February 21, 2016
The Hard, Life-Giving Way
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The question, with a very slight variation in wording, appears twice in our reading today. Once it’s addressed to James and John, who ask for something that demonstrates how very blind they are to who Jesus is and what he came to do. He has just finished saying, for the third time, that when they get to Jerusalem, things are going to get really scary and really bad. And their immediate response was to ask to sit on his right hand and his left, when he is in his glory and sitting on his eternal throne.
What part of “there isn’t going to be any glory until after there has been horrific suffering” did you not understand, boys? How long have you been following me on the way, that you still don’t see who I am and what I’m about? I’ve just told you—for the third time—what is going to happen: are you able to go through it like I’m going to go through it? I’m not even ready to drink this cup and go through this baptism; what makes you think you’ll be able to do it?
The way to Jerusalem leads through Jericho. We don’t know what they did there; maybe Jesus taught, maybe they spent the night; but the Gospel doesn’t tell us. They go through the city, and come out the other side, where they are accosted by the shouts of a beggar. That’s nothing unusual; given that there was no other way for someone who was disabled or chronically ill to earn a living, the streets going into and out of a city like Jericho were no doubt lined with beggars. But this one was different: his shouts were a statement of faith.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
In Mark, this is the only time anybody but the narrator calls Jesus by his name. And up until now, only Peter and a few demons have called Jesus by any kind of title—and they were all, Peter included, told to keep it quiet. Not this time; this time it’s the onlookers, not Jesus, who try to silence the man. Somehow the title, “Son of David,” seems right on the lips of a beggar, who’d been forced into poverty and panhandling by some kind of misfortune that left him without his sight. And somehow this blind man, who’d presumably never encountered Jesus before, saw Jesus for who he was—unlike the Twelve, who continually misunderstood.
So Jesus asks the question for the second time: “What do you want me to do for you?”
The man’s request is simple, but includes something else that indicates he has the beginnings of faith: He addresses Jesus as Rabbouni, “My teacher”—the same word with which the Magdalene addresses the risen Jesus after she is able to recognize him standing before her. “My teacher, let me see again.”
“Son of David”… “My teacher”…
And Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well”—or, because the same word can mean both, “Your faith has saved you.”
“What is it you want me to do for you?”
The sons of Zebedee presumably had normal physical sight. They could see well enough to work as fishermen alongside their father. But they were blind in the ways that really matter in the kingdom of God. They could not see that the way of Christ is a way of service, a way of rejection by the powerful, a way of suffering, sometimes. They could not see that long before Jesus entered into his glory, he was going to have to drink a cup filled with torture and death, and be baptized by three days in a borrowed grave. They were blind to the reality that if they were going to share in Jesus’ glory, they also would have to drink a cup of suffering and be baptized into Jesus’ death. They thought they could see the way ahead, and it looked level and nice, with lots of pretty scenery to enjoy; but they were looking in the wrong direction, and their expectations blinded them to what the road before them actually looked like.
Bartimaeus, on the other hand, with no physical sight to interfere, saw very clearly who was before him, and he said so. “Son of David” is not just an expression of genealogy, like I might say that my eighth-great-grandfather was Baron Christopher de Graffenried, the founder of the town of New Bern, North Carolina. Having a Swiss baron in my family tree doesn’t earn me any points in the here and now; but when Bartimaeus called Jesus “Son of David,” he was doing more than just saying he had a king in his family tree.
The Jewish people had come to expect that a “Son of David,” someone from David’s lineage, who was like David, was going to return to the throne from which David ruled, overthrow the Roman Empire, and bring the Kingdom of God into full realization on earth forever. The “Son of David” was the Messiah, the Christ.
Well, Peter knew that, and the demons knew that; but this blind man was the first and only human being outside Jesus’ inner circle who saw Jesus for who he was. And, without ever having seen him before, Bartimaeus was prepared to call Jesus “my teacher.”
So Jesus asked him the eternal question: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Let me see again.”
And Jesus’ reply was, “By faith you already see more clearly than many others.” And Bartimaeus gets up, receives his physical sight, and becomes a disciple of Jesus.
No going home to think it over, to see one more time his hometown, the creek behind his house where he used to play, the park where he used to walk with his girlfriend, the shop where he worked before he lost his sight—immediately he gets up and follows Jesus.
The sons of Zebedee seem still, at this late hour, only a few miles from Jerusalem, to have seen the way of Christ as a way to gain power and prestige. “When you sit on your throne of glory, let us have thrones, too—oh, not as big as yours, of course, but only a little smaller, please—one on your right and one on your left.”
They could not—would not—see that the way ahead led into a gathering storm. They were blind to the reality that Jesus came not to rule but to serve, not to lord it over the world but to give his life to redeem it.
The Way of Christ, which Bartimaeus chose to follow, was a hard way. It was a way of suffering; a way of rejection, possibly; a hard way—but Bartimaeus followed, because he could see that it was also the only way that leads to life.
 One word tells us that Bartimaeus had lost his sight at some point, and had not been born blind: his request to Jesus is, “Let me see again.”
 I am Not Making This Up, as Dave Barry used to say.