A sermon on Mark 10.46-52 for the Last Sunday after Trinity (Year B), preached in St Stephen’s House, Oxford, on 28 October 2018
Behold, if you will, blind Bartimaeus sitting in dislocation and darkness on the town’s dusty margin. His name is half Aramaic and half Greek and he must feel that no good has come of it. Called son of honour, worthy son: yet here he is on his beggar’s blanket so utterly devoid of honour that he is reduced to asking for small change from those who pass by on the busy road to Jerusalem. He is in the dark, alone, no doubt afraid. And so perhaps are we today. We certainly have every right to be.
Our world’s predicament requires no particular dissection from the preacher: on every level from the ecological to the political, from the international to the domestic, we appear to be mortally wounded and irredeemably dysfunctional. In the pursuit of peace, the powerful prescribe more weapons; the dogs of hatred are unleashed against any who are deemed suspect, however distant or weak they may be. The devotees of liars hail their heroes’ lies as truth and any who raise objections are jeeringly dismissed as losers. The times are out of joint in every corner of the world, most recently and egregiously in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — for the comfort and consolation of whose Jewish community let us pray to the Lord.
The Church, even just our tiny sliver of it, is torn and divided between those who appear to covet a supersmooth gleaming professionalism, seeking success above all things and valuing only what can be counted and assessed. The Cathedrals (once kindly Mother Churches dedicated to supporting their diocese and its parishes) have become corporate Head Offices, endlessly boasting about how well they’re doing or how physically imposing they are. Even the new monasticism seems designed chiefly for the young and the beautiful, which is, I confess, not my own recollection of the religious life.
Others, meanwhile, prefer to dance to an older tune, to care for the unfashionable and the fewer in number. Their heart is on the housing estate while others seem more instinctively drawn to real estate. Oh, that’s an unnecessarily pleasing phrase, no doubt; but it’s still a caricature capable of speaking truth.
Now, whereas you and I might see all this and sink slowly into something like despair, Bartimaeus nurtures a confident trust (Mark 10.52) in the one who will liberate Israel, setting even the blind to find their way on the road from slavery to freedom and from exile in a strange land to the familiarity of hearth and home.
So when he calls from his very depths, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”, he is not just addressing the Nazareth wonder-worker but appealing to the whole of Israel’s history as it resonates with all that God has been and done. His appeal, in short, is to the very heart of reality; and his request is not just for mercy in the sense of a physical healing; still less for a straightforward erasing of the contents of a charge sheet. He desires rather an anointing with all the grace and goodness at the divine disposal. For this shout of eleison (that we echo in our litanies and liturgy, in what Seamus Heaney calls “the elision of eleisons on stone”) is the full etymological cousin of the oil of the olive and speaks with the full richness of a symbol that has had currency since the day the dove returned to Noah with the olive twig in its beak.
Bartimaeus is therefore calling for light and warmth and nourishment and medicine, for the strength of the athlete and the blessings of the King. He knows the extent of his need, and recognises the source of its provision.
To Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do?” another blind man might have been forgiven for simply answering “Duh!” Of course Bartimaeus wants to see, but it is necessary to name his desire. And we also must face that most searching and perhaps frightening question: “What do you really desire?” It’s tricky, because we know the textbook answers only too well, and are adept at what we ought to say. But really to desire the God of life, and really to desire to follow in the way of our loving loser Son of David, is of course the work of a lifetime of formation and askesis and repentance. And, rather as in a marriage, it is the job of every member of a faith-community to help every other member in quickening that desire so that, as we used to sing when we were children, the Lord Jesus might ‘fit us for heaven to live with him there’.
And so it is appropriate that Mark opens the curtain on this last act of his drama with the healing of a blind man worthy of honour. It closes a bracket that was opened in Bethsaida, when another blind man was eventually given his sight. But spiritual blindness is a stubborn complaint and has a nasty habit of coming back. Three times between these two healings the Lord announces what is to befall him in Jerusalem. And three times the disciples’ response is wholly inadequate. First, Peter rebukes Jesus, only to be rebuked in turn. Later the disciples engage in a shameful squabble as to which of them is the greatest. Finally, the sons of Zebedee focus on their main chance and ask that, if Jesus is to be taken into glory, they might have the best seats in the VIP lounge.
We have more confidence in Bartimaeus, however. For his faith has been filtered through pain and purified by suffering, and when he is summoned to receive his sight he springs up with all the exuberance of King David dancing before the ark, or with the joy of John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb when he hears our Lady’s greeting. And as he prepares to move from the side of the road to follow in the Way, we are invited to permit this final recipient of physical healing to lead us that we also may go even to Jerusalem and see the things that will come to pass.
It is almost the end of the Church’s year, and we have very nearly read once again this gospel of Mark specially written for speechless and frightened losers (16.8). It is no doubt a good time to pray for the grace to be renewed in our desire and in our vision that we may have the courage to be voices of truth and joy in the Church and for the world that these days of deep darkness may be pierced by the light and the love of Jesus Christ. To whom be glory now and ever and unto the ages of ages.