In my first year of seminary, I got to take New Testament Greek. And by “got,” I mean I had to because it was a requirement, not for graduation from seminary, but for the ordination process of the Reformed Church in America.
I have never had a knack for foreign languages. In High School I took Spanish, and I while I can flounder my through a conversation enough to find out the location of a public library, the ordeal usually ends up being quite embarrassing. In my freshman year of college, I thought it would be fun to try something new, so I took German 101… at 8 in the morning three days a week… It is too embarrassing to tell you what I received as a grade in that course… I still don’t know what I was thinking there…
So when I was confronted with the prospect of taking Greek, my pulse quickened, my breathing became shallow, and I think I started seeing spots.
While most of what I learned in that class flew right out of my head after my examinations, I am grateful for the experience, and if push comes to shove, I could probably struggle through an exegetical paper again.
The culminating paper for my Greek Exegesis class was on Mark 10:46-52. This is a text that in my exploration of its original language I have found a deep fondness for, so any time it pops up in the lectionary, I get really excited!
For the exegesis paper, I had to translate the text and defend my decisions for why I used this word here, that word there, and so on. Most of the time, for a student like me in a paper like this, nothing particularly interesting comes from the exercise. In the end we look at the NRSV or some other translation and say, well they sure said it a lot better than I did!
However, I did come across something very interesting, and it is something that has stuck with me since. Now, the way the King James and some other translations read this in Bartimaeus’ request is: “That I might receive my sight.” This is a fine translation. After all, Bartimaeus has been described as a blind beggar outside the walls of Jericho, and what else would a blind man ask for?
At the same time, The Greek word anablepo, which means “to look up” or “recover sight” is present in verse 51 where Bartimaeus is making his request. This is a small but incredibly significant piece that changes the way we understand the text. A much fuller translation of the request this blind beggar makes to Christ would be, “My teacher, let me see again.”
Again! How much can be changed by one word! When we read this healing account with the modifying “again,” we realize there are so many implications for what is happening here.
First of all, a few observations. This is the last of the healing narratives in Mark. The close of this chapter closes the narrative arc we have been travelling with Jesus and his disciples as they minister to people all over the countryside. The beginning of chapter 11 marks the start of Jesus’ passion narrative in his entrance into Jerusalem.
Another thing to notice is that Jesus performs this healing on the road. They are literally leaving Jericho, presumably on their way to Jerusalem, when Bartimaeus shouts out for Jesus’ attention, and Jesus stops, turns, and attends to this man. Jesus ministry does not stop just because he is on his way somewhere.
And it is not only Jesus and his disciples, but “a large crowd” that was with them; so Bartimaeus has his work cut out for him to get the Rabbi’s attention. Jesus is on the move, and if he doesn’t act fast, he is going to miss his opportunity.
Finally, a critically important thing to notice is that this blind beggar is named: Bartimaeus. And not only do we learn his name, we learn who his father is as well: Timaeus. No other information is given to us: who was Timaeus? What was his position in Jericho? Was he a leader? A mover and a shaker?
Really, none of that matters. What does matter is that he is named, and in Jesus’ world, the named were important. By naming Bartimaeus, Mark sets him apart from most of the others Jesus has healed during his ministry. Most were nameless: the blind man, the paralyzed man, the woman, the demon-possessed man. The next closest we get to a named person is Jairus’ daughter, but even then we do not know the name of the girl herself who was restored.
Furthermore, this isn’t the first blind man that Jesus has healed; we read of a similar encounter in chapter 8:22-26, and Mark in his urgency is not one to make many repetitions. So we become acutely aware that there is something bigger going on in this story.
Unlike the blind man in chapter 8, Bartimaeus is hardly passive. When he hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by, he immediately takes up the cry, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “This is the first time that ‘Son of David’ as a title is applied to Jesus. It clearly is a royal title hearkening back to King David, and this will become evident when Jesus soon enters into Jerusalem and is given a royal, Davidic greeting” (Hoffman).
