When I was in college I had a classmate who wanted to enlist in the Army after she graduated. Her goals and interests seemed to mesh with some career opportunities that the Army was offering, and she wanted to serve her country. On so many levels, this bright, dedicated young woman would have been a valuable addition to any branch of the service; but there was something that was holding her back – she was about seven pounds below the minimum required weight to join the Army. No matter what she did she couldn’t seem to gain weight, and the recruiter would not pass her application. My friend needed to be strong enough to stand up to all the rigors of basic training and carrying a fully-loaded pack if she was going to be in the Army. Eventually she began to work out and build muscle mass, and managed to just squeak by the weight requirement. The Army accepted her and she did indeed go on to have a career from which both she and the Army benefitted – but first she had to be clear enough about what it was she really wanted, and be willing to find a way to make that happen.
The scene from Mark’s Gospel between Jesus and Bartimeus the blind beggar is also about being clear in knowing what you’re asking for, and what the results might be. Bartimeus was sitting by the side of the road – the place where beggars usually sat so they could be sure to be seen and heard by passers-by who might give them food or money. A modern equivalent of this would be the person who panhandles commuters right on the subway steps at a busy station – there’s no way you could miss him.
So Bartimeus hears that it is Jesus passing by with the disciples and calls out to Jesus – asking him for mercy: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimeus knows who Jesus is, Son of David - another way of saying “Messiah”; quite a contrast with the disciples who have been up close and personal with Jesus for a couple of years now, and still don’t seem to see clearly what it means for him to be the Messiah.
This blind beggar has the spiritual insight and wisdom to know that Jesus is the Messiah, and he is not going to let this chance to beg a favor from the Holy One slip through his fingers. We think he’s going to ask for money; so do the disciples – and they shush him. But he won’t stay quiet, and persists in calling for Jesus. When Jesus stops to pay attention to Bartimeus he asks the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?”
That’s a very good question; what does this beggar really want – money, sympathy, attention? He answers by saying that he would like to see again, to have his sight restored. And Jesus answers by saying that his faith has made him well; the man’s sight is restored, and he joins the other disciples in following Jesus as he makes his way towards Jerusalem and what we now know will be the final show-down with both the temporal and cosmic powers.
In other instances of healing reported in the Gospels Jesus sometimes lays hands on the person in need, or prays, or incorporates the use of some element like mud or saliva to assist with the healing. Not in this case; he just tells Bartimeus to go on his way, that his faith has made him well. That’s not something that Jesus says whenever he heals someone, so we need to make sure that we don’t hear what Jesus is saying as some kind of formula or reward, as in: if you enough faith (however much that is) you will be healed.
In this case it may well be that the faith that Bartimeus had was the faith to do something different, to ask for his sight rather than money, to persist when the crowd was telling him to be quiet and stop being so annoying, to keep calling on Jesus. And then he did something really different and risky and followed Jesus; the beggar threw his lot in with Jesus and the group he had gathered around him, learning to live in a whole new way, and leaving behind him everything that had bounded his life up until that point.
In how many ways are we like Bartimeus? How often do we sit on the sidelines of life? How are we hindered by spiritual or emotional or moral blindness? Are there people around us who try to make us sit down, be quiet, behave ourselves when we reach for what we know will (in fact) be good for us? Do we call on Jesus when we have needs and spring up from our spot to meet him half-way?
We all, like Bartimeus, need healing in some way or another – physical, spiritual, emotional, relational. In fact, sometimes our emotions or relationships are far more painful or broken and in need of healing than our bodies are; and it can be very soothing to repeat to ourselves how miserable we are, or how wronged we have been , or how no one really understands us. All of those things may be true at some level, but if we focus on those things and don’t look up or listen up and know that Jesus is passing by and is available to help us, we can spin ourselves into a darker and deeper hole – this time of our own making.
God wants us to be whole – emotionally, spiritually, physically; not so that we will be perfect people (that’s just not going to happen), but because God wants what is best for us, and so that we can be free from worrying about and focusing on ourselves, and turn our attention to following Jesus and to serving and helping others in their need.
We don’t have to be whole and complete to serve God and to receive God’s love and mercy, but we do have to be willing to get beyond ourselves, to step away from a self-focus that can be myopic. In order to be open to healing, we have to be willing to let go of the pain and the hurt and move to whatever new place or condition or understanding Jesus wants to take us to. This can be hard, it can feel risky or scary, but ultimately, the healing and the growth Jesus offers outweighs whatever might be holding us back or dragging us down.
The Dutch priest and teacher Henri Nouwen has written: “Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched. Why would you really want to do that? Perhaps you would let the other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something, but to allow the other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped—that is dangerous and calls for defense.
The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. [and I would add that sometimes the resistance to healing is the same]. This image shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear. A story about an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.”
Christ calls us to freedom, to healing, to peace with ourselves and with God. In further words of Henri Nouwen, let us pray.
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.
And what you want to give me is love--
unconditional, everlasting love. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 28, 2012