25 Oct 2015
“When [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out … [but] many sternly ordered him to be quiet so he cried out even more loudly …” (Mk 10:47, 48) In the name …
I really enjoy the story of Bartimaeus. Its honesty grabs my attention. A lot of miracle stories don’t mention the name of the beneficiary, but in this story we get his name and even where he lived. A lot of biblical scholars take this to mean that Bartimaeus was a part of Mark’s community. He was known to the people who were reading this Gospel. They knew that he was once blind and that Jesus let him see. And since the story ends with the message that Bartimaeus “followed [Jesus] on the way,” (10:52) words full of discipleship-overtones, we can even imagine that he was a leader in Mark’s church. As they looked at him they would have seen living, breathing proof of the power of Jesus. Bartimaeus brought Jesus close. Bartimaeus made Jesus not someone else’s story, but made Him personal. Who couldn’t feel the wonder of faith standing next to Bartimaeus when this story was told? Who couldn’t imagine what Jesus would do next? Bartimaeus brought the excitement of the unexpected into that church.
He brought that into the story even before Jesus knew him. All these good and decent people are surrounding Jesus as He walks out of the city of Jericho. Blind Bartimaeus can hear who they’re all talking about as the excited crowd begins to pass him by. He starts to shout out Jesus’ name hoping to get His attention, but the crowds order Bartimaeus to be silent. In Jesus’ day ailments such as blindness were not considered random or medical. They were judged to be God’s punishment. Bartimaeus must have offended God somehow and God had struck him blind. Bartimaeus was not only physically impaired, the crowds would have thought, he was also morally impaired. He was a sinner being punished by God. This is why the crowds order him silent. He has no right to infringe upon the attention of Jesus. Jesus is a holy man of God; Bartimaeus is a man punished by God.
As the crowds order him silent, our Bartimaeus only yells out the louder. This is his once in lifetime chance and he’s not going to let it pass. Bartimaeus doesn’t think of himself as a sinner no matter how many of the good and decent people around Jesus do. He’s not going to be defined and categorized by what others think about him. He’s going to break through all of that and meet Jesus on his terms. And sure enough Jesus hears Bartimaeus yelling out his name. He stops and calls the blind man over. The crowd immediately changes its tune. They reassure Bartimaeus saying, “‘Take heart. Get up. [Jesus] is calling you.’” I see Bartimaeus brushing past the whole phony lot of them.
All these people can see with their eyes, but they can’t see Jesus nearly as clearly as blind Bartimaeus. They tried to set up their own standards and tests around Jesus like a wall. They were ready to let in only the ones whom they thought were worthy. They were going to safeguard Jesus from people like Bartimaeus. They were going to control the faith so that it stayed the way they liked it. There were no imaginations set free about who Jesus was or what He was going to change and create. Bartimaeus was supposed to check his expectations against what all of these others thought and felt, but Bartimaeus would have nothing of the kind. He yelled all the louder when the crowds told him to be silent, and when Jesus called this blind man forward, Bartimaeus never hesitated. The Bible tells us Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang up and came immediately to Christ. The rules of the crowd weren’t going to keep Bartimaeus away.
Everything in this story points us in the direction of seeking God on our terms. And as soon as that phrase is said, alarm bells start going off. We hear warnings that we have to follow God on His terms and that anything less is perverse. But in the story of Bartimaeus we discover that Jesus is going to call each of us to His side. When we seek God on our terms, we’re only following His voice to where He is calling us from to where He is calling us to. And we take on the negative role of the crowd in today’s Gospel if we presume to insist that Jesus can only call people from one place and with one identical invitation. Faith and religion are not about following someone else’s rules, thoughts and experiences. They’re about discovering our own. That’s what can keep religion exciting, new and revelatory.
This doesn’t abandon us in the wilderness with no map to follow. We have the church, but we who are the church have to be careful that we don’t imitate the crowd yelling at Bartimaeus to be quiet. In the first words of our first church constitution from 1907, we declared: “The fundamental religious principle … is our teaching that the church does not save the person, but sanctifies him ….” Only Jesus can save. It’s in His hands, not ours. The church can help people to be holy, but only Jesus can save. The church can help us to be Christ-centered in our lives. She can guide and encourage. She can teach and inspire. Mass can bring us into God’s presence. The sacraments can share God’s gifts with us. Church can put us in touch with others who are trying to follow Jesus so that we can help each other, but the church can’t save anyone. Only Jesus can, and each of us has to make the choice to yell out, jump up and run toward His voice when He calls. The church’s job is to help, and God forgive us when we block instead.
I’m afraid, however, that we’re becoming a spectator society. When I saw pictures of the crowds around the Pope, for example, of people who waited long hours to get as close to him as possible, and who then weren’t even looking directly at him because they had to catch the moment on the little screens of their cell phones to watch later, I was amazed. We’re forgetting how to live in the moment. It won’t work that way with Jesus. We can’t be spectators at Mass. We can’t sit quietly as He walks by us in life. We have to yell and jump up and rush to His side just like Bartimaeus did. That such enthusiasm for Christ may be ours, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo