Growing up I knew this gospel story: it was the tale of “blind Bartimaeus.” Like some other “characters” of the gospels, he is the sort of person a child can latch onto in his imagination. Think of Zacchaeus, the little tax collector who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he passed. With both I think there is something that a child is more apt to see in them of themselves than those who’ve grown up! Children are often not heard, or seen, they sometimes struggle in an adult world to see and be heard. So, such stories touch them through the frustration they sometimes feel. Then again, anyone who feels overlooked, belittled, pitied, marginal and ignored, I believe can see themselves in the person of Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus is precocious like a child – he says out loud what others are thinking, he speaks truth that makes some uncomfortable, he utters the obvious that for an adult to do so would be to take a great risk. He calls Jesus, “Son of David.” That is a phrase of earthshaking consequence. We as the faithful are called to have a faith in God like a child has in a parent: and in that childlike confidence be emboldened to speak the truth in a world that is content with illusion, even threatened by the acknowledgment of reality.
This declaration all comes from Bartimaeus insisting on meeting Jesus even as those around discourage him, even try to stop him.
In their minds, he has no right to speak to the teacher. He is like little Zacchaeus the tax collector who was a collaborator with the people’s oppressor, and so, a sinner. In the case of Bartimaeus, he was seen as a sinner because of his blindness. You’ll remember another story of a blind man, where the disciples ask if his blindness from birth was caused by the man’s sin, or his parents’ sin. In the mistaken thinking of that time, to be blind was evidence to the world of one’s guilt before God. So, what presumption on the part of Bartimaeus to think he can speak with Jesus! He has a social status akin to a child, yet worse: he’s entitled to pity nothing more. Yet he persists, and Jesus comes to him.
The focus of this story really isn’t the obvious miracle of healing: the restoring of sight to Bartimaeus as a testimony to the power of faith. The miracle lies in what Bartimaeus crying out and what he cries out so that he might have Jesus come to him.
A lot of people, I’m sure, were trying to get Jesus’ attention that day, and yet Bartimaeus succeeds.
Despite his lack of physical sight, Bartimaeus perceives who Jesus is; that prompts him to make that risky public confession. He calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
“Son of David” is a telling phrase – Bartimaeus is hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the long-foretold rescuer of Israel.
As I said in a previous homily, the gospel of Mark is noted for this theme of secrecy around Jesus’ identity. Indeed, there is some uncertainty among his followers as to who Jesus is. In our tradition, when Peter made his famous confession at Caesarea Phillipi, it’s considered momentous. But now, we don’t have a disciple who’s kept company with our Lord for a lengthy time who says, “you are the Messiah” but some beggar.
The story tells us that Bartimaeus is told that “Jesus of Nazareth” is passing by.
“Jesus of Nazareth” is likely the name by which most people knew our Lord at the time. And you have to remember that the name “Jesus” was common. “Jesus” is the anglicized form of the Latin “Iesus” which comes from the Aramaic name Yeshua. In English, we render “Yeshua” as “Joshua.”
To tell one “Joshua” from another, you would add something like, “the son of …” as we read about Bartimaeus, as the son of Timaeus; or, you add where the person is from. For example, Mary Magdalene is literally the Mary who comes from the village of Magdala; and “Mary” or “Miryam” was also a common name of the time.
So, “Jesus of Nazareth” was more than adequate as a means of calling Jesus over. Shout that, and he would know you were calling to him. And yet Bartimaeus says, “Son of David.”
And just as with Peter, what Bartimaeus has seen is something that the world certainly did not show him; but is a revelation from God; and in giving voice to that revelation, sharing it by his shouting, he declares it to the world.
That declaration is dangerous.
The political situation of the time, as I’ve said previously, was not a particularly safe one for Jesus; not safe for anyone who might question the legitimacy of those who ruled the divided land of Israel: the Romans, the Herodian princes, those sons of Herod the Great who had the kingdom parcelled out to them by the Roman overlords that gave a mere semblance of autonomy to the Jewish people. For those in power, and those who served that power, any suggestion that there existed a true heir of David was seditious, treasonous, divisive, disloyal, the spreading of rumour, a destructive lie.
So, “Son of David” might have been on many peoples’ minds once they had seen Jesus, heard him speak, witnessed his miracles of healing and feeding. They might have thought, “he’s the one!” To say it was another thing.
It would have to be the least threatening sort of person to finally give it voice, the powerless one, the least in every sense: the blind beggar of no account. It is he who, even ahead of Saint Peter, tells the world who this Jesus is.
I guess the boldness of Bartimaeus comes from having nothing to lose.
Perhaps that is where we all have to get to, the point of having nothing left to lose, to be able to shout the truth of God out; to no longer be afraid of what other people will say, to no longer be afraid to stand out from the rest of the crowd and speak what everyone is thinking. To speak it, no matter how dangerous that truth is in the face of authorities who are threatened by it.
We’ve had lots of that lately. You’ll recall how reporters during the summer riots across North America would stand in front of burning buildings and say that what we were seeing were, “mostly peaceful protests.”
Oh, that we could be as bold as Bartimaeus, and not so sullenly silent as our society crumbles, our civilization corrodes; that we could shout out that here is the Saviour, the Messiah, the Logos, the truth of God, and not equivocate in the interests of so-called tolerance, not diminish the singular importance of the Christian confession for diversity’s sake; not cower before the world for fear of what authorities, political, cultural, economic, might do to put us down.
Have faith; share it, be not afraid to confess it. Speak the truth in love. Follow Jesus as Bartimaeus then did with his sight restored, follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and don’t be afraid of that destination, for it is a stop along the way to your salvation.