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Bartimaeus Eyes

Text: Mark 10:35-52


Imagine a visitor noisily walking up one of these aisles fifteen minutes after the service has begun. The visitor who has disrupted the service and caught yours and everyone else’s attention now takes a seat next to you. The visitor is Jesus. Not knowing exactly what to do, you offer to share your bulletin with him and you quietly ask that he lower his voice since I have already started my sermon, but instead, he asks you in a not-so-quiet voice, “What do you want me to do for you?” That question can easily unleash our fondest fantasies, as if we were children set free in a candy shop or a toy store with money being no object. That question, especially, fits nicely into parts of religious America today. It is the main question considered in so-called “prosperity” churches. Attend any of these services and you won’t need to use your imagination to wait for Jesus to ask you what you want from him. You will hear sermon after sermon about a well-to-do Jesus who already knows what you want; you want to be well-to-do just like him. James and John are patron saints of today’s prosperity churches; they are what a friend of mine calls the “Sons of Entitlement.” They are that part of us that wants God to be at our beck and call, that part of us who, like James and John, assumes that Jesus can’t wait to hear our shopping list of wants: “Jesus, I want a better paying job and one with comprehensive health benefits and more vacation.” “Jesus, I want a car that does not live in the shop and never needs to stop at a gas station and looks really sharp.” “Jesus, I want someone else to take care of my sick relatives, because I’ve been doing it long enough. I’ve got better things to do with my time.” You may think that two distinct stories were read from Mark’s Gospel this morning, but actually, we heard only one story in two parts. The one story with two parts is tied together with the same question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” In part one of the story, while on the road to Jericho, 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 make this demand of Jesus just after he has given his third and starkest warning about his impending arrest, torture, execution, and promised resurrection. How do James and John respond to the disturbing news shared by Jesus? The “Sons of Entitlement” go looking for him to serve up yet more. They want reserved seats in the heavenly arena. To be fair to these “Brothers Greed,” it does not take long before the other disciples are indignant with James and John, seemingly for making such an audacious request of Jesus. Based on their track records, though, most likely they are not indignant because James and John made such an outrageous ask of Jesus, but because James and John beat them to the punch.

Mark, who never misses an opportunity to insert irony into his Gospel, conjures some serious irony here. 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 to follow him. It is no surprise, then, that the second part of the 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 won’t shut up. 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 small gesture. When Bartimaeus leaves behind his garment, he is tearing up his Social Security check, his Medicare card, his food stamps, his bus pass. 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. Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, a wealthy man won’t liquidate his fortune to follow Jesus, but here a blind man 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 had just 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 in the background blinded by their wants. In Mark, James and John, the “Sons of Blunder,” are poster boys for the acquisitive spirit, that part of us that never has enough, always wants more and when we do something of worth wants recognition, a gold plaque or public award or cheers from the crowd. Bartimaeus, though, is the poster boy for the grateful spirit, that part of us that knows we have enough, more than enough already, 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, what can I do for you, Lord?”

James and John never get to that grateful 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 civic boards to a “Get Out of Jail” cards, so why not a guaranteed policy on eternal life?

James and John are that part of us that counts on God to notice all the cans we donate to the Food Bank, all the time we give up to do church work, all the checks we drop in the offering plate, all the good deeds we do. James and John are the voices within us that dictate, “Lord, you’ve seen what we’ve given up to follow you; now we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

James and John get marquee billing in the list of disciples of Jesus, but I find Bartimaeus to be the real disciple in this story. To see with Bartimaeus eyes is to see that you and I have no bargaining power with God. Our gifts to the church come from gratitude and gratitude alone. They do not buy us any special status with God, no matter the size, no matter the sacrifice. God has no secretary that checks a special box with eternal ink noting: “Made an eye-popping gift to the church in 2023.”

As the story closes, two disciples who can only see what they want to see are still blind while one disciple who was blind can now see far beyond his wants. I cannot read this story and not pray that God would give me Bartimaeus eyes, eyes to see God’s grace walking in the person of Jesus, maybe even sitting next to me, maybe even sitting next to you.

If Jesus were to stand here next to me and ask what I want him to do for me, I hope I would respond less like James and John and more with the faith of Bartimaeus:

“Jesus, please show us how to curb and soon end the scourge of gun violence in America.”

“Jesus, please show world leaders in Europe and the Middle East the pathway that leads to peace.”

“Jesus, please show us how to debate with others without demeaning them.”

“Most of all, Jesus, please fit us with those glasses that allow us to see the world with Bartimaeus eyes.”

AMEN

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