“Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging…”-Mark 10:46-52
I recently rediscovered this story during the Easter weekend in the devotional book Eastern Orthodoxy: a Way of Life, by Anthony Coniaris. After a first read, it seems like an ordinary healing story that is no different from any of the others mentioned in the gospels. A person has a socially unacceptable condition. Jesus sees his faith and heals the person because of it. Said person praises God and follows after Jesus. So while it is indeed miraculous, it doesn’t necessarily stand out as a unique story.
This begs the question: why include it? Clearly Mark felt the story belonged in his narrative of Christ’s ministry and teachings, otherwise it would have never made it into his gospel. Even John, who records only a handful of miracles in his gospel, declares there are not enough books in the world to cover all of the deeds of Christ. So what is so special about this particular story that Mark felt this particular healing story had to be included?
Well let’s start from the beginning and see what we can find. Mark sets the scene in Jericho, an ancient city known in Scripture as a barrier between Joshua and the Israelites from entering the Promised Land. Joshua, at God’s command, had destroyed the entire city, but it was later rebuilt during the reign of Ahab because of its ideal location to guard against invading forces from crossing the Jordan River. During the time of Christ, it was still a center for travelers coming from the East. It was also where Jews would go if trying to reach Galilee or Judea without crossing into Samaria.
Why does this matter? It helps to explain Bartimaeus’ situation. Throughout the ancient Middle East, and the history of the world for that matter, blind people have often had to resort to begging and relying on the kindness of strangers. If you were blind but lived in an area that doesn’t receive a lot of traffic or financially well of people, your chances of receiving alms were pretty low. Since he was in Jericho, a place where people often travelled, he probably depended heavily on the Jewish pilgrims and various traders for both his coin and news of the world he could never hope to see. This would have included the news of a Galilean miracle worker whom the people called Jesus of Nazareth. Thus it is no surprise that blind Bartimaeus jumped at the chance to have his sight restored when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by to Jerusalem.
However this is something remarkable about his cry for help. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this cry is considered the basis of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Saying this prayer is to remind and teach the believer that Jesus is not only Lord and Savior but also the Divine who alone is capable of granting help. With this is in mind, Bartimaeus is clearly identifying Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the “Son of David” of whom the prophets spoke. Interestingly enough, the crowd describes Christ simply as Jesus of Nazareth. This wasn’t an insulting title since many people were called by their first name and where they were from like Saul of Tarsus and Simon of Cyrene. Yet it seems to suggest that the crowd itself was blind to Jesus’ true identity. For them he was a miracle worker who will hopefully lead a military revolution against the Romans and reinstate the Jewish kingdom of Israel for all 12 tribes. To give him a title like “Son of David” would be to give him a more spiritual mission and perhaps a divine nature. Those were all well and good, but the crowd didn’t see this as important as political freedom.
This might explain why those around Bartimaeus told him to keep quiet. They didn’t want a blind beggar putting his petty concerns before their king and general. However, this explanation doesn’t fit within the larger context of the story. For right after this Mark describes the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey. As many of you will remember from your Palm Sunday services, the donkey in ancient times was seen as a symbol of peace and not war. Yet we don’t read about the crowd becoming confused or angry with this decision. Instead they are jubilant! So it is unlikely that they were upset with Bartimaeus’ interpretation of Jesus’ mission. It is more likely that Jesus was preaching as he walked. And with all the noise of a city and large crowd drowning out the Lord’s voice, the people near Bartimaeus probably didn’t want to hear the whining of a beggar as well.
Which is what makes Christ’s first response appear so abrupt. He stopped, or in some translations “stood still.” Like the calm within the eye of a hurricane, Jesus ceases to be actively involved with crowd in order to place his attention upon one man who had probably interrupted his last minute teaching before Holy Week and his crucifixion. It creates the mental image we all have whenever we think about praying about something. The God of universe is busy making sure everything runs smoothly and we’re just pesky little children who are asking too much of his precious time. Yet that is exactly what happens. But instead of seeing us as annoying brats, he treats us as something special that requires his attention.
So when Jesus calls for him, the crowd that had been shushing Bartimaeus now encourages him to go forward. Clearly the master had something special to say or do for this blind man. And Bartimaeus recognizes this as well as he leaps to his feet and throws off his “garment”, that is a cloak. Some have seen this as a symbolic act of repentance from one who truly wanted to be restored by God. And I agree. In life there are many things which hamper us to see things fully. Perhaps it is our anger, lust, or greed. Maybe we let our work or life goals get in the way which in turn causes them to become idols in our lives. Stumbling blocks that need to be removed first before true reform can occur. Just as the city of Jericho itself was an obstacle for the Joshua and the Israelites from enjoying the Promise Land, this garment of Bartimaeus must be removed from our lives so that we may more fully experience who God is.
The rest is, as they say, history. Bartimaeus asks for his sight to be returned and Jesus honors his request. Bartimaeus is then able to see and joins Christ as our Lord made his final steps to Jerusalem before his death and resurrection. He’s never mentioned again, though one could assume that was a member of the Early Church since his name was remembered. Then again his name is better translated as “son of Timaeus,” so it may be that his father was more prominent than the son was. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the story of blind Bartimaeus holds a special place within the Christian faith and the gospel of Mark. His life is reminiscent to our one. For we too were once blind, holding on to rags, until Christ and the gospel were presented to us. It should be taken as a comfort that no matter how deep we are in sin, God will and does give us his complete attention to provide our necessary restoration.