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Only the blind can see!
At first sight the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus at Jericho [Mark 10:46-52] is just like the other miracle stories. There was a crowd with Jesus as he travelled; a person in great need managed to attract attention in spite of the attitude of those around Jesus; he met Jesus who encouraged him, granted his wish and commended him for him his faith.
There is even a similar account of a blind man who begged Jesus to help him recover his sight just two chapters earlier [Mark 8:22-26]. A clue to the significance that these stories had for Mark is the way he tells them both immediately before the central question of the gospel is addressed. That central question was, 'Who is this man Jesus?' Can you see who he is? Can you really see? Can you see even as much as a blind man can see?
What did Bartimaeus see in Jesus? There a clue in what he called Jesus. What did he call out to him?
To call Jesus 'Son of David' was to recognize him as the Messiah. It is no accident that this is the last event Mark reports before the entry to Jerusalem when the crowd were shouting,
The crowd would have had a limited understanding of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. Just how limited their understanding was would be revealed by the end of the week, but it was probably no more wrong than Peter's idea when he made the first confession of faith, "You are the Messiah". That happened on the road to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am?' It is included in Mark's gospel immediately after the other story of the healing of a blind man. On that occasion, as soon as Peter had said he was the Messiah, Jesus began to teach them that he would be rejected and killed. Peter would not hear of it and Jesus rebuked him saying that he thought in human not divine terms [Mark 8: 27-33]. So too, those who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem would have to revise their understanding of the kind of kingdom that Jesus the Messiah would bring. At least they did recognize him as the Messiah. They did see, however dimly, who he was. They saw dimly like the other blind man who, after Jesus touched him the first time, said he could see people but they were like trees walking. It was only when Jesus touched him again that he could see clearly. [Mark 8:24-25]. How many times do people have to be touched by Jesus before they can see clearly?
The miracle stories of the blind men seeing are signs of who Jesus was; and they are also parables of seeing with the eyes of faith, perhaps dimly at first and in need of correction, but nevertheless focussed on the source of life and light. That is such a contrast with the limited perception of those around Jesus at the time.
The healing of Bartimaeus at Jericho occurred towards the end of the journey to Jerusalem. There was only about a good day's walk to go, some 15 miles, at least to the villages of Bethpage and Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem where he would pause to prepare for what was to follow, no doubt with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus who lived there. He knew the end was coming. He had little time left to teach his disciples, yet there was so much that they did not understand. Mark must have had this in mind when he set down what happened at Jericho not only just before the triumphant entry to the capital city, but just after one of the sorriest episodes in Jesus's dealing with his disciples. They had been squabbling about who among them was the greatest, who should have the seats of honour in the kingdom. James and John had come to him to ask for special status:
He declined saying they did not know what they were asking, and then the others heard of it and were angry:
It must have been a painful correction for Jesus to have to make of their distorted vision. When would they ever learn! Time was getting on and Mark continues: They came to Jericho -- and a blind man sees! How blind they were to all that he had been trying to teach! How little they understood of the kingdom he had come to establish! What a distorted image they had of how the rule of God in human life would change things! It is borne out further by the reaction of the crowd: Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly [Mark 10: 48]. No doubt those trying to 'protect' Jesus included the disciples who a little earlier had tried to prevent children from coming to him [Mark 10:13]. But what they saw as an unworthy plea for the attention of Jesus, he himself accepted as a sign of faith. The blind man's persistence and his urgent calls for help were rewarded as others before had been rewarded for their persistence, as for example, with the Syrophoenician woman who pleaded for her daughter's life against even the objections of Jesus himself [Mark 7:26-30] or the woman suffering from hemorrhages who reached out in the crowd to touch the fringe of his garment, to whom he also said: your faith has made you well (Mark 5:34). These people were rewarded for their faith. They had a common desperation in their approach to Jesus. They saw themselves in all humility as absolutely dependent upon him, their only hope. Mark is telling us that they understood more than others around Jesus. The blind beggar could see far more clearly than the disciples and the crowd could see what sort of man it was who was passing by.
You may remember from other examples of Jesus healing people who showed faith in him, how being healed, being made whole and being saved are the same thing: so in our English language versions different translations give us 'made well' or 'made whole' or 'saved' as the translation for the same word in what Jesus said to Bartimaeus as to the woman: your faith has made you well [your faith has saved(1) you]. Faith is a matter of relationship with God in Christ, so through faith a believer is related to the source of life, to the author of life who can restore wholeness to broken lives and fulfil our hopes of eternal life, allowing us to begin a life which is life with him for ever, beginning now in the faith relationship.
