Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Bartimaeus is the paragon of faith in Mark’s Gospel, which makes it more than mildly ironic that some churches will skip his story to read something else for Reformation Day.

October 25, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 10:46-52

Bartimaeus is the paragon of faith in Mark’s Gospel, which makes it more than mildly ironic that some churches will skip his story to read something else for Reformation Day.

Don’t feel bad for Bartimaeus, though; he already knows how to deal with people who try to silence him. His persistence adds substance to his bold expression of “faith alone.”

The Active Faith of Bartimaeus
In the final verse, Jesus names faith as what impels Bartimaeus. The rest of the story shows us what that faith is. Bartimaeus’s faith is not about reciting the correct confession or subscribing to certain dogmas. It is his unrelenting conviction that Jesus can and will rescue him from his need. We see this faith in what Bartimaeus does:

  • He grasps who Jesus is. No one else so far in Mark has been able to perceive so much about Jesus from so little data. The title Bartimaeus uses, Son of David, appears only here in Mark, therefore we cannot say too much about exactly what it expresses about Jesus. Elsewhere (12:35-37) Jesus adds nuance to his connection to David (or his differentiation from David) and implies his superiority over Israel’s greatest king. For Bartimaeus, the title obviously indicates that Jesus is God’s designated agent, and it introduces the notion of Jesus as a royal figure, an image that becomes very important when Jesus enters Jerusalem (11:1-10), goes on trial (15:1-15), and dies (15:16-32) as a king. Bartimaeus, despite his blindness and all its connotations of spiritual ignorance (compare 4:12; 8:18), sees the royal dimensions of Jesus’ identity. As the story progresses, we discover that Bartimaeus also discerns that Jesus is specially able to show mercy and heal.
  • He persists despite hindrances. Faith does not come easily to people in Mark; it must surmount obstacles to obtain what it seeks (see 2:4; 5:27, 35-36; 7:27; 9:18b). Others in the crowd rebuke Bartimaeus, demanding he be silent. This detail reminds us that blind beggars dwell near the bottom rung of social privilege in ancient (and contemporary) society. Do people shout Bartimaeus down because they think he deserves to be who he is? Probably. Do they put their own needs before his? Perhaps. In their ignorance about Jesus, the focus of his message, and his concern for blind beggars, their reprimand of Bartimaeus threatens to limit the range within which Jesus might dispense his compassion and grace. Bartimaeus knows better, and so he yells “even more loudly” until his words penetrate Jesus’ ears.
  • He expects a transformation. Presumably Jesus could have walked to Bartimaeus to talk with him. Instead, he tells the onlookers to summon Bartimaeus to him. Now those who sought to inhibit the beggar must assist in Jesus’ ministry to him. Then Mark adds one more delicious detail: Bartimaeus tosses aside his cloak. Obviously he expects to regain his sight, for a blind beggar would ordinarily do well to keep his possessions close at hand. He obviously expects a change in his status. His health problem (blindness) and his economic problem (begging) are a single piece of fabric. As with other healings (5:1-20, 25-34), Jesus can restore Bartimaeus to a place of wholeness that will demand his belonging within society. When Bartimaeus casts off his cloak, he confidently prefigures that he will no longer sit on his garment dependent upon handouts from passersby.
  • He asks for the right thing. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?,” his reply is a simple request voiced with the confidence that Jesus can deliver. “That I would see again,” declares resolutely that Jesus can bring the wholeness and deliverance that people seek. In this confidence and simplicity, what Bartimaeus says is fully consistent with the expressions of faith others have made in Mark. Also, when we consider that Jesus’ question repeats what he asked James and John in last week’s Gospel lection (10:36), we note that Bartimaeus seeks no special privileges. This reiterates that Jesus has not come to bestow power and honor but to open eyes to the new spiritual, social, and material realities made possible when God reigns. When it comes to understanding what Jesus has come to do, the disciples James and John are more “blind” than Bartimaeus.

Following Jesus on the Way
The spatial dimensions of this story contribute to our understanding of Bartimaeus’ salvation (note that in 10:52 Jesus literally says, “Your faith has saved you”). Bartimaeus begins the story alongside (para) the road. He ends the story as a follower (compare 8:34). He follows Jesus on (en) the road. The shift of prepositions reflects Bartimaeus’ move from the invisible periphery of society to the heart of the scene. The movement also suggests more when we consider that “road” (or “way”) is a term Mark uses to indicate Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his suffering, the same “way” that he calls his followers to walk (see 8:27; 10:32; 11:8; compare 1:2-3).

In Mark, Bartimaeus is not the first person seeking a miracle who approaches Jesus in faith, but he is the only one who winds up following him, presumably straight into Jerusalem and into his confrontation with the temple-based aristocracy. After ten chapters full of so much secrecy, confusion, and misapprehension, Bartimaeus shows Mark’s readers that faith in Jesus remains possible and potent. Without Bartimaeus, and others in Mark like him who tenaciously cling to Jesus out of faith born from their urgent needs, this Gospel would offer little assurance that anyone could have the spiritual insight to perceive the mysterious ways of God in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Concluding Suggestions
Healing stories, especially those that call attention to a sufferer’s faith, can present difficulties for preachers. There are obvious dangers in drawing simplistic connections between faith and health. Likewise, we must reject suggestions that illness results from one’s sins. Sensitive preachers will avoid chastising (even indirectly) the broken and despised for their lack of faith. Preachers cannot promise cures; they promise what Jesus promises on the “way” that leads to the cross. Nevertheless, congregations can in their community, practices, advocacy, and architecture imperfectly embody and proclaim the wholeness to which Jesus restores Bartimaeus.

Those difficulties, however, cannot allow us to shy away from the images of faith that Bartimaeus provides or to avoid considering how faith clings to Jesus no matter what. Among other things, this story invites us to consider how faith is manifested, nurtured, and stunted within communities.

Mark’s narrative compels us to consider the various roles characters play in this scene, and also the various situations in and around our congregational and communal life: Bartimaeus with his needs and prophetic insights, Jesus with his compassion and grace, the crowd with its determination to keep Bartimaeus both blind and invisible, and others with the opportunity to guide him to Jesus with the hopeful words, “Take courage; get up; he’s calling you!”