What would you say to Jesus if he called you into his presence and stood there ready to listen to you? Today we hear the story of a man who received such a grace.
This is the journey of a soul to God.
Blind Bones in the Valley of Jericho
Today’s Gospel passage picks up where the last 2 left off. We’re still in Mark, Chapter 10:46-52. You’ll recall Jesus has been traveling and teaching. He taught the Pharisees on marriage and divorce, the rich young man about a good greater than all material goods, and James and John on the true meaning of greatness and of service.
Now Jesus has found his way to Jericho, the famed city in Judea, just northeast of Jerusalem. Jericho was the first city to fall before the people of Israel, as they marched to the Promised Land. I imagine, in the minds of the Jewish people, Jericho was something like Gettysburg to the people in the Union. It marked a turning point in the history and self-definition of the Jewish people; a high-water mark that reminded them that God’s Providence had some mysterious design for their people.
Jesus was teaching in Jericho, surrounded by his disciples and a large crowd. During his stay, he would have taught and healed there, just as he had done elsewhere. He would have established some kind of reputation. He was known to speak with uncanny authority about the Kingdom of God and the intentions of Moses. The people would have been wondering about Him. Was he a new Joshua, leading them more deeply into the Kingdom of God? (Cf. Joshua Chapters 1-5)
This is the background for our story.
Now Jesus is on the road that leads out of Jericho; he is leaving the city. A blind man is there, by the side of the road, begging for his livelihood. He hears a noise, a commotion. A crowd of people. An outside-the-ordinary hum in the air. The blind man inquires what it is. Someone tells him Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.
Now picture this: the man can see nothing, but he can hear. He has heard of this Jesus, a traveling Rabbi who heals in God’s name, who proclaims God’s mercy, who speaks like an ambassador of God’s kingdom, who teaches and blesses in his name.
Having no sense of how close Jesus is to him, the man cries out, loudly, above the din of the crowd:
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
This is the prayer of a Jewish man, seeing in Jesus a descendant of King David, one who proclaims the long-awaited restoration of the Davidic kingdom.
But I think it’s a little more than this. In Psalm 131, there is this promise: “The Lord swore an oath to David; he will not go back on his word; ‘A son, the fruit of your body, I will set upon your throne.’ (Ps. 131:11-12). A son of David, on the throne of David. Bartimaeus is proclaiming this word here and now. He’s seeing in Jesus the son of David, who will – or who has – inherited David’s throne.
A Blind Man Sees
In this sense, blind though he is, Bartimaeus sees farther in faith than the crowd.
But no one listens. Bartimaeus’ prayer is swatted aside like a fly on the back of a horse. The crowd rebukes him, telling him to be quiet.
But this merciless reception does nothing to dissuade Bartimaeus. Jesus was near. Bartimaeus would stop at nothing to make his cry reach the ears of the Rabbi. He kept calling out:
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now we see something marvelous. We read: στὰς ὁ Ἰησοῦς. Jesus stops.
Read that again: Jesus stops.
Could there ever be a greater joy for the human soul than to raise a prayer that stops the heart of God and bids him listen? What would it be like to pray in such a way, with such insistence, with such urgency, with such relentlessness, that Jesus stops. Stops and turns and says:
For this is what Jesus says. He tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus and bring him before Jesus.
They do so. With a word so lovely and steeped in meaning it’s worth fully quoting.
“Courage,” they say. “Rise; he is calling you.”
Θάρσει, ἔγειρε, φωνεῖ σε.
As we journey, you and I, without full sight along the dusty paths of this world; as we raise our voice to heaven, would that we could hear such words. “Courage; rise; he is calling you.”
Let’s unpack them.
‘Courage.’ Θάρσει, in Greek. It’s an imperative. This is the same word Jesus speaks to the disciples as they tremble in the storm-tossed boat. It’s the same word God spoke to Joshua before he took Moses’ mantle and led the people across the Jordan River. Courage. Do not fear.
‘Rise.’ ἔγειρε. This is one of the two words used to denote Jesus’ resurrection. It’s so much more than just “get up.” The deeper meaning here is ‘rise and stand in new life.’ It’s a prophetic word, uttered by the crowd at Jesus’ bidding. It has the same kind of resonance of God’s word to Jonah – ‘Rise, set out for the great city.’ Rise, I call you to new life.
‘He calls you.’ φωνεῖ σε. The Master calls. What joy would stir in the heart to hear these words? The master calls; he opens a direct dialogue between his heart and yours; he stands ready to welcome you into his presence. What would you feel if you knew this to be true?
What would you say to Jesus if he called you into his presence and stood there listening to you?
Face to Face with the Son of David
A blind man does not lightly throw aside his cloak and leave it behind – for he cannot readily recover it. But Bartimaeus casts his cloak aside with abandon. He springs up. He comes to Jesus. One can sense the energy of his approach. The youthfulness of spirit. Bartimaeus is being given a hearing before the throne of goodness and he approaches with joy. A child of the Jewish faith before the Son of David.
