other gospels as well. Mark simply tells his story using less words.
Except, occasionally he throws in details that should either be very obvious, or they don’t seem to have anything to do with the story… not at all. That is true here. When Jesus stops and calls for Bartimaeus, and the very people who have been telling him to shut up call for him and let him know that Jesus wants to see him, Mark informs us that Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up and came to Jesus.
What’s the deal with the cloak? Why mention that? Well, as you might have imagined already, I have a theory. A cloak was used for a number of things. Thrown over the shoulders it would help keep Bartimaeus warm at night. During the day, when he is begging for alms, it would serve as his ground cover and would help him collect the coins that were tossed his way. You can see how, for a blind person, it would be something of a security blanket, a necessary garment he could hardly do without.
By tossing it away as he does, Mark may just be telling us that this is a supreme act of faith on his part. He not only has secured an audience with Jesus, the Son of David, Jesus the Teacher, he has the full confidence that the Nazarene is going to restore his sight. He won’t need that security blanket anymore because his security is now found in the One who gives sight to the blind, not to mention freedom to the captive and liberty to those who are oppressed.
But there’s more. What if Bartimaeus had once had a family? Back in those days, life could be cruel when one got sick. There wasn’t much pity for folks who were affected by such things as blindness or leprosy. You were cut off from your loved ones, left to fend for yourself. If Bartimaeus had once had a family, chances are they’re gone. But don’t you think the first thing he would want to do is go see, find out if they’re still in town, determine if they are willing to take him back in, do everything he could to go back to the life he once enjoyed?
Do you recall the story in the ninth chapter of John where Jesus restores sight to the man who was born blind, and when the religious authorities get involved they drag the man’s parents into it? You can tell by the reaction of the man’s parents that they’re afraid of being associated with Jesus, who by this time is perceived as a threat by the religious leaders… the religious leaders who can make life really tough for this man’s family. Jesus is toxic, and to be implicated with him could be very dangerous for them. And besides, the theology of that day said that blindness and illness of any kind was a result of sin. These people not only do not want to be associated with Jesus, but they tell the authorities that their son is a grown man. He can speak for himself. They don’t want anything to do with him either! He’s a sinner. So folks like the blind man in John’s gospel, and Bartimaeus in our story for today, are cut off.
We could say Bartimaeus has got nothing to lose by clamoring after Jesus, but that’s too easy. “Go…” Jesus says to the blind man, “Go, go, your faith has made you well.” But notice that as soon as he regains his sight, Bartimaeus does not go, at least not away from Jesus. Instead, he follows Jesus on his way. For years he has suffered with blindness, put up with the shame of having to beg just to get by, dealing with the scorn of those who think him a bad person, a sinner, just because he is blind. And now that he has his sight, you would think he would do everything he can to guard it, to keep it, to hold on to his new gift of sight. But no, instead he follows the One who is going to Jerusalem to die, presumably prepared to die with him. Why?
Well, fast forward to the upper room the night before Jesus dies on the cross. He and his disciples have eaten the Passover meal, and from the meal Jesus takes the bread and the cup and he says to his followers that these two simple elements of the meal will be the way they are to remember him. His body, broken. His blood, shed. Do you know what he is doing? He is answering the question he first put to James and John, and then to blind Bartimaeus. “What is it you want me to do for you?”
James and John wanted honor, Bartimaeus asked that he might see again. “What is it you want me to do for you?” Folks, the answer to that question is right before us at the Lord’s table. And if we can’t see it, we are indeed blind.
So the only question left for us to answer is, “O say, can you see?” If so, come to the table of our Lord. Eat, drink, remember, and know what Jesus wants to do for you.
As we come to your table, Lord, restore our sight that we might see what you have done for us. And may we then commit ourselves to following you fully. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.