Poor blind Bart! Sitting on the side of a road, a busy highway, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Waiting just outside the city. Waiting for generous travelers who might throw a couple coins or maybe some stale bread his way. Enduring the quiet—and surely sometimes not so quiet—verbal abuse all beggars must endure: What’s wrong with that man, mommy?! Why is he just sitting there? Hush, honey, some people just can’t help it. Hmph! He probably brought it on himself.
Poor blind Bart! Sitting on the side of a road, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. A dangerous road, with twists and turns perfect for bandits to hide. Not a safe road to travel even if you’re in the best of health, which blind Bart certainly was not. Unable to work, unable to support himself, unable to see. You can imagine the humiliation at the hands of especially cruel fellow Israelites. The ones who would steal what little he had. The ones who took pleasure in beating him, just because they could. And—the worst—the ones who held out false hopes just to get a laugh. “Hey, Bartimaeus, I just passed a guy who’s headed this way, and, man!, is he loaded! Camels can barely walk with all the gold he’s carrying. Seemed like a nice fellow, too—maybe he’ll notice you and help you out a bit!” Every time blind Bart would fall for it. He’d jump up and make a big scene: “O friend, o friend, over here! Over here! Have mercy on me! Friend! Friend! Have mercy on me!” Shouting. Screaming. Not wanting to be missed. And then he’d hear their laughter, the awful laughter that let him know it was all a terrible joke. He’d sink back down, feeling lower than ever before. The next time, though, he’d be at it again, because even though he knew it was probably a joke at his expense, he couldn’t take that risk, the risk that somebody who could help him really was coming by this time.
One day, blind Bart is sitting by the side of the Jericho Expressway when someone lets slip that an important man is on his way. Not a rich man, but a strange man, a powerful man. And the rumor is that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, has been healing people. Blind Bart’s ears hear that word—healing!! He jumps up and starts shouting and waving and making a total fool of himself: Jesus! Jesus! Over here, Jesus! This way! Jesus! Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me! Have mercy on me! Have mercy on me!
Now, usually when this kind of thing happened, people would just roll their eyes, and the practical jokers would get their laugh. Nobody’s laughing now; nobody’s rolling their eyes. They’re cringing, embarrassed, and instead of egging Bartimaeus on, they try to quiet him down. It’s not respectable to make a scene like that. This guy Jesus, he’s serious, he’s for real. You can’t be throwing yourself at him. Stop embarrassing us! Quiet down, Bart! Just… shut up!
The more they try to stop him, the more Bartimaeus realizes the opportunity that’s headed his way. This is no joke. This is no cruel false hope. This Jesus guy, he could make a real difference. So blind Bart refuses to be silent; he will not quiet down; he will not shut up. He gets louder and louder: Jesus!! Son of David!! Over here! Have mercy on me! JESUS!!!
Whenever someone really, really needs Jesus, there are always people and forces ready to step in and get in the way. People in respectable positions. Forces of “common decency” and “propriety” and “there’s a way to get things done, and this isn’t it.” People who are embarrassed by the need and desire for Jesus, for a change. People who are offended that someone might draw Jesus’ attention to himself—who are you that Jesus should pay you any attention? People secretly envious that Jesus might actually listen to him. People ashamed that they don’t have enough faith to ask boldly for Jesus’ help, not at the risk of public humiliation.
Jesus takes sides. He is not politically neutral. Respectability, common decency, propriety—these are all tools of oppression, and Jesus recognizes them all too well. So he takes sides. Against the people in respectable positions. Against those offended, or envious, or ashamed of what’s going on. Jesus does not need to utter a word to condemn them, because his generous invitation to Bartimaeus judges more harshly than any condemnation. Notice: Jesus doesn’t invite Bartimaeus over himself. He tells those around him, the crow that has mocked and humiliated poor old blind Bart for years, the people who have tried to silence him just as his chance to finally be free of the blindness that has chained him to the side of a road for years, these oppressors of this poor man—Jesus orders them, “Call him here.” Jesus conscripts these “respectable people,” he presses them into service for the kingdom of God. The tables have been turned on them. You who tried to silence Bartimaeus, you can swallow your pride and eat your disdain and invite blind Bart to me. Just like Jesus told his disciples after the rich man went away sad, many who are last will be first, and the first shall be last.
And then Jesus takes things a step further. Not only does this social low-life beggar get to come to the front of the line, Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus becomes the servant of this man even slaves would not have served. And Bartimaeus does not respond timidly: “My teacher, let me see again.” Not, “Give me a blessing, o Lord” or “A little food, sir” or “Some spare change, perhaps?” No. “Let me see again!” And Jesus heals him. “Your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus sees, again, and follows Jesus.
Friends, there is a mighty deed of power in this story, but we must not let the restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight blind us to the real miracle. The real miracle is that in this brief episode the social order that says the poor—those who cannot help themselves, the homeless, the beggars—are on the bottom, and the rich—the successful, the self-made—are on the top—this social order, for at least one brief moment, has been destroyed. Destroyed by Jesus, who is busy turning the world upside down. Destroyed by the Son of David, whose kingdom refuses to heed the neat social orders of our world.
There are two stories in Mark’s gospel of people who have to overcome huge obstacles just to get to Jesus. In Mark 2, the first story, the crowds are so thick at Jesus’ door that the friends of a paralytic man—someone surely every bit as much at the bottom of society as blind Bart—carry him up to the roof, cut a hole in it, and drop the man at Jesus’ feet so that he can be healed. But here, in Mark 10, Jesus has to turn the obstructionists into collaborators, so that he can heal the outcast blind man.
We have a choice facing us. Like those who helped the paralytic in Mark 2, we can become friends to the poor, to the outcast, to those our society says belong at the bottom. We can insist that they get a chance to come to the front of the line, we can refuse to let them be silenced or pushed aside. And then we can join them in rejoicing when Jesus touches their lives, when he restores them and blesses them with his love and his power.
Or like blind Bart’s oppressors, we can stand in their way. We can build a wall, try to pretend they aren’t there, say something cute about respectability and law and order and society, blah, blah, blah. And then watch as Jesus uses us anyhow, to our dismay, to take those we want to write off or ignore or send away and bring them to him directly, ahead of those we know deserve him so much more. Ahead of us.
Either way, Jesus is on the move.
And here at Centre, I think we’ve chosen, as a church, to be friends of the poor. Our weekly food pantry, our Thanksgiving baskets, our service at the WelcomeOne shelter, and our participation in the Samaritan’s Purse shoebox project—these are all signs of our friendship. But we can be better friends. We can do more than give handouts and small bits of our time. We can work to help the poor to the front of the line wherever and whenever they’ve been pushed to the side. We can stand proudly with them instead of secretly wishing they’d go away. And we can treasure our friendship with the poor, those our society casts aside, as a central part of our discipleship walk, and not just a nice, occasional side trip.
Because Jesus will heal, he will restore, he will call the shameful parts, the embarrassing bits. He will continue to upend our comfortable lives until that moment when the glimpses of his kingdom become a fuller reality that lasts through eternity.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.