What if you could see clearly?
A reflection on Mark 10:46-52 by Nathan Nettleton, 29th October 2000
Summing up the previous section of the gospel, Bartimaeus is a model disciple - one who sees who Jesus is, has no pretensions to power, leaves everything, and follows Jesus on the way.
The story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, is the climax of a major section of Marks gospel. Weve been hearing the readings from this section for several weeks now, but I havent addressed any of them for a few weeks, so Im going to give you a lightening tour through the section, highlighting the themes that reach their climax in this story. Youll need your Bibles open in front of you as you read this.
Beginning in 8:22, this section is framed by two stories of Jesus healing blind men, and in between there is a deaf one as well (9:14-29). The whole section is set up by the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in a boat at the end of the previous section, and the key questions Jesus puts to them is You have eyes - cant you see? You have ears - cant you hear? The whole question of whether we can see and hear clearly is central to this section then, and Mark illustrates it with both stories and extracts from what Jesus taught his disciples.
The opening story of the healing of a blind man tells us how hard it is for even Jesus to get people to see clearly (8:22-26). Jesus tries to heal the blind man, but he only succeeds in getting the man to see partially. Jesus has to have a second go. Matthew and Luke were a bit embarrassed about this story Jesus is not supposed to have off days(!) so they left it out. For Mark though it is the perfect story, because the difficultly Jesus has in getting even his disciples to see clearly is exactly what he is illustrating. This becomes more and more obvious as the section progresses and Jesus has to have a second or third go at explaining everything he wants them to see.
In 8:27 - 9:1 Jesus asks who people think he is and Peter declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. But then, as Jesus begins talking about his imminent suffering, it is apparent that Peter does not see clearly what this means. He wants a Messiah of power and glory, but Jesus hammers into them the need to give all that up and walk the path of suffering and death if they would follow the Messiah.
In 9:2-13, Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. They glimpse the Messiah of glory they were wanting and desperately want to set up camp and stay there. Jesus leads them back down the mountain and reminds them on the way of his impending suffering and rejection. He leads them straight back into the conflict with the evil forces that keep peoples eyes and ears closed. In 9:14-29 Jesus restores hearing and the power of speech to a tormented boy whom the disciples had been unable to heal. How can those who dont yet hear properly themselves open the ears of another? Jesus tells them that only prayer can overcome such a demon. Only prayer will help those who have ears and yet dont hear. Immediately he speaks to them again about his coming death and resurrection, but again (v32) it doesnt get past their ears. They dont understand and are not even game to ask for more explanation.
In 9:33-37 we are really seeing the blindness of the disciples exposed, almost to the point of ridicule. After all Jesus has been saying about the need for willingness to accept powerlessness, humiliation and suffering, they are arguing over which of them is the greatest. The one who is the most childlike, answers Jesus, the one who others are least likely to regard as great. Then (9:38-41) they are failing to see what matters again. This time they are thinking that being part of the in-group is what it is all about. Not so says Jesus. Whats more, it would be better for you if you were blind than to have your sight and use it to cut out others (9:42-50). Its a useful corrective in case anyone was starting to fall into the trap of thinking that seeing the truth clearly is all that matters. Better blind and crippled than failing to live the implications of what you see and understand.
This thought is continued in 10:1-12 but with a return to the idea of how hard it is to get people to see the truth clearly and put it into practice. Even Moses had to frame laws in a way that allowed for our failure to see and follow the spirit of the law. Those who do nothing more than pedantically obey laws are not really seeing what it is all about. Neither are the disciples, because already they are trying again to protect the privileged inside access to Jesus by turning children away (10:13-16). Dont you dare, says Jesus. Only those who receive the Kingdom with the wide-eyed wonder of children will receive it at all. Dont you see???
The story of the rich man in 10:17-31 illustrates several of these themes. Here is a man who has kept all the commandments, but who can see enough to know that he still hasnt found what hes looking for. He comes to Jesus looking for the answer. Its one thing to be able to see the answer though; it is another to have the courage to embrace it. Are you ready to give up the whole world to find your life (8:35-37)? Are you ready to give up aspirations to greatness (9:34) to embrace servanthood (9:35) and childlikeness (9:37 & 10:15) and follow Jesus on the way of the cross (8:34)? The rich man is not willing to let go. The cost is too high. The disciples cant comprehend Jesus suggestion that it is hardest for the rich. There eyes are not yet sufficiently open. All they know is that they have left everything (10:28) and Jesus assures them that it will be worth it, but that there will be lots of extra troubles on the way of the cross (10:30). In 10:31, Jesus puts his finger on something that makes it so hard for people to see clearly everything is upside down and back-to-front where God reigns.