In fact, Bartimaeus is incredibly perceptive about who this Jesus is when we contrast this story with what comes immediately before it. In verses 28-45 we find two moments with three of the better-known disciples. Peter is having trouble recognizing the importance of what Jesus is teaching them, particularly about his impending death in Jerusalem. And then James and John, Zebedee’s boys, ask him to “do for us whatever we ask of you” (10:35) (a reversal of the question Jesus poses to Bartimaeus, mind you!), which is to grant that they get a seat of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand in the coming kingdom. These guys just don’t get it! But Bartimaeus does!
When we translate verse 51 to include that word “again,” everything we know about Bartimaeus changes. We know that he was, at some point in his life, able to see. We know that whatever caused him to become blind, illness or accident, relegated him to life outside the city walls of Jericho as a beggar. We know that as a blind beggar he has lived, likely for years, outside of the community. So when Jesus approaches, he knows deep down in the warm heart of his soul that this is his opportunity to regain his place in the community.
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Isaiah 6 and Hebrews 4 and the scriptural influence on our Reformed worship tradition. In that we explored the three movements of our worship: Approaching God, Listening to God, and Responding to God. In that sermon, we looked more at the first two aspects of our worship.
Today, we find a text that speaks directly into our Response to God. In fact, we see in this scripture all three movements: Bartimaeus yells out for Jesus, Bartimaeus encounters and is healed by Jesus, and Bartimaeus responds to his healing.
When we worship, we do not come simply to hear a nice sermon, sing a couple of pretty songs, make a donation, and then leave. If that is the point of our worship, then we might as well nail closed the doors today. Worship is about honoring God, listening to God, and responding to God. In our worship, in our confession, healing, and renewal, we are called, above all else, to live changed, renewed lives.
When people ask you what you do on Sunday mornings, what do you tell them? My guess is that most of us reply by saying, “I go to church.” Not a bad answer, I suppose, but not what I think Bartimaeus would say.
When we say, “I go to church,” we are implying that we are a consumer of a product. “Church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services. People come to church to be ‘fed,’ to have their needs met through quality programs, and to have the professionals teach their children about God.”
Now if we stop reading this mornings text halfway through verse 52, then yes, that is what Bartimaeus gets, and that is where our sermon ends. But that is not where the verse ends, that is not who Bartimaeus is, and that is not who we are called to be.
Instead, we are called to be a “Missional Church.” Our reply about Sunday mornings should be, “I am the church.” This indicates “A body of people sent on mission who gather in community for worship, community encouragement and teaching from the Word in addition to what they are self-feeding themselves throughout the week.” To go out and find the Bartimaeus’ of our communities and our world and give their suffering voice that they, too, might be healed.
Can we see the difference here? Bartimaeus, upon regaining his sight, “followed [Jesus] on the way” (10:52b). Everything Bartimaeus does in this story is a response. He hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth, so he shouts out! Obviously he has heard about this guy, and something tells me he has been waiting for his chance to meet him. Then those around him tell him to “Be quiet!” You’re making a scene! His response to that? Shout out even more loudly! And then, when he is called forward to see Jesus, what is Bartimaeus’ response? He throws off his cloak, springs up and goes to Jesus.
This is not unimportant. He is a beggar. His cloak is likely his most precious possession. Not only does it keep him warm on cold nights, but anything he has collected in his begging is probably in that cloak, yet he casts it aside on his journey to being made new.
Do we have that much courage? Would we cast off all that we own, all that is precious to us, for the chance to be made new by Jesus? My guess is that most of us, myself included, would respond more like the young rich man than like our friend Bartimaeus, weeping at the prospect of losing our valuable things.
We have in Bartimaeus, a model for joy in unbridled response to God. This is a healing story, but that is incidental. Rather, this is a story about discipleship. Bartimaeus teaches us how to cast off our consumer culture where we ask, ‘what’s in it for me?’ and reframes our vision to ask, ‘what can we do for God?’ We have been there before. Do we have the courage to become that again? Amen.
Hoffman, Mark G. Vitalis. “Commentary on Mark 10:46-52 by Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman.” Mark 10:46-52 Commentary. Working Preacher, 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary_id=2642>.
Vun, Lin Khee. Consumer vs. Missional. Digital image. Instagram. N.p., 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <https://instagram.com/p/86qtaljdmM/>.