Mark 10:46-52New International Version (NIV)
46 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. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
In the book of Numbers we find a story about Moses leading the Israelites right up to the edge of the Promised Land. God told them this land would be theirs and that he would deliver it to them. But they had their doubts. So Moses sends twelve spies to the land to see what they can find. It turns out that this land is magnificent in many ways. It was like Texas, everything was bigger there. The grapes grew in clusters so large that it took two men to carry them. But it wasn’t just the produce that grew strangely large. The people were pretty big, too. The Israelite spies declared that when compared to the people of Canaan, the Israelites looked like grasshoppers.
At this point they lost faith in God, and this is what ultimately led them to wander in the wilderness for forty years.
Fast-forward two books of the Bible and forty years and we find one of those original spies, Joshua, has risen into a position of leadership among the Israelites and again they are given the opportunity to take the Promised Land, and they are to start with a city call Jericho.
God gives Joshua some strange instructions on how to spend the week leading up to the taking of the city. I don’t know much about military preparations, but I would expect that they would spend their time practicing their sword skills and spear throwing. Maybe some high-intensity aerobic training would help in the battle. But God tells them to take a walk. Each day of the week, for six days, they are to walk one time around the perimeter of the city. And for those six days, they are to walk around the city without speaking, but not in silence. They walk around while seven priests play seven trumpets.
This is all building up to something. On the seventh day they make not just one trip around the city, but seven. And after the seventh trip around the people were to stop, turn toward the city, and yell at it while the priests sounded their trumpets.
I’m not sure which is more surprising, that the Israelites actually did what God commanded them to do, or what happened when they did it. Because when they shouted at the walls of the city, the walls came tumbling down. We are told that the walls fell flat.
The Bible is filled with these weird things that God or Jesus tell the people to do. At one point a leader who suffers from leprosy is told that if he wants to be healed he needs to go to the Jordan River and wash himself seven times. It is only after he is washed the seventh time that he will be freed of his leprosy.
Was Naaman healed because leprosy needs seven washings to come off? And do walls only fall when you yell at them? What if the people had tried to skip a trip around and yelled at the wall after six trips? The point of these stories, as strange as they might seem, is to show the importance of faith. The water of the Jordan River and the seventh washing had nothing to do with Naaman’s healing, other than God seems to have randomly chosen that task. Yelling at the walls didn’t provide a harmonic missile that caused the walls to vibrate in such a way as to crumble to the ground. God asked the Israelites to do something out of the ordinary to see if they would be faithful.
In the New Testament we find a story about a blind man who asks Jesus to heal him, and I have no reason to doubt that Jesus could have just healed the man. He heals other people without any props or tools. But this story is as unique as it is gross. We are told in chapter 8 of Mark’s gospel, which is just two chapters earlier than our text for today, that Jesus met up with a blind man who was seeking healing. So what does Jesus do? He spits on his hand and wipes it on the man’s eyes.
Just as strange is the result of the spit smearing. The man is healed, but not all the way. When Jesus asks him if he can see, the man says he can see people, but they look like trees walking around.
This first go at things is not successful. So Jesus lays his hands on the man again and he is able to see clearly.
Why the weird healing practices, and why the little misstep in the healing of the blind man? I’ll get to all of that, but just keep it in the back of your mind for a bit. We still haven’t considered today’s passage.
This is a story that has been depicted in every Sunday school class and on every flannel graph since, well, the invention of Sunday school and flannel. This is the story of blind Bartimaeus. He calls out to Jesus, and the people try to hush him. But he just keeps calling out! This is a story of commitment. This is a story of faith. But I think that there is something that we often miss and that is that this is a story of growth.
The first thing we need to notice about Bartimaeus is that he is so nice they named him twice. In the Greek it simply says son of Timaeus Bartimaeus. Bar is the Hebrew word for son. So very literally, Bartimaeus means son of Timaeus.
Timaeus is a little more challenging because this is an Aramaic name that has two distinctly different meanings. Timaeus can mean honor or it can mean shame. You have to use context clues to figure out which is the implied meaning. And you wonder why we don’t speak these languages anymore! Bartimaeus then could mean either son of honor or son of shame.
We are not told if Bartimaeus was born blind or if he lost his sight at some point. But recall that in Jesus’ day when a child was born with a physical problem, the issue was believed to be the result of sin on the part of the parents. Jesus refutes this, but that was how people understood a child who was born blind. It was on account of the sins of a parent.
With this in mind, I would guess that when Bartimaeus’ parents named him, they named him “son of shame” because he was blind.
In verse 48 we are told that the crowds tried to quiet Bartimaeus. It is hard to say just why they wanted to keep him silent. But look at verse 47, “When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” Some have suggested that Bartimaeus was hushed because he was addressing Jesus as the “Son of David.” This was a messianic title, for sure. But when Jesus’ arrival was made known, they called him Jesus of Nazareth, a very ordinary way to address someone. It is like calling me Kevin of Staunton.
Notice who figures it out first. It is the son of Timaeus, the son of shame who recognizes the Son of David.
Another interesting thing to consider is that this is the second story about healing a blind man that Mark tells from chapter 8 through chapter 10. To the best of my knowledge, nobody else tells these stories in the same way.
