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I used to think I understood the Bartimaeus story. At least I hoped I understood it; after all, I have preached on it before.
In the past I focused on the blind beggar’s faith—because Jesus said that was what had made him well. So I talked not only about faith that heals but also faith that stops. Faith that is aware and awake. Faith that is in touch with—but not overcome by—pain and grief, hunger and need. I spoke about the kind of faith that cries out, faith that will not be shushed or silenced, faith that groans, faith that begs.
Call it the faith that won’t take “no” for an answer. Also: faith that refuses to be respectable.
It was the kind of faith I hoped to have. And, as I suggested not so subtly, it was the kind of faith all of us should have.
I also talked about the story’s portrayal of Jesus, and I still love that: How Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd of Jesus groupies is rushing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem when Bartimaeus begins shouting to Jesus. The groupies are in a hurry to be a part of something exciting; the disciples believe they are bound for glory and it’s just around the corner. So they have no time for Bartimaeus; plus, they are embarrassed by his blatant neediness.
But Jesus! Oh, Jesus. The one at the center of all the action hears Bartimaeus’ cry. And you know what he does? He stops! The freight train is rolling down the tracks and he pulls the emergency cord, bringing everything to a screeching halt—all for a blind man who is not afraid to ask for help.
Isn’t that cool, I thought? Ain’t that good news about how God always hears our prayers and is ever ready to heal our wounds and answer our pleas.
It wasn’t a bad sermon, really. I also talked about how opening ourselves to healing requires giving voice to our pain and our needs, and how we must also hear the pain of others. How sometimes we need to step out of the flow of life’s traffic and just sit by the road being still, opening our hearts, awakening to God’s presence, asking for help.
May it be so. End of story.
Except, of course, that the story never ends. It keeps coming around again, with new truths to reveal, new mercies to rain down. It comes ‘round again, offering more healing and more life. Again.
If you’ve ever wondered why we keep reading the same Bible stories over and again (or why we bother with the Bible at all); if you’ve ever doubted that God is still speaking (or wondered if God has ever said a mumbling word), the story of blind Bartimaeus is worth your consideration—and mine.
No matter how, or how often, we read it or hear it, this little story has something new to say to us and something new to ask of us.
There is, of course, the social justice reading of the story, the one where we put ourselves in the shoes of the Jesus groupies and the bystanders and wonder just whose needs we tend to ignore.
We don’t encounter blind beggars very often, but what about the homeless, the hungry, and the panhandlers? How about the refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Africa—risking their lives to cross the sea, only to find themselves shut out of various countries as winter approaches. Closer to home, what about people fleeing the gang violence, political corruption and poverty of Central America and Mexico? Do we turn a deaf ear to them?
And maybe we wish folks in the #BlackLivesMatter movement would just give it a rest for a while. Can’t they see there are plenty of other problems needing attention and action? And just when we got to feeling comfortable with gays and lesbians, transgender folks have started clamoring for equality, too. And then there are the polite requests of the elderly and disabled for more accessibility. Can’t they see we’re working on it?
Are we no better than the cold-hearted, self-centered folks who told Bartimaeus to shut up? this reading of the story asks. Shouldn’t we, like Jesus, stop what we’re doing long enough to hear and respond to the cries of the poor and brokenhearted?
Of course, we should!
And yet I’m really not so sure that the most important reading of any gospel story has to do with we should (or should not) do.
More and more I think that every parable Jesus tells, every healing he does, every “sign” he performs, and every encounter he has is meant more than anything else to reveal the good news of God’s love for us and for all people and all of creation. Love that heals. Love that makes us new. As with Bartimaeus, Jesus is forever saying, “What do you want me to do for you? Be well, be loved. Take heart, and go on your way rejoicing and giving thanks.”
In my head, I know this. But in my heart—my heart that still needs healing, from so many things—it’s not always so clear. Even when I do know what I want, I sometimes have a hard time trusting God’s desires for me. Even when I remember to pray, I tend wrap my petitions in layers of apology and promise. I think maybe I shouldn’t want my heart’s true desire. Too often, I end up asking for the spiritual strength to settle for something less than my heart’s desire. In my lowest moments, I tell myself the lie that I shouldn’t be praying for myself at all.
