We find Jesus in the city of Jericho in the story we hear this morning. Jericho’s an important city, Biblically speaking. It’s the site that Israel first conquered on their entrance into Canaan, the promised land. And Jericho is a close neighbor to Jerusalem- about 4 hours away, on foot. It’s nickname is the City of Palms, which makes it sound like a tropical paradise. There’s a lot of truth to that actually- because while Jerusalem could be quite cool at a higher elevation, Jericho is below sea level, and generally balmy. In fact, Herod built his summer palace there, and the priests and levites often used it as an off-duty resting place. Jewish sources say that there were as many priests there as in Jerusalem on any given day.
Along with the citizens of Jericho, the elite Roman occupants, & the priests and the levites resting from their tasks, there was a man named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus. Though many probably only knew him as ‘the blind beggar.’
All we know about Bartimaeus is what Mark tells us in this short story. We don’t know what caused his blindness, though he asks to see again, so we can guess that he was not born blind. Because he is a beggar we know that he depended on the charity of the citizens and visitors to Jericho for what was certainly a meager subsistence.
Charity is a religious duty- and the only means that some have to provide for themselves.
When we think of charity we either think of giving from our excess, or something that we receive when we can’t make it on our own. To be the giver of charity is considered almost heroic. While to receive it isn’t desirable at all, and may even have some shame tied to it.
Charity is one of those words that has lost much of its meaning. It’s one of the possible translations of the Greek word agape, and it can also be translated as steadfast love. It is the kind of love that requires action, but it is more than just duty, and more than just a handout. It is the way that God relates to us. It is how God loves us.
Bartimaeus experienced the greatest act of charity- of love- in this encounter with Jesus, when Jesus called him to himself, allowed him to articulate his own needs, and finally healed him- by giving him his sight.
Charity is nothing more and nothing less than God’s healing and embracing love. Our world would be a better place if we approached each other in this way- as recipients of God’s love- and not in categories of ‘needy’ versus ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘profitable.’
Bartimaeus is probably resolved to this way of life, but when he first hears that Jesus of Nazareth is in town- a seed of hope takes root. A hope that something different might be possible for him. He calls out to Jesus, and hope grows when Jesus invites him to come, so much so that he ‘throws off his cloak.’ This almost sounds like a throw-away line or a superfluous detail. But his cloak is probably the only thing that Bartimaeus owns- his one possession. Just a little before this encounter, in a story that we heard a couple of weeks ago, a rich man comes to Jesus looking to inherit eternal life. The rich man wasn’t willing to give up his possessions but here a blind beggar spontaneously throws away the one thing he could call his own in order to go to Jesus. It’s a stark contrast.
Hope means to ‘take heart.’ To know that something beautiful and miraculous is happening in our midst, and to believe that there’s something else out there beyond what we can imagine. Hope springs eternal they say, but for Bartimaeus, it only takes form in the presence of Jesus.
This kind of hope doesn’t exist in those who are comfortable or complacent.
Jesus proclaims to Bartimaeus and for all who are within hearing distance that his faith has made him well. This is no small congregation. Jesus isn’t leaving Jericho by himself, he is accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd. Bartimaeus shows his faith after his healing because he continues to follow Jesus on the way.
And that’s what faith is all about. Faith is about following the way where Jesus leads us.
Though Bartimaeus is blind, he sees clearly what we might overlook- he knows that he is dependent on God and he lives one day, one moment at a time. Maybe that’s why it’s easy for him to respond when Jesus calls to him. He was able to ask for what he needed because he KNEW he needed something that he couldn’t do for himself. And the end of the story is his expression of gratitude: which is the simple act of following.
There’s a line in an old Billy Joel song called the “River of Dreams” that says “I know I’m searching for something/something so undefined/that it can only be seen/by the eyes of the blind.” If we met Bartimaeus, he would be someone to be pitied and we’d be glad that we weren’t him. Because of his infirmity though he knows how tenuous life is, and how dependent he is on God. We have the material means to pretend this isn’t true. And yet in the end it’s Bartimaeus who is ready, willing and able to receive the gifts of faith, hope and charity that Jesus wants to give to all of us.
Maybe one day our souls will wake up to the love of God and the gifts that are available to all of us, but that sometimes only the blind can see.
“Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity, that we may obtain what you promise. Help us to love what you love- that we may have eternal life.”