It is no secret that the writers of the gospels tell the story of Jesus in slightly different ways. This isn’t to say that one is right and the others are wrong, but that the writers were trying to reach a certain group and make a certain point.
If I asked you what you did on Friday, you might tell me that you went to work and then came home and played soccer with your children before helping make a wonderful supper of homemade pizza, followed with a big bowl of ice cream. Afterwards you spent time doing some devotional readings with your children before putting them to bed. If your boss asked you what you did on Friday you would tell him that you started by making coffee before filing the TPS reports and collating the documents intended for the Johnson meeting. You had a business lunch with a sales rep from the firm, and returned to the office by 1:30, where you logged data and filled out an employee review for your secretary. You called it a day at 5:30 and went home to your family.
Which account of your day was correct? Probably neither, I’m making this up as I go! But my point is that when I ask you about your day, you are going to tell the story differently because you want to emphasize the things that you think are important to me. When your boss asks, you want to emphasize the things that are important to her. You want her to think that you are being productive!
The writers of the gospels do the same thing. They not only tell the story, they tell the story in a particular way for a reason. When we look at why the writers wrote in such a way we call this “redaction criticism,” redaction just being a fancy word for editing.
So I come back to the question that I asked a few minutes ago. Why did Mark tell these two stories so close together? Let’s also consider why Jesus’ first attempt at healing a blind man didn’t take.
The stories that we find in Mark chapters 8 through 10 work together to form a metaphor on the nature of discipleship. This metaphor starts out with a critique and then moves to praise and understanding. In this section we find the disciples wrestling with Jesus’ identity. Three times he talks about how he will need to suffer and die and three times they seem to not get it.
The story of Jesus’ attempt to heal the blind man serves as a metaphor for their comprehension. Jesus presents himself to them as the savior of the world, but they just don’t quite seem him clearly. So after the story of the healing of the blind man where the man couldn’t quite see clearly at first, we have Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter seems to get it! He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” It seems as if Peter’s eyes have been opened and he now sees! But does he see clearly? No, much like the man Jesus healed just verses before, Peter sees, but he does not see well. When Jesus describes the events that are to come in the next verses, Peter says that he will never allow that to happen. And of course we get that classic response from Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!”
The confusion continues as Mark tells the story of the Transfiguration, where Peter wants to build three houses on the mountaintop, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The disciples see, but not clearly. Moving forward Jesus again talks about his death and resurrection, and then power and greatness. Did the disciples understand? Obviously not, because guess what he talks about again in the next chapter. His death and resurrection and then power and greatness.
Do the disciples see Jesus? Do they understand his nature, his messianic role, and their role as his followers? No, not entirely. They see, but they do not see clearly. Like the story of the man Jesus needed to heal twice, in Mark’s gospel there is clearly multiple levels of “seeing.” The disciples see Jesus and understand his role at a very basic level, but something better is possible.
So finally we come to our story about blind Bartimaeus, this son of shame. This is the last story in Mark’s gospel before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so it marks the end of this series of stories of the disciples seeing Jesus, but not really seeing him. And the irony of this story is that it is the blind man, the son of shame, who recognizes Jesus as the Son of David.
I’m not sure that Mark intended this last bit of information that I want to throw out to you, but I still find it interesting. This story starts off in verse 46, “Then they came to Jericho…” We then pick back up in verse 47, “When [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”
The last time the Bible mentions someone shouting in Jericho, the walls fell down.
While I don’t think Mark intended to mix these metaphors, I do think that there is something beautiful to be found here. The disciples could see Jesus, but not really. They saw the Jesus that they wanted to see. They saw the Jesus that they thought would be their powerful, earthly king who would kick the Romans out on their backsides and restore Jerusalem. It was only when the blind man shouted that they began to see. It was only when the son of shame yelled out to the Son of David the walls began to tumble and fall. And from there, they went to Jerusalem, where Jesus would show the world what kind of messiah he truly is.
I believe that I see Jesus better today than I did a few years ago, and I hope that you do, too. And the further back in my memory I go the more I can see how I have come to what I believe to be a better understanding of who Jesus is. My childhood concept of Jesus wasn’t the same as my young-adult concept of Jesus, which is different from my middle-thirties, father-of-two understanding of Jesus.
One of the most beloved songs of the Christian faith has to be Amazing Grace. I am struck by the words that we sing, I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see.
I do not claim to see Jesus perfectly, but I think I see Jesus better. When we look at the lives of the disciples, we can tend to be pretty critical of how slow they are to recognize Jesus and understand his mission. But in all honest, I’m often more like the disciples than I am like Jesus.
Jesus does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But that doesn’t mean that our understanding cannot grow. I want to encourage us all to continue to do the things that lead us to growth. Prayer, study, meditation, and spending time in Christian community are all great practices. Mind a spiritual mentor, be a spiritual mentor. And together yell at the walls that act as a boundary between you and Jesus.
But don’t be surprised if you are called to do something weird in your growth process. Some men are called to wash in the Jordan while others get spit on. What matters is that we stay persistent in our pursuit of Jesus, even when the crowds try to hush us.