Because You Asked…”The Story of Bartimaeus”

The following is part of Mother Liz’ sermon on Sunday, October 25. Several people have asked for us to reprint the story. The audio of her sermon can be found here.
Mother Liz & PJ

Mark 10:46-52: The Story of Bartimaeus
He huddles at the edge of the road near the city gates. He has been there for awhile and, as other squatters have left, he has been able to inch his way closer to the gates so that now he is one of the first of the poor that the crowds will pass. For he has learned that location matters; people leaving the city after a day of shopping are more generous with the first people they encounter at the edge of the road. But there are so many poor that wait, their eyes pleading for generosity, that after awhile, those who were so liberal at the beginning get tired of dropping coins and start to walk rapidly past, with their eyes averted or in forced deep conversation with their traveling companions. And he has done better since he moved closer to the gate.
            It is a morning in spring and there is still dampness in the air. The cloak he found when he was scavenging near the dump has kept him warm through the winter months. And it is drawn tightly around him as the sun peeks over the horizon. He tells time by sound. For he has learned there is a sound to morning and a sound to night. And he can hear the stirring of others around him as they slowly awake, dragging out their battered coin containers. It’s not a regular market day, so he is not expecting too many coins. He decides to stay wrapped in the cloak a little longer. Soon, he will spread the cloak on the ground, taking care to smooth out wrinkles and folds so that he will not miss the feel of the coins when they drop. For even in their lightness, he can feel it when they land on the cloak. It was much harder before, when he tried to hear where the coin landed on the ground. For the ground is rough and uneven and often, the coin would roll without further sound and he was never able to find it. And he is sure that there were many coins meant for him that were pilfered by one of his neighbors. With the cloak, he now has clear boundaries for his territory and there can be no mistake that when a coin lands on the cloak, it is for him.
            The stirring of the people around him indicate that there must be a group exiting the city. And kneeling, he scrambles to lay out the cloak, using both hands to smooth it flat. For through the vibrations in the ground and the level of the voices, he can tell that it is a fairly large group. And he sits back on his haunches and waits for the crowd to arrive. Fleetingly, he thinks about his blindness. He is not sure where the thought has come from; it has been so long since he became blind that he rarely thinks of how life was before. He never could understand what he did to earn his affliction. At first, he really missed being able to see, but he has adjusted, and it has been such a long time. He is luckier than most; he is able to see in his mind the pictures that others describe for him.
            And there is a commotion as the other beggars cry out to the approaching group for alms. The air has changed; it seems to shimmer. For something unique is happening with this crowd of people, but he doesn’t know what it is. The woman across the road begins to plead for mercy instead of alms, and others take up her cry. And he begins to hear a name, repeated over and over: Jesus – Jesus – Jesus. And he is afraid and scrambles to the edge of the cloak, away from the road. Perhaps there is someone in the crowd who is rich and is being generous with his coins. But he fears a stampede and is torn between staying where he is to share in the generosity of the stranger and being ready to scramble for safety. He decides to stay low to the ground, so that if the situation becomes dangerous, he can crawl away from the commotion and avoid injury. The old man who sits to his right says that the crowd is following someone named Jesus of Nazareth. And on hearing the name, there is a reaction throughout his entire body that he cannot describe. It is like being on fire and being cold at the same time. The surface of his skin tingles; there is tightness in his belly; it’s how he feels when he’s really scared, but oddly, he senses that he is no longer frightened. And the air that was shimmering now seems to thicken about him; it lies on his skin, cooling the beads of sweat that have formed there.
            He cannot explain why, but he opens his mouth to take up the cry of “Jesus”. “Jesus, Son of David”, he screams, “Have mercy on me.” And he is surprised at his words. He does not know where they come from, but he is aware of their significance, as is the crowd. For he has labeled this man whom he cannot see with a title reserved for the Messiah. And the crowd, tolerant of the cries of others, turns towards him and angrily tells him to be quiet. But it’s too late; something within h[i]as become unleashed and in his deepest being, he knows that getting this man’s attention is critical.   And his desperation rises as he cries out more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
            The tone of the crowd changes. And the old man next to him says, “He heard you – he’s calling for you.”
He leaves his cloak behind as the people guide him with their voices. For they cannot touch him without risking impurity, but the teacher has asked to see him so they are encouraging. Almost orchestrated, they open a path for him to walk and then close ranks again after he passes. He feels that he does not need their verbal directions. And he walks as if there is someone gently pulling him along.
When he is three feet away from Jesus, he stops. On one level he senses the closeness of the crowd, but at a deeper level, he is aware only of the man standing in front of him. And he remembers the stories about the encounters between God and the prophets of old. He does not understand why but he senses he is in the presence of the holy.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
It is a soft voice; there is peace that is transmitted to his soul. And there is no urgency, in fact, time seems somehow suspended. He expects judgment but feels, what? He cannot describe it, but he is not afraid. Is it too much to ask? For there was a time before when he went to synagogue, when he listened to the reading of the scriptures. And he knows that the prophets were able to do many amazing things, but he cannot remember ever hearing about healing of blindness. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve mercy, but…
“My teacher, let me see again.” There – he said it. Once uttered, the words seem to fill up the entire space between the two men. And he waits but is unaware of time passing. He is not anxious.
Quietly comes the response: “Go, your faith has made you well.”
The Presence he could only feel before now fills up his vision. And he risks closing his eyes and then slowly opens them. The light from the morning sun is very soft and the air shimmers. He blinks quickly but does not wipe away the tears that slowly spill over to his cheeks. And he looks into the face of God. And smiles.

[1] The style of this reflection is storytelling, in keeping with the genre of Mark.  While use of evocative language to paint the picture was a goal, the rather plain language of the text was also designed to complement was has been described as Mark’s use of “rough” Greek.  As the name Bartimaeus is not really a name, but a description, the man in this story also nameless.  While this author is not talented enough to incorporate many characteristics of Mark’s writing style, the recounting of the story in the present tense and the frequent use of “and” and “for” is intentional.

[i] Elizabeth Hendrick ©2007  For audio of the full sermon, click here.



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