“Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we may imagine the cloak was given to Bartimaeus by his mother. Giving him the cloak was one thing she could do for her son, for whom she always felt a mix of grief and pity, a sense of guilt too that she had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, who was also, forever, indelibly, unfortunately blind.
She and Bartimaeus’s father, Timaeus, had rejoiced when her birth pangs began – exulted that they would soon meet this product of their love. They had decided that if this baby was a boy, they would name him after his father, so his name would mean “Son of Honor.” They couldn’t know the irony at the time.
When Bartimaeus was born, their rejoicing turned to mourning. Ten perfect tiny fingers, yes; ten perfect tiny toes. That his lungs were strong they knew when he wailed for the first time, taking in big gulps of air here in the world outside his mother’s womb.
But then, they noticed: his eyes covered with a white milky film that did not clear; not with the midwife’s compresses; not with the prayers of the elders; not with the breaking of his mother’s heart and his father’s tears. Their son was blind.
This Son of Honor would know the indignity of begging. In fact, on the street they didn’t even call him by name. He was known as “a blind beggar” or just “the blind man.” His lot in life, his lone contribution to society, was to be the recipient of others’ charity. His one purpose in the eyes of others was to be the vehicle by which others fulfilled their religious duty to give to those less fortunate than themselves. He would serve as a reminder for others of their own good circumstances. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he would hear people remark as they walked past him.
“Alms for the poor,” he would shout out to them. “Have mercy on me, poor blind Bartimaeus!”
His cloak was his most important possession. Made of wool, thick enough to warm him on cool mornings and in the evening after sundown, his cloak was his blanket, his covering, his one constant companion. He was such a familiar sight by the roadside on the way out of Jericho, wrapped in his cloak, it had become part of his uniform, his identity. When he could hear passersby coming, he would quickly unwind it from his shoulders and lay it out in front of him to catch the coins people dropped for him. After the crowd passed, he would push the cloak’s frayed corners together in order to gather up the coins that collected in its center. The cloak was dusty from using it like this, but Bartimaeus didn’t mind. The smell of the dust and wool brought comfort to him when he wrapped the cloak tightly around him again, a tangible reminder that someone had cared about him once, enough to give him this gift. He had had the cloak so long, he couldn’t really remember his life before it, couldn’t imagine his life without it.
And then, one day, everything changes. Bartimaeus sits, fingering the fraying threads of a hole forming in his cloak, his chin lifted, eyes open but unseeing, listening. A large crowd approaches. Such a crowd is nothing new on this busy road, and yet there is something different: an urgency, excitement. Bartimaeus strains to sift one voice from another, strains to hear what people are saying as they come closer. He hears voices mingled, the fragment of a story, a strain of a song. And then one word, a name: Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth. Bartimaeus has heard this name before. He has heard the man by this name has the power to heal, to make whole, to make dreams come true, to make Bartimaeus’ own dreams come true, his dream of freedom, a life free from begging, a life where he can live fully into his own name: Son of Honor. A life where he can lift his head high, square his shoulders, set his own course, go wherever he desires.
Bartimaeus cries out, his voice dry and raspy, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
“Be quiet, beggar!” a voice close to him snaps. “Quiet down.” Someone tosses him a coin. “Keep quiet.”
But Bartimaeus cries out again, his voice gaining strength, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And then he hears it. A man’s voice, up ahead, saying, “Call him here.”
More voices close by, “Take heart, beggar. Get up. He is calling you.”
And Bartimaeus does the one thing he had never before imagined being able to do. He throws off his cloak.
He throws off his cloak.
In that moment, he is like the trapeze artist who trusts that the strong man whose arms are outstretched to catch him will do just that. He trusts that the air through which he sails suddenly untethered is not nothing. The air is the place where a new thing can begin. The air is the substance through which he travels to meet the man coming toward him, whose grasp is strong, whose timing is perfect, who knows Bartimaeus and what he needs, but will give Bartimaeus the honor of allowing him to name his own desire.
And so, standing cloakless – he feels almost naked to tell the truth, but like a new being, a newly birthed person – Bartimaeus stands before Jesus and says, “My teacher, let me see again.”
Jesus replies, “Go; your faith has made you well.”
Bartimaeus remembers the word spoken, like a distant dream. Jesus had said it: “Go.” Bartimaeus, you are free to go. Where you want. Go.
But Bartimaeus realizes that he does not wish to go. He wants to follow. To use his gifts, all of them, including his newly found sight, for something, not just for himself. He is freed to follow. And Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.
Years later, when the disciples told the story of their friend Bartimaeus, they joked about their own blindness, their inability to see the significance of who Jesus was, even when he was standing right in front of them, plain as day. They laughed, because they had missed it so often, and this blind man, Bartimaeus, could see clearly who Jesus was without even laying eyes on him.
They told Bartimaeus’ story because Jesus left them with a challenge. Jesus would not always be with them physically, in plain view. They would not always be able to see him. But Jesus promised to be with them, to be known to them in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the Word, in friend and stranger. He told them to use the eyes of their hearts to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. He told them to use the eyes of their hearts, because there are many kinds of blindness.
There are many kinds of blindness, and we all bear a cloak of some kind. We all carry something with us or within us that we cling to, that is part of our identity, that brings us comfort, that it is hard to imagine our lives without.
In throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus embraces the new life he knew Jesus could give him. He knew that the security, comfort, usefulness of his cloak would be replaced by something much bigger, much better, more permanent. Bartimaeus never goes back to get his cloak. He never retreats to its familiarity. He just follows.
Jesus calls to us too: “What do you want me to do for you?”