In Mark’s account of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, two disciples, brothers James and John come to Jesus with a request. Jesus says:
‘What do you want me to do for you?’
It turns out their request is do with securing their own prestige and status. This then triggers a wider argument among the other disciples. Jesus gathers them together and explains his radical inversion of greatness:
‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
Immediately afterwards Jesus encounters Bartimaeus, an impoverished blind man begging on the Jericho roadside.
It is easy to assume this is just a straight-forward healing story, but the brief narrative includes many details which illustrate the empowerment of someone at the very margins of society.
1. Hearing the voice of marginalised people
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. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus is an impoverished, disabled beggar. And yet, he is the first to call Jesus ‘Son of David’. He recognises theological truth that others haven’t: that Jesus is in the lineage of Israel’s great king. In contrast with his disciples, ‘blinded’ by ambition and insecurity, Bartimaeus ‘sees’ more clearly than those closest to Jesus.
This illustrates a truth I continually see in discussions about homelessness and recovery, where the best contributions come from those with direct, lived experience. The best talks I have given have been together with Chris Ward, my friend who slept rough for over 3 years. The voice of those with genuine experience has a raw truth and honesty that needs to be heard.
2. Resisting the silencers
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowd may have tolerated Bartimaeus’s begging but they did not like his loud, theologically referenced self-advocacy. Perhaps they found it embarrassing that someone with such obvious needs was making a scene in front of the celebrity preacher.
Which voices do we side-line or silence in church or at events? Are we more concerned to keep a sense of order and respectability, rather than hear the voices of pain and cries for mercy?
3. Letting go of what you depend on
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
Jesus hears Bartimaeus and tells those silencing him to call him. The crowd’s attitude immediately flips, they tell him to be cheer up and stand up.
Bartimaeus needs no second invitation. Like the fisherman who left their nets, he leaves his sole source of income by throwing his begging cloak aside. This small detail illustrates radical trust.
Like the poor widow in the temple, Bartimaeus gives all that he has. Its a deep challenge to those of us who prefer comfortable Christianity which makes few demands of us.
4. Asking what people want
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
Jesus does not assume to know what Bartimaeus wants. He asks him a question, using exactly the same words that he spoke to James and John. Jesus gives a dignity and respect that someone begging was probably not used to. He gives an opportunity for Bartimaeus to verbalise the faith he has, his belief that a restoration of sight is even possible.
In the enthusiasm for social action and helping others, we must uphold the dignity and respect of those we seek to help. We need to ask people what they want, and take seriously their dreams and desires.
We must not make people into passive recipients of our charity. People are rarely transformed by what they simply receive but rather what they contribute to and participate in.
5. The faith that heals
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ sight but what does he say has enabled the healing? His faith. It is Bartimaeus’ conviction and boldness in God which made this happen. The healing is not simply ‘done to’ Bartimaeus. He is no passive recipient but an agent of his own transformation. The kingdom of God is within him.
Most of us like to claim credit for things which goes well. Jesus is the direct opposite. He gives away the success of this healing and credits Bartimaeus’ strength of belief. As well as healed, Bartimaeus is affirmed and empowered.
The consequence is a transformed life. From sitting on the roadside, he now joins those following the ‘Son of David’ on his way to Jerusalem. The journey which will ultimately lead to his death on the cross…and to a resurrection which will change the world forever.