Mark today has brought us with Jesus’s entourage to the last staging post before Jerusalem,
the last moment before the climax begins in the city of David and in centre of Jewish life, the Temple.
This last staging post is the very ancient town of Jericho, city of springs and palms.
From there it will be a winding climb of 3000 feet for the excited, weary, apprehensive disciples.
There is a buzz as they set out, a large crowd.
And from the edge of this throng and the dusty road-side, and across 2000 years of history, a voice makes itself heard – insists on making itself heard:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
This is not the cry of an anonymous sufferer;
the gospel names him – a man who appears this one time only –
and gives him the unlikely name of BarTimaeus, part Greek, part Hebrew.
Perhaps Mark has heard Bartimaeus tell his story, maybe many times. The NT scholar Richard Bauckham thinks so.
In hearing this vivid Gospel this morning we may be as close as can be to being in that crowd around Jesus – closer certainly than the famous 6 degrees of separation.
And what do we find as we stand at the side of the road out of Jericho that spring morning?
That the presence of Jesus, his proximity, causes this man to overthrow all the routine that he relies upon, all that brings him income and, maybe, comfort.
Bartimaeus could let the celebrity pass by, rake in the offerings from an excitable crowd and continue his days in the familiar way. We would never have heard of him.
But no. The faith that the God of Israel is the saving God,
the God who leads his people out of exile to a better world,
the God who sends help – power allied to holiness – this faith is too strong for Bartimaeus to remain sitting there silent.
The real desire of his heart rises from the dust.
And it speaks these words: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Utterly bold; utterly humble.
Bartimaeus abandons the false familiarity of his day-to-day life,
the life of a struggling Jew in an occupied land,
for following Jesus on the way,
a way that includes the tensions and emotional roller-coaster of Passion Week up in Jerusalem.
This way is what the letter to the Hebrews tells us is “for all time”: – Jesus, our great high priest of the permanent Temple, is able to save those who approach God through him, always, perfect, for ever.
One moment in time that changed a man’s life.
– And, through his testimony, has helped change much else, many others.
A miracle, that has the shape of the call of a disciple.
Does Jesus tell Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well?” or “Your faith has saved you?” The translators can’t decide; the word for both is the same.
This healing holds before that crowd, and before every crowd that has heard Bartimaeus’s voice since then, the shape of our salvation:
“Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
The prophecy of Isaiah we heard at Mattins also speaks of the distinction between desire that does not satisfy and what is everlasting.
It sounds too good to be true: “You that have no money, come buy … wine and milk without money and without price.”
Too good to be true, and far outside what a Jew exiled to Babylon might expect.
At this low point of the Jewish nation’s fortunes, their God, speaking through his prophet, tells them of the everlasting covenant in the Lord’s steadfast sure love for David;
for … “my thoughts are not your thoughts”: they are higher – higher as the heavens are higher than the earth.
The people need only “return to the Lord, that He may have mercy on them.”
Boldness and humility.
Mark’s gospel teaches us more about this.
He places Bartimaeus’s experience soon after that of the Rich Young Ruler, about whom Fr Tony spoke here 2 weeks’ ago.
That young man could not enter the Kingdom, Fr Tony told us, because he was loaded, loaded with wealth and loaded with religious merit.
He went away shocked and grieving.
In fact he is the one who stays blind in the dust.
Bartimaeus, the beggar who springs up and throws away his cloak, is the one who gains insight and follows on the way:
“Son of David, have mercy on me” proves to be not easy for everyone to say.
And how about for us?
Well, note that Bartimaeus tells us not that he gained sight but that he re-gained it.
He had seen and had ceased to see,
and trusting Jesus, he was given the gift of new and true sight.
We tend to think as a Western society we have understood things hidden from past ages.
Our world has improved.
We try to look after people with medical and social care.
Our laws are made to treat all people equally.
We are learning to see anew around human identities and relationships.
We are just beginning to realise that the planet is a stupendous delicate eco-system which we can and should take care for.
But … what will future ages tell us we have been blind to?
In the same way in which recently we have discovered blindnesses
through Black Lives Matter, through the Me Too movement, through uncovering past abuse of children.
What do we want the Son of David to do for us?
Do we truly want it? Do we want what satisfies?
Do we dare to receive the gift of seeing anew?
And, if we do, the way is not the way of being loaded with achievement and certainty,
but is utterly simple and utterly bold.
It is that same prayer of Bartimaeus,
which has been the unceasing prayer of Christians since Mark first chose to write it down:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Is this what the world needs to see aright?