They came to Jericho. As Jesus, his disciples and a substantial crowd were leaving the town, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road. When he heard it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out: ‘Son of David! Jesus! Take pity on me!’ Lots of people told him crossly to be quiet. But he shouted out all the louder, ‘Son of David – take pity on me!’ Jesus came to a stop. ‘Call him,’ he said. So they called the blind man. ‘Cheer up,’ they said, ‘and get up. He’s calling you.’ He flung his cloak aside, jumped up, and came to Jesus. Jesus saw him coming. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. ‘Teacher,’ the blind man said, ‘let me see again.’ ‘Off you go,’ said Jesus. ‘Your faith has saved you.’ And immediately he saw again, and he followed him on the way.
One of the best sermons I have heard for a long time was an exposition of this passage. It took the theme of the blind man’s cloak. The cloak, the preacher pointed out, was the man’s security. Shade in summer, warmth in winter, it functioned as the outer shell, like a small tent, in which the few possessions the man had could be kept in such relative security as a blind man could expect.
All the more startling, then, that when they told Bartimaeus that Jesus was calling him, ‘he flung his cloak aside’, jumped up, and came to Jesus. This stands (so the preacher pointed out) as a signpost to all of us. It takes time, perhaps, for us to acquire enough self-knowledge to see what the ‘cloak’ is in which we sit, huddled but relatively secure. There may be many things, not just possessions (though those are likely to be high on our lists), which function for us as the cloak functioned for the blind man. And when Jesus calls, the sign that we are ready to do business with him is that we fling it aside. ‘It’s time to shed the cloak,’ the preacher repeated.
But there is another dimension to this story, which we do equally well to ponder as we consider it – as Mark undoubtedly intended us to consider it – as a sharp-edged example of what it’s like for all of us as we hear Jesus’ call and decide what to do about it. The story has a familiar shape. It begins with an obvious need: here is a blind beggar, asking for money as they did and still do. ‘Take pity on me,’ is a normal way of saying ‘Spare me some small change’. ‘Have pity on a blind man!’ ‘Show me some kindness!’ He must have called out those appeals a thousand times, perhaps ten thousand times, a day. A constant litany, only ending when he made his way home, each night, with such coins as generous passers-by had given him.
This time, we must assume, it started out no differently. He’d heard that Jesus was coming; well, ‘Son of David’, eh? That sounds royal, and where there’s royalty there’s money. Let’s hope for a good day today! ‘Son of David – take pity on me!’
What did he expect? That Jesus would tell his money-man to go over and give him something? Perhaps. But Jesus has just told another man that money isn’t where it’s at. Is that really going to be his response?
Freeze the frame there and come into it yourself. When you get a sense, today, that Jesus is coming by your way, what are you going to ask him for? What are you hoping he’ll do for you? What are the normal requests that will bubble up out of your immediate world, the pressures of your life? Money? A better home? Friendship? The repairing of some relation-ship that’s gone horribly wrong? Success in an exam, or an interview? A good job? All sorts of things, no doubt.
But then comes the moment. How easy for Jesus, with pressures of every sort, crowds all round, and knowing what is waiting for him when they leave Jericho and climb the long hill to Jerusalem – how easy for Jesus to deal quickly with this man, and pass on to ‘more important’ things. But there are no unimportant people in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells them to call him. Bartimaeus flings off the cloak and comes to him.
Then, at last, the crucial moment – for Bartimaeus, and for us, too. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ If I were a movie director, I would freeze the frame again at this point, and allow the question to echo as though down a deep well, with pictures flitting to and fro in the man’s mind. What do you want, really want, me to do?
We might think: well, of course he’ll want to be able to see again. But will he? To see again would mean that his livelihood, such as it was, would be gone. No more begging. To ask for his sight would mean not only having the faith that Jesus could and would do it. It would mean having the faith that he could set off on a whole new life, a life set free by Jesus from the prison where it had been kept, but free to do . . . what? A new, strange, dangerous world opened up. How easy for him to back down, to say, ‘Teacher, I need money.’ Play safe. Don’t be extreme, don’t build your hopes up. You can feel the voices in his head as Jesus’ question echoes around, bounces off the walls of his mind.
No. Say it. Now or never. We’ve already shed the cloak, now let’s go for the big one. ‘Teacher, let me see again.’ And the dark, deep well with its imaginary pictures turns inside out, and there is the sunlight, and the trees, and people all around, and the cloak lying in a heap across the street, and Jesus standing there, smiling and reaching out his hand, and the people cheering and waving and coming up to congratulate him . . .
‘Off you go,’ said Jesus. ‘Your faith has saved you.’ Yes, and that faith is going to be what will continue to save you, because you’re going on a journey. Healing isn’t the end of the story. It’s the start of a new story, the opening up of a new world. Bartimaeus follows Jesus, says Mark, on the way: well, of course he would. ‘The way’ is one of the slogans the early Christians used for their new movement. Bartimaeus was already on it. Once you really tell Jesus what you really want, and once he really does it for you, you don’t have much choice.
Help us, loving Lord, to be absolutely clear with you about our deepest needs, and to trust you to lead us on from there wherever you want.