Steve Shoemaker: Jesus and Blind Bartimaeus: The Gospel as Healing

This story is drenched in joy. It is a cameo of Jesus’ healing ministry, the gospel in a glance. Let’s slow it down and take a look at it again.

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem and the last days of Jesus’ life. The crowd following him grew larger the closer they got to the city of David. Jesus had come to Jericho, a town about fifteen miles from Jerusalem. As he was leaving the city by the road to Jerusalem, he was flanked by the disciples and a “great multitude,” the text says. No wonder the authorities would be threatened as they accompanied him into Jerusalem.

By the side of the road sat a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. He must have heard by the buzz of the crowd who it was about to pass by. The man began to cry, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” This man’s cry is the basis of the most famous prayer in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is to be prayed all through the day until it becomes as the beating of one’s heart. The man’s cry is echoed in the Kyrie sung by millions of Christians every Sunday: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

The crowd, however, had no interest in this man’s need. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” the text says. “Shut up.” Had they grown tired of the man’s incessant neediness? Had they grown blind to him? We know what it is to become blind to the poor around us. We turn our eyes. Then one breaks through our trained obliviousness with their hand out. “Go away.”

At one of my churches, in center-city Ft. Worth, we held an Agape Meal, a family-style meal every Thursday for the homeless community of Ft. Worth. They came, 150 or 200 of them every Thursday at 5:30, walking from north and south and east and west to join in the meal and the worship. The local development corporation expressed their disapproval of our assembling such a large gathering of homeless folk in the area of the city they were trying to develop. Sometimes we do not want the cry of the poor at our doorstep.

Undeterred by the crowd’s shushing of him, the blind man cried out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” I remember the signs the Memphis garbage workers on strike wore in those days before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. “I AM A MAN,” they said. Today signs say, “Black Lives Matter.” As we shall see, Sick Lives Matter, too!

The story turns with the next three words, “Jesus stood still.” He was headed somewhere, to his appointment with the powers that be in Jerusalem, but he stopped. When Moses passed by the burning bush in the desert, he could have kept right on going, but the text says that he “turned aside” (Exodus 3:3) to see what was going on. And out of that burning bush, God called Moses to free the Hebrew people from Pharaoh. Sometimes we need to stop, pay attention to what is going on around us. Jesus stood still, Moses turned aside, life was changed.

Then Jesus moved into action. “Call him,” he said to disciples. The disciples did and said to the man words which thrill me because they are at the heart of the Church’s evangelical message, “Rise, take heart, he is calling you!” (Mark 10:49, RSV) What more joyful words can we, the Church, say to a person? What gladness is in these words, “Rise, take heart, he is calling you.” And what hope is in these words.

Our evangelical mission, the mission of the good news of God in Christ, comes in those words, “Rise, take heart, he is calling you.” We are bringing people into the vicinity of Jesus where healing can happen, like the four friends who hauled their paralyzed friend on a cot to see Jesus.

The blind man heard the words, threw off his cloak, sprang up, the text says, and came to Jesus. Was he guided by the hand? None of us come to Jesus alone - we are helped. Did he, blind, follow the sound of Jesus’ voice to Jesus? As we all, blind ourselves in our own ways, follow the sound of his voice to him. A prayer of illumination before the sermon which I love goes this way:

Send your Spirit, O God, that we may hear your word

and hearing your word, love your voice

and loving your voice, do your will.

We come to Christ because hearing his word, we love his voice.

When the man got to Jesus, Jesus asked a simple but disarming question - a question which calls for the deepest response we know to give: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. We need to claim our need. Blessed are we who know our deepest need and have the courage to speak it.

It would be a compelling spiritual exercise for us to imagine Jesus coming to us and asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” It is a tender and vulnerable question. Be still with the question for a little while. How would you answer?

It’s a great question for every church to consider. What if Jesus showed up at your church’s door and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” If a church took time to answer that question, it might change a church. What do you want Jesus to do for your church that only Jesus can do?

The man had been begging - for alms, for food, for anything which might sustain him for another day. Yet he knew his deepest need, and he went for broke - my eyes, Lord, my eyes. “Master, let me see again” (Mark 10:51). O Thou who did make our eyes, mend them now.

Then Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And the man “immediately” regained his sight and “followed Jesus on the way,” the text says. Some whom Jesus healed, he told to go back to their homes. Jesus said to this man, “Go your way.” But this man followed Jesus on his way, and the way led to Jerusalem where Jesus would enter triumphantly on a lowly donkey, turn over tables in the temple, be arrested, tried, nailed to a cross, and die. And now seeing, the man followed Jesus - again going for broke.

This story, which ends Jesus’ healing ministry, is about how we, all blind in our own ways, can see again. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said to the man. We may worry, “Do I have enough faith?” Jesus calms our anxiety. If you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, he said, it will be enough (Matthew 17:20). That tiny. All we need to do is crack the door. Sometimes Jesus’ very presence cracks the door. Rise, take heart, he is calling you.

We, all of us, are blind; there are so many things we aren’t seeing quite right. How blinkered our lives are. We pray with Paul, “Enlighten the eyes of our hearts!” (See Ephesians 1:18) Jesus is opening our eyes, saving us to a fuller, truer way of living. Charles Wesley captures the gladness of moments when this happens:

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise ye dumb,

your loosened tongues employ;

Ye blind, behold your Savior come,

and leap ye lame for joy.

Our Savior comes still.