The story opens late at night. James and John, twins and disciples of Jesus, approach Jesus not with a question but a request. They tell Jesus, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus takes the bait and asks, “Okay, then, what do you want me to do for you?” Careful, now, Jesus, because that question can unleash our fondest fantasies, as if we were children set free in a candy shop or a toy store with money being no object. It is a popular question in religious America today. It suggests the kind of God being served up on silver platters from prosperity preachers. Listen to any of them and you will hear about a Jesus who wants to make you wealthy, and that James and John are the patron saints of prosperity preachers.
The Twins are the “Sons of Entitlement.” They are that part of us who longs for a dispensing God, a God at our beck and call, a God who cannot wait to hear what is on our shopping list of wants:
“O God, I need at least a 1500 on the SAT to get into my first-choice college. God, I want you to give me what I want.”
“O God, I need a better paying job and one that has good health benefits. God, I want you to give me what I want.”
“O God, I am sick and tired of taking care of sick relatives; it is time for them to get well or to get someone else to take over. God, I want you to give me what I want.”
You may have thought that there were two separate stories read from Mark’s Gospel this morning. The lectionary certainly makes that mistake. Actually, though, the story that Andy read and the story that I read are two sides of one story, strung together with Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” On one side of the story, James and John nuzzle up to Jesus and whisper, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Note their timing. They do this just after Jesus has given his third and starkest warning about his impending arrest, torture, execution, and promised resurrection.
Are James and John shook to their core about the news Jesus has just shared about his fate? No, “Sons of Entitlement” ask Jesus to serve up yet more privilege. To be fair to these “Brothers Greed,” it is not long before the other disciples become indignant at James and John. They are not indignant because they are offended by the request that the Twins make of Jesus. They are indignant because James and John beat them to the punch.
James and John are no visionary heroes in Mark; they are privileged blind men, blind to the way of the one who has called them. It is no surprise, then, that the other side of this story is about a man born blind who enjoys no privileges at all. Bartimaeus, or in English, son of Timaeus, has heard about Jesus and he will not stop shouting until Jesus has heard from him. Earlier the disciples tried to silence the children coming to Jesus, and now they try to silence this blind beggar, but he will not be silenced.
Blind Bartimaeus is like blind James and John in one way; he wants something from Jesus. He shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” After Jesus calls for him, Bartimaeus leaps to his feet and tosses off his garment. And that is no minor matter. When Bartimaeus leaves behind his garment, he is tearing up his Social Security check, his food stamps, his Jerusalem Subway Card. When Bartimaeus leaves his garment behind, he leaves behind the one piece of clothing a poor blind man could rely on to collect alms to make ends meet. Last week, Andy preached about a wealthy man in Mark’s Gospel who would not liquidate his fortune to follow Jesus, but here a blind man who is willing to place his entire life’s trust in the hands of a man he has never seen.
Jesus then asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus asks for his sight and gets it and is told by Jesus to go on his way. And yet, newly sighted Bartimaeus can see no other way to go than the way of Jesus, while James and John stand looking at Jesus and are blinded by their desire for more privilege.
James and John, the “Sons of Blunder,” are poster boys for the acquisitive spirit, that never has quite enough, that always want more, that part of us that wants more recognition, more status, fewer hassles, fewer obstacles in our way. Bartimaeus, though, is the poster boy for the grateful spirit, that part of us that knows we have enough now, enough of God’s grace and forgiveness and love, and that to follow in the way of the risen Lord is reward enough. Bartimaeus is that part of us that asks, “In thanksgiving for what I have received from your loving hands, O God, what can I do for you, Lord?”
James and John never get to that question in Mark’s Gospel. They are too busy looking for the payoff to discipleship, too anxious to have Jesus treat them the way they think they deserve to be treated. James and John are that part of us that knows how the world really works, knows that we live in a world where money can buy most anything – from elections to positions on corporate boards to “Get Out of Jail” cards, why not a guaranteed policy on eternal life?
Bartimaeus may get our sympathy vote in this story, but James and John are that part of us that counts on God to notice the cans we bring for the Food Bank, the number of nails we hammer at Habitat, the times we tutor a student, the casseroles we deliver to someone who is sick, the checks we write to Cove, the time we rehearse and sing with the choir, the hours we spend on Session. James and John are the voices within us that dictate, “Lord, you have seen what we have given; now we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
To see with Bartimaeus eyes is to see that you and I have no bargaining power with God. Whatever money or time or talent we give does not buy us any special status with God but is a tangible way of saying thank you to a God who gives us more than we will ever need. Just ask the Son of Timaeus.
There is an old question that is often tossed around at Christmas or for birthdays: “What do you give to the person who has everything?” In this story, begging, blind, Bartimaeus comes to see that he is just that person. As the story closes, two disciples who can only see what they want are still blind and one disciple who was blind can now see far beyond his wants.
In a world bombarding me with things I need and insisting on all the stuff I lack, I pray for Bartimaeus eyes, eyes to see God’s grace walking in the person of Jesus, eyes to see the garment of entitlement as something I no longer need or want. I pray for Bartimaeus eyes, those specially fitted glasses given by Jesus that will allow me to see the world, first and foremost, with gratitude and thanks.
O God, give us, we pray Bartimaeus eyes.