Today’s readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9 Psalm 126 Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:46-52
Bartimaeus sat by the road near the city of Jericho. Sighted friends nearby told him that Jesus, the amazing miracle-worker was passing by. We don’t know exactly what Bartimaeus had heard, but he called out, “Jesus, Son of David.” Commentators note that until this moment, Jesus had shut down every attempt to publicly name him as the Messiah. In this instance, Jesus responded instead with by inviting Bartimaeus to come near.
The story of Bartimaeus follows a period during which Jesus made repeated attempts to explain to his disciples who he was, but they seemed oblivious to the truth. Astoundingly, as Jesus comes near to a blind man outside Jericho, the blind man sees what the disciples are unable to see. Bartimaeus sees the Messiah. Jews knew that the Messiah would be the Suffering Servant, but the disciples could not accept that idea. They are the truly blind characters in this story.
As friends assisted Bartimaeus to make his way toward Jesus, Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” This question echoes the question he asked James and John, the disciples who were so blinded by personal ambition that they could not see the truth about the Messiah. Their answer was self-serving in the extreme; they wanted the best seats in the coming kingdom where they expected Christ to reign. They didn’t realize that Jesus would initiate his reign on the cross. They were so blind that they confused political power and prestige with Christ’s purpose on earth.
Bartimaeus, who had already testified in his outcry as Jesus approached that Jesus was the promised Messiah, simply asked that his physical eyes might be healed The last blind person Jesus had healed had a very different experience from Bartimaeus. That person had been led out of the crowd to a private place. Jesus put spit on that man’s eyes. It took two actual touches from Christ to restore that man’s sight. Not so for Bartimaeus, because Bartimaeus already believed that Jesus was the Christ, God come down to earth. Jesus simply said, “Your faith has made you well,” and Bartimaeus immediately regained his sight.
The last blind person before Bartimaeus had been directed to go home and be still about his healing. Not so for Bartimaeus. This man may have been physically blind before the miracle that restored his sight, but he clearly saw Jesus for who he really was. Jesus did not send him back to the side of the road. The Bible says that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way.
Bartimaeus saw something in Christ that the disciples had yet to learn. When he asked Jesus for mercy, his request showed that he recognized that he needed mercy, as a sinner, more than he needed to be able to see. It was a lesson the disciples had not yet figured out. When Bartimaeus received his physical sight, he didn’t waste that blessing by going around as the local celebrity talking non-stop about himself and that great miracle moment when his sight returned. Instead, he abandoned all that he knew and followed Jesus on the road to the cross, the destination the disciples still could not see ahead of them.
The disciples still wanted to know what their discipleship was going to bring them. When Jesus had talked about how hard it would be for rich people to get into heaven, Peter got very excited and reminded Jesus, as if Jesus did not know, that the disciples had left everything behind for him. “Look here, Jesus,” Peter said, “You don’t have to give us fits about this. We already left everything for you.” And when Jesus told them, over and over, that his destiny would be suffering, rejection, betrayal, scorn, torture and murder, followed by resurrection, they simply could not take it in. They were walking around in the midst of crowds that pushed in toward Jesus so close they could hardly breathe. When they stopped anywhere the crowds continued. There was hardly time to eat or sleep. Jesus was a big celebrity. How could they possibly absorb his warning about arrest and murder in the future? They could not see that Jesus was telling the truth about his fate, and they had no idea that his fate would be theirs as well.
Contemporary American Christians are just as oblivious to this truth as the disciples were. Surrounded by a culture shaped by First Amendment protections, we do not really know what it means to suffer as Jesus suffered, to be rejected as he was rejected, to be betrayed and tortured and executed as Christ was. We think that if we respond to social snubs with grace, we are being faithful disciples.
In fifty countries around the world, Christians suffer every day in ways that would be unthinkable in the USA. In Belarus, for example, no religious group with less than twenty members is allowed to meet. Every religious group that meets the membership requirements must be registered with the state, and any group not affiliated with the Orthodox Church has great difficulty getting the required registration. Two churches were raided by the government in 2011 because they were unregistered, and a court determined that the government has a right to raid unregistered places of worship. Religious leaders of any denomination are subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Government restrictions on freedom of speech and press, right of assembly and religion remain unchanged since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Christians in the USA are blessed not to be faced with such restrictions at this time.
The real challenge for Christians in the USA is to remember that a call to discipleship is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, a “call to come and die.” Jesus said that the only way to follow him was to deny self, take up your cross, and go where he went. His destination when he spoke those words was Golgotha – the cross. In the USA it is easy to start thinking that being a Christian is about attending worship on Sunday and saying, “Merry Christmas” in December instead of “Happy Holidays.” Jesus said the price of our faith is steeper than that. We think we become Christians in order to go to heaven, but Jesus said we become Christians in order to carry our own cross with us everywhere.
What’s the point? Bringing everyone into the kingdom of heaven. We don’t follow Christ in order to get grades or points or prestige or position. We follow him so we can do what he did: invite people into the kingdom. That was his response to Bartimaeus’ request for help: Come on into my kingdom. That is our response to people, too: Come on into Christ’s kingdom. The Secret Believers’ newsletter today said it very well.
If we want to see people reached for Jesus, to see the Gospel transform lives, there is a price that must be paid. The price: we must give up our rights. We must live sacramentally. We must die to ourselves so that Christ can live through us. ( © 2010 Secret Believers is a ministry of Open Doors International) This is the way we follow Christ all the way to the cross.