Jesus greets him with these remarkable words:
Τί σοι θέλεις ποιήσω
What do you will that I do for you?
Consider these words. We already know that Jesus has the gift of reading hearts, even when people try to conceal their intentions. He knows, for example, when the Pharisees are trying to trip him up. When Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, he knows what the Scribes are murmuring in their thoughts. He knows when his disciples are bickering over who is the greatest. So when a blind man races up to him with expectant face, should we now imagine that he doesn’t know what he wants?
Of course he knows. Even I could guess what a blind man might want from a man of God who has the gift of healing.
Yet Jesus greets Bartimaeus with the question: ‘What do you will that I do for you?’
Why does he ask this?
It is the man’s will that Jesus addresses here. The verb is Θέλω – to will. Will is something different than mere desire or want. It is an inclination toward the good as it is conceived by the intellect. Only a human being can will – because only a human being has the rational power of intellect, capable of perceiving the good so the will can desire it. Our will is something we share in the image of God. For will is the same word that designates the fundamental principle of the Father’s action on earth that Jesus told us to pray for every day – when we say ‘May your will be done.’
Only, in this case, Jesus asks: what is Bartimaeus’ will?
It’s a remarkable question. When we pray with earnestness, with holy relentlessness, with faith, with trust, with love, the moment will arise – as surely as the sun rises in the morning – that Jesus says to us: what do you will that I do for you?
What’s going on here?
It will help to recap this: Jesus knows what Bartimaeus wants. But he wants Bartimaeus to say it. To vocalize it. To concretize it, to raise his prayer before the son of David. And to be ennobled as he does so, as his prayer becomes incarnate, moving from spirit (in the heart) to matter (in spoken word).
I think Jesus wants Bartimaeus to experience the dignity of standing upright, noble in his humanity, a man broken but beloved, a man remade in the kingdom. Just as Jesus waited for the woman who touched his cloak to present herself, to receive her healing face to face, in front of the community (see Mk 5:25-34). So he also wants Bartimaeus to know he is a man whose heart and prayer matter before heaven. He is not forgotten along the road, forlorn, broken and begging, told by the world to keep quiet. He is a man made to stand upright before God. He is seen, just as surely as he will soon see.
Bartimaeus is a poor man who, in God’s eyes, is a nobleman before the son of David.
In the face of Jesus’ question, Bartimaeus stands a little taller than usual, and expresses his will before face of the Father on earth:
“Rabbi, that I might see!”
The response is swift, if a little puzzling. “Go. Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says.
Immediately, Bartimaeus receives his sight, but note the response. It’s not: “OK, I grant your request. You are healed.” But: “Go. Your faith has saved you.”
Jesus is saying something here. He wants the blind man to know that the still small voice of faith in his heart – faint, at first, like a mouse squeak amidst the din of that crowd –– Jesus wants him to know that THAT is what saved him. That mustard seed of faith moved the mountain of blindness.
Jesus wants to empower, to validate, to strengthen this voice of faith, which is somehow like the voice of God in Bartimaeus. Jesus wants him – and the crowd, and YOU – to know that that little inkling which stirred in his heart is what gave rise to the new physical vitality he discovers.
Flesh Upon Dry Bones
I think what we are witnessing here is like God putting flesh upon the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision (Ez 37:1-14). Jesus is validating the quiet voice of Bartimaeus’ heart. He is building a human life around what began as a feeble spiritual impulse. That’s why he made him utter his prayer in public. That’s why he tells him his faith is the source of his healing.
Faith in Jesus, to be sure. But, specifically, it is faith that dwells in the heart of a poor man that moves Jesus. Faith that flickers like the first spark from flint. Jesus seeks this faith. He stands in awe of such faith when he sees it in the heart of a centurion (Lk 7:9); he praises it when he finds it – firm and unflappable – in the heart of a Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:28); and he laments when he sees its absence in a synagogue of Nazareth (Mk 6:6).
In a way, Jesus has called Bartimaeus forward for the sake of the crowd as well. Before a crowd of people with sight, he is dramatizing the presence of sight in Bartimaeus’ heart. Your faith has saved you, he says. Your faith is a form of spiritual sight.
The end of the story shows just how true Bartimaeus’ sight is. For he responds to his healing not by returning to grab his cloak and going on his way, but by following Jesus along Jesus’ way. This is the act of a disciple. The act of one’s whose deep sight is restored.
Jesus, I cry to you. I raise my prayer to heaven. I will not cease my prayer until I hear from you these words in my heart. Ti soi theleis poieso? What do you will that I do for you? Jesus, teach me what it means to pray from the heart – to raise my heart above the din and the noise of the crowd and of my circumstances. To pray in such a way that you stop. That you turn to me. That you call me into your presence and listen to my heart. And reveal to me your great love. Amen.