The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
It’s hard enough to be blind. But to be blind and so poor that you have to beg for money to eat? Bartimaeus sat on the ground, by the road. A crowd was forming, and he listened carefully to the excited voices. Jesus of Nazareth was on his way. He had heard of him, that controversial rabbi who, it was rumored, had the gift of healing. A miracle worker.
Bartimaeus had lost his sight somewhere along life’s way, perhaps because of a disease or accident. We are told that he said “Teacher, let me see again.” Again. His memory of colors, faces, and landscape was getting dim. But he remembered enough to long for his sight to return. He wanted his sight more than he wanted relief from poverty. For when he was asked what he wanted, it was not money. It was his sight.
But there was something else he wanted. There was some latent desire for a deeper, more meaningful life, too. How do I know? Because after he was healed, he got up, left his life behind, and followed Jesus. Many others were healed, but they didn’t follow Jesus. Bartimaeus did. He must have hungered for what Jesus offered beyond physical healing: a closer walk with God, peace of mind, a community that wouldn’t reject him just because he was blind and poor.
As Jesus approached, Bartimaeus felt these desires rising up in him. Overcoming self-consciousness, feeling both his desire to see and his need for God, he shouted out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Help! They shushed him – his neediness was an embarrassment in a world where we act as if we have it together. But he would not be stopped. He yelled even louder.
Bartimaeus had been told many times, no doubt, that his blindness and his poverty were his own damn fault. That was the common view of the day. “Just shut up and humbly beg, over in the corner there, where you belong.” Nevertheless, Bartimaeus sensed Jesus’ compassion, and he boldly risked. His persistence is what got him through the resistance of the crowd, through the noise and the confusion. Now that he had Jesus’ attention, he said what he needed, right out loud.
I can’t think of any positive change in my life that happened without my persistence. I can’t think of anything changing because I prayed about it just one time or because I had a single insight. Instead, I have prayed daily, over and over again, for the same thing. I have talked about it with people I trust. I got frustrated because nothing happened. I applied myself again. I asked for help. I dreamed. I discovered how others, like those around Bartimaeus, resisted my efforts to change. More importantly, I discovered how I resisted change. I prayed some more. Gradually, grace prevailed.
Persistence in prayer, effort, insight, and against resistance always pays off. We might think that one prayer is enough for God to hear us, and anything beyond that becomes complaining or a sign of faithlessness, but that isn’t how it usually works. We seem to need to keep at it until we have moved through the crowded noise and confusion of mixed intentions. As we move through what we thought we needed, through the supposed reasons for and solutions to our situation, we come to a place of greater clarity. Persistence gets us to this point.
But Bartimaeus was not only persistent. He made himself completely vulnerable: no place to hide, emotionally naked before a whole crowd of disapproving people. Jesus asked him what he wanted, and Bartimaeus spoke his heart’s longing. He named his need. “My teacher, let me see again.”
And this, too, seems to be essential in our healing. We know how it is in relationships. Others can only connect with us when we allow them to see the real, unblemished self behind our persona. I believe that the same is true with God in prayer. Nothing seems to happen as long as we politely, formally, ask for help from a distance.
It is another thing altogether when we get to the point of truly feeling what we feel, really admitting our dependence upon God, saying “Please! I want to see. I want to be free. I want to know you. See me in my weakness and have mercy upon me!” When we are this way before God, it is as if the walls of separation come down, and God’s love and grace are able to flow.
This is another way of describing how it is to have faith. When we are vulnerable to another person, it is because we trust them. When we are vulnerable in prayer, it is because we place our trust in God. Or we place our trust in life. Or we place our trust in the people around us, in our own ability to eventually put things together and move forward. All of this together is faith, placing our trust in the force of wisdom and love within and around us that we call “God.”
A few weeks ago I spoke of a welcoming prayer, where we say to whatever is happening in our life “I welcome this.” Not that we like it or think that by welcoming it, it will therefore become permanent, but that for however long this is a part of our life, we say “yes” to it. Why would we do such a thing when we don’t like what is happening? Because we trust that there is something good in it, a gift from God. We place our trust in what life is doing.
Jesus said to Bartimaeus “Go, your faith has made you well.” Jesus did not say “I possess magical powers. Sit down and let me zap you.” He said “Your faith has made you well.” It is faith that heals us, too, because when we trust, we are then able to receive the gift that is offered in our situation.
At this point in the story, there is one little part I have always overlooked. Jesus says “Go, your faith has made you well.” But Bartimaeus doesn’t go. The story says that immediately, after regaining his sight, he followed Jesus on the way. He left behind his occupation as a beggar, which may not have been lucrative, but at least it was dependable, it was familiar. He walked into the unknown, with Jesus. He became a part of the community known as “The Way,” as early Christians called themselves.
In their company, he saw something very few had ever seen: women and Gentiles and lepers and sinners and wealthy folks and children and social outcasts all treating each other as equals, eating and talking and praying as if there were no higher or lower, better or worse. All children of God.
But most importantly, if Bartemaeus was like others in the Way, he did more than see new things. He became a new person, unlike that isolated, frightened beggar of yesterday. He changed, he became stronger and more himself. And then he was able to do what Jesus did. He fed, loved, healed, forgave, prayed, shared, and sacrificed. As a new man, he gave himself for others.
When by God’s grace we are healed, when we are freed from being stuck, we are given this opportunity as well. God’s intention in healing us, in deepening our spiritual life, is never just so that we can return to a former state of comfort and peace of mind. It is so that we will change, so that we move forward into a new way of living, beyond what is familiar and safe. And it is so that we can use our new way of being, our newfound freedom, wisdom, and strength to be of some service to others.
A recovering addict is expected to live a different kind of life, and then to take the message to others, to help them find sobriety, too. A cancer survivor becomes a different person along the way, and then can helpful to others undergoing their own difficult and potentially transformative experience. As a Christian, you are made new, and then asked to share with others what has been helpful to you.
When we think of Bartimaeus, we may call to mind some poor homeless person on the street. But you are Bartimaeus, too, and so am I. We stand on the side of the road, blind, poor, and in need of God. We long for healing, we long for a truer connection in the Spirit.
When we are persistent, we will move through resistance and confusion, and get to God with greater clarity about our need. When we are vulnerable, we connect with God. When we welcome our situation and trust in it, our faith makes us well. And when we are healed, we are asked to follow along the Way, become a new person, and give to others what we have been so freely given.