They set out for Jerusalem for the last time, walking the way of the cross. As they go Jesus speaks for the third time in this section about exactly the sort of suffering and death he is going to face when they get to Jerusalem (10:32-34). They are still only seeing in part though. Their eyes still do not see and their ears still do not hear. How do we know? Well straight away weve got disciples angling for glory and prestige again (10:35-45). James and John want the seats on either side of Jesus in glory and when the other ten hear about these guys trying to get one up on them, theyre furious. Jesus has to try again to get them to see the upside down back-to-front values of the way they have chosen to follow.
With that we come to Bartimaeus, another blind man who needs his eyes opened. If you were to do a detailed study of the miraculous healing stories in Mark, youd find that they generally follow a set pattern and that this one doesnt really fit. However, if you studied the stories of Jesus calling disciples to follow him, youd find that this story fits better with them. This is not just a story about the healing of a blind man. This is a story about people needing their eyes opened so that they can see clearly to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.
Bartimaeus is sitting beside the road begging for money. That was how he survived. There was a tradition in ancient times of blind seers, greatly revered prophets whose disability had somehow given them additional insight into the mysteries of life. Bartimaeus was not a revered seer though, not yet anyway. He was a beggar, a nobody. Even his name may have implied his lack of status. Bar-timaeus simply means Son of Timaeus and while such a name was carried by all Israelite men until the death of their fathers, it was usually carried with their own name (eg. the disciple Simon Bar-Jonah). Normally only young boys were known only by the reference to their father, so for a grown man to be known that way may be a further indication of his status as a nobody. Bar-timaeus may even mean son of the unclean. He has no pretensions to power, to wealth, to glory, to privileged positions. All he is doing is trying to survive and dreaming of recovering his sight. He just sits by the roadside with his coat spread in front of him, begging for coins from the pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem.
But when Jesus comes by, suddenly Bartimaeus sees. Suddenly he is one of those blind seers who can see what others cant see. He calls out Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Bartimaeus is the first person in the gospel to publicly use the title Son of David to describe Jesus. It is a title that was associated with the expected Messiah. Peter had called Jesus Messiah back in 8:29, but he saw only in part. Perhaps Bartimaeus, despite his blindness can see what Peter couldnt see? Nobody Bar-Timaeus is the one who sees and identifies Jesus Bar-David.
As he calls out to Jesus, the people try to shut him up, echoing the disciples attempts to shoo off the children and shut up the man from outside their group who was acting in Jesus name. Bartimaeus just shouts louder and Jesus stops and calls him. Get up, he is calling you, they say, echoing the calling of the disciples. He jumps up and leaves behind his coat as he runs to Jesus. For a beggar, the coat was possibly his sole possession and certainly his livelihood. The coat spread out to receive the tossed coins was the beggars tool of trade. The rich man couldnt give up his belongings to follow Jesus, but Bartimaeus does it in a flash. No walking off downcast for him!
Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you? It was exactly the same question he had just asked James and John (v36) when they came asking him for a favour. How different are the answers! James and John wanted privilege, status, prestige, glory. Bartimaeus asks only to see. How much Jesus longed for his disciples to want nothing more than to see. What James and John wanted was not within Jesus power to grant. What Bartimaeus wants is something Jesus can give, even if it is not always as easy as it was with Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus is commended for his faith and given his sight and in one of those lines that is clearly native to the discipleship stories rather than the healing stories, he follows Jesus on the way as Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
By providing so many links to the stories in the preceding section, Mark clearly portrays Bartimaeus as the ideal disciple, the one who embodies all the attributes that the other disciples have been failing to acquire. And in so doing, Mark is telling us, the readers, what it will take for us to follow Jesus on the way. As Ched Myers puts it in his commentary, Only if the disciples/reader struggle against the internal demons that render us deaf and mute, only if we renounce our thirst for power in a word, only if we recognise our blindness and seek true vision then can the discipleship adventure carry on. And that should give us more than enough to discuss without the need of a list of questions.