The lectionary passages today continue with the magnificent words of Isaiah, the stern words in Hebrews, and the simply told stories of the Gospel according to Mark.
Isaiah, the poet-prophet paints a vivid picture of a depraved society that has turned away from God, a whole community that is contaminated by sin and injustice. There is nothing in the words of the prophets that would not apply to our times and our society also. And it brings chills down the spine. Listen to the words:
"We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we are dead."
Turn to the story in Mark and see the condition on the blind Bartimaeus. He is sitting by the roadside begging. There was nothing else for blind people to do at that time; there was no training, and no welfare for people with disabilities - simply the mercy of those who passed by. He hears the crowd around him and feels their movement. Something exciting is going on. Oh, how he wishes he could see. The people around him and in front of him have known him for years. Some are sympathetic to the blind man, others indifferent, as long as he doesn't interfere with their personal interests; then they become hostile. Jericho was, and is, a small town. People have know each other all their lives.
So some of the neighbors tell him that the commotion is because Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. What happens next is very interesting.
Unlike the spiritually blind society described by Isaiah, this one physically blind man reacts as though he has been waiting for the coming Jesus. He can't run because he cannot see. He cannot even walk, because the crowd is so thick; he might get trampled over.
But he knows it is now or never. From where he is sitting he raises his strong voice and shouts words that can get him in trouble. But he doesn't care. Listen to the words: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me." He knows the name of the Nazarene, because his fame has reached in all towns and villages. But when he says, "Son of David," that immediately puts Jesus in the royal succession and identifies him as the Messiah. Now, the acceptance of that title on the part of Jesus is what the enemies of Jesus were waiting for in order to arrest him. To claim the title Son of David would be to lay claim to royal kinship and to the role of the awaited Messiah.
Jesus, whose hour has not yet come, is still passing by with his disciples. The bystanders who hear Bartimaeus only too well yell at him to be quiet. Some tell him sternly: "Be careful, you'll get yourself and him in trouble." Others are offended by the title Son of David. They want the witness to be quiet. But that makes Bartimaeus even more determined. He shouts even louder. In that dusty road, with all the noise of people and animals and the Middle Eastern passions, it must have been a great voice that caused Jesus to stand still. Jesus hears the words that matter: "Have mercy on me." The words of faith echoing through the centuries: Miserere, Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.
Words that reach Jesus and make him stand still. Like a touch of his garment by a woman who was hurting, like the cry of the children who were being pushed away, the cry of "Lord have mercy" stops him. He hears the cry and he responds. "Call him here." So the kind-hearted among the crowd open up a path and encourage the blind man. "Take heart, get up, he is calling you." What comforting words. Take heart, the Lord has heard your cry. Take heart, your prayer has reached the ears of the Lord. Take heart, you are no longer alone, you are not a despised person begging by the roadside. Your request has been heard and you are being summoned to the throne of grace.
These are words that all of us long to hear. Every person who has ever suffered, (and who hasn't?), wants to be heard by someone who has mercy. It is when sin engulfs us in such a way that mercy and righteousness cannot reach us that the situation becomes hopeless. Listen again to the words of Isaiah:
"...justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us... Justice is turned back and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled."
By contrast, justice and righteousness have entered Jericho and stand in the public square in the person of Jesus. Mark does not mention any other event in this visit to Jericho. Just the story of Bartimaeus. It is possible that it was Bartimaeus's faith and longing that brought Jesus to this place for this particular act of mercy. Because Bartimaeus believed. He had no doubt from the beginning that this Jesus was the Son of David, the Messiah. He knew that only he could heal him.
In the later verses of his passage, Isaiah tells us that God looked for a righteous man and could not find him. "He was appalled that there was no one to intervene." So God intervenes in the person of Jesus Christ. This is what we Christians believe. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews notes, these are the basic truths of our faith. And this basic truth is what Mark's story deals with. A heart that longs for mercy, and the Son of God who responds to this longing.
Jesus stands still, asks for Bartimaeus, the blind man is summoned and the moment is here. Bartimaeus does not hesitate a second. He throws down the cloak that served him as a blanket. Like a homeless man of today, he had probably spent the night under this cloak and now he throws it off; he springs up like someone who is ready to run, someone with a purpose, and, attracted by the powerful presence towards whom the path now is open and not blocked, the blind man goes before him.
And as in so many other instances, Jesus wants him to articulate his prayer. Bartimaeus had asked for mercy. But Jesus asks: "What is it that you want me to do for you?" Last week, we heard him ask the same question of the two disciples who had come to him wanting to be first in the kingdom. "What is it that you want me to do for you?"
"Rabbouni," "Teacher," the blind man says simply, "let me see again."
It is obvious from these words that Bartimaeus was not blind from birth. "Let me see again", he says. And he has no doubt that Jesus is the one to give him back his sight.
Let us imagine ourselves in the midst of a great convention, like the one we just experienced in Philadelphia. How many of great among those present would stop in the middle of the public's acclaim to pay attention to a single, poor, homeless and blind man? Suppose that a bishop, on his way to address that Convention, is stopped by a single parishioner who is troubled and has need of attention and a kind word, what would the bishop do? We need to put ourselves in the place of Bartimaeus and then in the place of Jesus.
Would we dare to cry out our need if it was as great as that of Bartimaeus? And would we, in the place of Jesus, stop on our way to recognition and acclaim to pay attention to a poor beggar?
Let us ponder these questions today and try to come to an honest conclusion.
Bartimaeus gets his wish. He asks, and he is answered. He knocks and the door is opened. Jesus calls him to himself and Bartimaeus jumps at the chance. And after Bartimaeus expresses his request, Jesus tells him, as he has said to so many others: "Go, your faith has made you well." Can you imagine more wonderful words than these?
No time passes. The question is asked, the request is granted, and the sight is regained. Jesus tells him to go. But Bartimaeus stays with him. He stays with the crowd. He cannot be away from the source of his light. He is ready to follow Jesus from now on.
We don't know what happens to him after this. We don't know if he went all the way to Jerusalem to witness the triumphant entry and the agony of the passion. It is possible that, when the time came, he was one of the core of the first Christians. Mark simply tells us that he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Let us also turn to the God of all lights and receive the sight that makes us see the Son of God in all his compassion and his mercy. And let us follow on the way, never falling by the wayside. Because, as this story assured us, in the midst of the great crowd, each one of us, however small, poor, despised, matters to Jesus. Thanks be to God.