But thank God for Bartimaeus! Thank God for his boldness. Thank God for what may be the purest, most perfect prayer of all: “Have mercy on me!”
No doubt. No spiritual anguish. No second-guessing God. Maybe more desperate than bold. Just an honest and fervent plea for mercy. For help. For relief.
I would like to say that it was prayer itself, or something equally “spiritual,” that opened my eyes to seeing Bartimaeus in this way. But really it was just plain old life—and my reactions to it. And, as often happens, my new awareness came with a somewhat painful jolt.
I was minding my own business one day, scrolling through my Facebook feed, when I came across a status post that was part love story and part dramatic grand announcement.
It began with, of all things, an excerpt from the Song of Solomon:
“I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek the one whom my soul loves.”
It turns out that my Facebook friend had found her love. My “friend” is a high-profile clergy woman I don’t know well at all but have long admired from afar. Her gifts are considerable and she uses them to great effect. The vitality of her ministry and the richness of her life had also given me hope. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the clergy life is demanding, even more so if one is un-partnered and alone. But Laura was also single, or so I thought, and watching her from a distance, I would tell myself that it could be done.
So her grand announcement hit me hard. It was not that she had found true love—with, to her great surprise, a woman she had met in Bible Study. And it was not how extraordinary their love story is—so marvelous that the New York Times devoted more than a full page to the news of their wedding and the story of their love. No, what hit me like a ton of bricks was the revelation that Laura and her love had been together for five years. This colleague I had viewed as a partner in solo ministry, someone who proved to me that it was possible to do it well and have a life, was not going it alone at all. She, too, had the life-giving love and moral support of a partner.
As sincerely happy as I was for Laura, her revelation left me bereft. I felt more alone than ever, and more convinced that my path was an unlikely and difficult one.
But in my grief, I was struck by this statement Laura made in telling her story to the world: “Both of us have hoped for, looked for, prayed for holy companionship for a long time,” she said. “This relationship is an answered prayer.”
Oh, yeah, I thought. Prayer.
But how do I continue to pray about an unfulfilled longing? How do you? How do we live with unanswered prayers and unrealized hopes? How does anyone keep their faith alive in the face of one disappointment after another? Should we give up? Should we, instead, focus on praying for acceptance, contentment, and gratitude for all we’ve been given? Well, sure, I thought. But is that all?
How did Bartimaeus do it? How long had he been blind—shamed by a culture that saw illness as evidence of sin, rejected by religious leaders, and shushed by the healthy, left to beg by the side of the road? How long had he been hoping for healing? Had he never given up on God? Had he not grown bitter about the hand life had dealt him?
Day after day, year after year Bartimaeus sat by the side of the road—because that’s where the traffic was, that’s where he was most likely to receive alms from passers-by. That’s what he had to do to survive.
But did he keep praying? Do we?
And how did he pray? For what did he pray? I wonder.
I notice that he was persistent. That he was loud, and that he ignored the naysayers.
So this is where the Bartimaeus story is still speaking to me:
When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth passing by, Bartimaeus began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Give me a break, Jesus! Consider my suffering, and have compassion on me! Forgive me! Hear me. Have mercy on me.
I’ve come to think that this might be the perfect prayer. The cover-all-the-bases prayer. The only prayer, really.
The prayer for mercy is humble. It confesses our need. It acknowledges God as the Great Giver and Forgiver. It taps into God’s desire to love and heal us. The prayer for mercy opens the way for Spirit to free us from our guilt, to take away our feelings of unworthiness, to lift us up from our suffering, even to know what it is we most desire. It is the prayer we can pray when we don’t know what to pray for. It is the pray we can pray when we don’t know how to pray. It is the prayer for those who have given up on prayer.
Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ shouting, and he stopped. He took notice, and he called for the blind man. And, hearing the call, Bartimaeus did not hesitate. He threw off his begging cloak, jumped up and ran toward the sound of Jesus’ voice.
It was then that Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
What do you want me to do for you?
How would you answer that question? How do you answer that question?
What do you want God to do for you and for the world?
Well, then, pray for it!
And may God have mercy on us all.