There is more to learn about the nature of this relationship in the attitude of the blind beggar to Jesus. The kind of loving respect with which Bartimaeus addressed Jesus when he found himself being spoken to by him has only one parallel in the exact language that is recorded in the gospel. It links Bartimaeus with Mary Magdalene. According to Mark he used the Aramaic word 'Rabbouni' when he said 'My teacher, let me see again'. In our English versions we have translated Rabbouni as teacher [NRSV] or Rabbi [NIV] or even Lord [KJV], but what Mark wrote was not the usual word in the gospels for teacher or Rabbi. It was used only one other time in the New Testament. That is in John's gospel [20:16] when Jesus, risen from the dead, meets Mary Magdalene in the garden: she did not recognize him at first, but when he called her by name, 'Mary', she said to him 'Rabbouni!' It is left untranslated in our versions of John's gospel because John added in Geek an explanation of its meaning as teacher, though it was an especially reverent and devoted form of address not commonly used in talking to the rabbis of the day. We tend to lose the impact when it is translated into our language, whereas Mark did not translate it into Greek from the Aramaic spoken by the people who were there. He retained in 'Rabbouni' the original language spoken by Jesus and Bartimaeus as he reported otherwise in Greek what Bartimaeus said. When the original sound of the words actually spoken by the people there at the time comes through in the gospel, we have a memory of something that had a profound affect on the people who heard it. Mark recorded a living memory of an event that deeply impressed them. The faith relationship of Bartimaeus to Jesus, we may assume, was not unlike that of Mary Magdalene's devotion, her loving respect, tinged as it was with fear and joy, as she realized who he was, the Lord risen, the master of death and surely therefore the conqueror of all the enemies of humankind.
There is another distinctive feature to the relationship between Jesus and Bartimeaus. In other cases of healing Jesus typically told the person who was healed to go away, sometimes telling them not to say anything to anyone about it. The same sort of thing happened when Peter confessed him to be the Messiah, when he told them not to tell anyone. But here we are told that Bartimaeus immediately regained his sight and followed him on the way. Circumstances have changed. The end is approaching. It is a time of open commitment and revelation. The truth is no longer to be hidden, at least from those who have the eyes to see. Following Jesus has both a simple and a profound meaning. He went along the road with him on the way to Jerusalem and that kind of practical discipleship is important, but being on the way with Jesus had a deeper meaning. When the gospel was first read in the early church they would have received the phrase on the way with special understanding.
The early Christians called themselves the people of "the Way". Their movement was known as the Way, before they were called Christians. So we read in Acts such references as how Paul, when he was still called Saul and persecuting the Christians, went to the high priest,
Many years later when Paul was on trial before the governor, Felix, he referred to his worship of God as according to the Way, which they call a sect [Acts 24:14] and we are told Felix was rather well informed about the Way [Acts 24:22]. Amongst the Christians themselves they spoke of instructing people in the Way. So we read of Apollos, who became a great evangelist for Christ, independently of Paul,
So to be on the way with Jesus led the follower into a deeper understand of the Way of God. Bartimaeus went along that dusty old road from Jericho to Jerusalem, and as he followed Jesus he began the journey of a lifetime in which he would be joined with Christ and all who belonged to him in the Way, the new fellowship of life and hope. He went along the way with the one who was himself the way, the truth and the life [John 14:6].
Let us then be encouraged by the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who was given the gift of sight and of insight. In his great need he saw clearly who Jesus was, named him as the Messiah, the holy one of God; in the face of rejection by those around Jesus who thought they knew best, he persisted in his appeals to him; Jesus called him and he came; he addressed Jesus with loving respect; and in his faith he was healed and he began as a follower of the Way, as a member of a community in which he would grow in understanding and hope to enjoy his newfound relationship with God in Christ for ever. Here is encouragement to persist in attempting to reaching out to Jesus, and to give thanks that he still hears the cries of those who believe in him, and calls them to himself, into the way the truth and the life.
1. For further explanation of the relationship between faith, healing and salvation see Healing, wholeness and salvation when the gospel reading was about the woman who reached out in the crowd to touch him.
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