Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-9, Hebrews 5:1-6, Mark 10:46-52
THIS IS MUCH MORE than a simple miracle story in today’s Gospel reading.
First of all, it is seen as the fulfilling of the joyful prophecy of Jeremiah which forms our First Reading. This is a prophecy of the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon back to their homeland. (Despite his reputation, not everything Jeremiah wrote was gloomy!) The reading is a hymn of praise and rejoicing because of what God is going to do for his people.
In part he says, "I will gather them from the ends of the world with the blind and the lame in their midst", and again he says, "I will lead them to brooks of water on a level road, so that none shall stumble" — thus setting the scene for today’s Gospel.
End of a teaching section
Today’s gospel passage is actually the last miracle story in Mark. It comes at end of a long section where Jesus is forming his disciples. This section begins (in chapter 7) with the healing of a man who is deaf and dumb. By his being healed, he is being taught how to hear and how to speak. These were the necessary abilities of the Christian disciple: to hear and understand the Word of God and to share the message with others.
Later (in chapter 8) there is the two-stage healing of a blind man. This story clearly symbolises the gradual opening of the disciples’ eyes as to the true identity and mission of Jesus. And the whole section ends with the healing of another blind man which we have just heard. This is not merely coincidence.
Near to Jerusalem
Jesus with his disciples and a large crowd is seen leaving Jericho. Jesus is now very near to Jerusalem. In fact, Jericho, which lies to the north-east, is on the way to Jerusalem. This has great significance for the story to follow.
A blind beggar, Bartimaeus (only known by his father’s name), is sitting beside the road. He hears all the noise, is told that Jesus is passing by, and begins to call out: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
What does he want? Money? Healing? Probably he is just thinking right now of his own personal needs. He must have heard stories about Jesus as a marvellous healer.
However, the people around tell him to be quiet. After all, he’s only a poor beggar. He should not disturb an important person like Jesus. In our life many people, things, and concerns can prevent us coming to Jesus. How often we "have no time" for Mass, prayer, getting involved in Church activities. But worse, how often have we blocked someone approaching Jesus? A child, a searching colleague or friend, a son or daughter who wants to give their life in service of others rather than a money-making "career"?
Bartimaeus will not be put off so easily. He really wants to get Jesus’ attention. He continues to call out even more loudly, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus, we should remember, tells us to keep on asking.
Jesus hears. Jesus stops. If the man had not kept calling, Jesus might have continued on his journey. How many times during our day does Jesus pass by and we fail to recognise him and fail to call him? The problem is that too often we have fixed ideas as to where we are likely to see him or the forms under which he will appear. It is easy to find him in the tabernacle but less easy in a person we do not like. But he can come in any form and in any person or situation, even the most unlikely. The person screaming obscenities at me may well be Jesus challenging me to give a Christian response.
"Call him over here," says Jesus. Notice that Jesus does not go to the man. Nor does he call him directly. The people — those who just now were stopping him and telling him to shut up — are now giving him encouragement.
That is how we come to know Jesus too. People call us to him or introduce him to us. So many people have led me to Jesus: parents, family, friends, teachers, sermons, retreats, books, sharings, films, TV programmes… Pause now and say thanks to all those people who brought us to Jesus. At the same time, there are people waiting to hear Jesus’ call — through us. In our family, our workplace… How often do we share our faith? How many people even know we are committed Christians? A private Christian is actually a contradictionin terms.
The people, who just now were telling the man to ‘Shut up’ now say: "Cheer up! Rise up, he is calling you!" Wonderful words from ordinary people. There are three elements here:
(b) "Rise up!" (Resurrection). The man is being called to new life, not just a physical standing up.
(c) "He is calling you." Lovely words which are addressed to us every single day.
How foolish Bartimaeus would have been if he had stopped shouting because of the crowd’s opposition! Public opinion is very fickle.
Bartimaeus now jumps up, throws off his cloak. For a beggar, his cloak was also his sleeping mat and his only possession. Even this he now gets rid of. Very possibly, he now approaches Jesus stark naked: with nothing except himself.
Our first parents were ashamed of their nakedness after sinning; and they hid from God. Jesus, who died naked on the cross, overturns the shame which sin brought. Bartimaeus comes to Jesus, naked and without shame.
In baptism, too, which was the sign of commitment to Jesus, the catechumen threw off his old clothes and stepped naked into the baptismal pool, coming out on the other side to be clothed in a white garment, symbolising a share in the new life of Jesus. So Bartimaeus comes to Jesus with confidence (pistis, ), in freedom, with nothing. Compare this with the well-dressed rich man who could not follow Jesus because he identified wealth with his money.
“What can I do for you?”
Face to face now with Jesus, Bartimaeus is asked: "What can I do for you?" Here we have Jesus the High Priest described in the Second Reading from the Hebrews. Someone who, in sharing our human nature, has a deep understanding of our needs. "Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins." And so Jesus asks the blind beggar, "What can I do for you?" In last week’s Gospel Jesus asked exactly the same question of the apostles James and John. Their answer: "Give us the two top spots in the Kingdom of your glory." In reply they were told very clearly they would get only what they deserved. They also got some firm teaching about serving others and not looking for privileges.
In answer to the same question, Bartimaeus gives a very different answer: "Lord, that I may see." In the context of this story he is asking for much more than physical sight. His prayer is one we all need to make continually.
The secret of life is to be able to see, to see life’s real meaning and direction, to be people of vision, to know where God is to be found, where real truth and goodness and beauty are to be found. It is a prayer that is certain to be answered as it was here. "Go," says Jesus, "your faith, your trust in me, has saved you, healed you, made you whole." Immediately, the man was able to see.
Seeing becomes following
Then what did the man do? He did the only thing a person of vision could do: he followed Jesus on the road.
At the beginning of the story we saw a blind beggar sitting beside the road. This is the person who has not yet met Jesus (even if baptised). He is blind, an impoverished beggar (though perhaps materially wealthy), not moving and off the real track of life.
At the end of the story, we have a man who can see, has vision, who knows very clearly where he is going and where he should be going. No longer is he a beggar but greatly enriched by that vision. No longer sitting passively waiting to get or receive but now actively walking with Jesus. No longer beside the road but now on the road, on the Way. Jesus is the Way: Jesus is Truth and Life. And this road, as we saw, leads to Jerusalem, that is, to suffering, death and resurrection.
Epilogue and summary
This story is an epilogue to the long preceding teaching passage and a summary of all that has just preceded in this part of Mark’s gospel. It is also a summary of the Christian’s life and pilgrimage.
On our own we are blind and poor with nothing of our own. As Christians, we have our eyes opened to the meaning of life, we are to undergo a radical conversion experience which gives new direction to all we are and do. We are ready to walk with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem with clear vision, with true freedom.