October 28; 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

Keep Going, Don't Stop

30th OTToday, the gospel presents us with the familiar story of the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. It is an important story because it is the last healing miracle to be recorded by St Mark in his gospel and it comes after Jesus’ triple prediction of His passion, death and resurrection, and at the end of the lessons given by our Lord to his disciples on the theme of discipleship. Thus, the story of Bartimaeus serves as a conclusion to our Lord’s catechesis on both His mission and that of His disciples. The clue to understanding this story is found at the end, where our Lord names faith as what impels Bartimaeus. The rest of the story shows us what that faith is.

 Bartimaeus alone grasps who Jesus is. So far, no one else in Mark has been able to perceive so much about Jesus from so little data. The title Bartimaeus uses, “Son of David,” appears only here in Mark. It is a Messianic title (earlier, St Peter had identified our Lord as the Messiah, but his understanding fell short of Jesus’ mission and role). For Bartimaeus, the title obviously indicates that Jesus is God's Chosen One, the Christ, the Messiah, God’s designated agent, and it introduces the notion of Jesus as a royal figure, an image that becomes very important when Jesus enters Jerusalem, goes on trial, and dies as a king. Ironically, Bartimaeus, a beggar, a man of little scholarly education and in spite of his physical blindness and all its connotations of spiritual ignorance, sees what no one else sees.

 Bartimaeus persists despite hindrances. People in the crowd rebuke him, demanding he be silent. It is interesting to note that the opposition came not from the Roman soldiers or the unbelieving Gentiles. Of all the places where challenges may come from, it came from the most unexpected source – the followers of Christ. But Bartimaeus is not daunted. Desperate people do desperate things. His desperation renders him incapable of taking “no” for an answer. Faith does not come easily to people in the gospel of St Mark; it must surmount obstacles and discouraging voices to obtain what it seeks. This is a person who has honestly come to grips with his own frailty and neediness and understands that apart from some outside intervention, he is totally hopeless and helpless. He is convinced that without an outside gift of mercy and grace he will starve, therefore he purposefully puts himself in the pathway of Jesus, he risks making a nuisance of himself, he makes himself available to be touched by the grace of God.

 Shame usually silences the person, even the desperate. But hope opens Bartimaeus’ mouth and makes him cry all the louder, “Son of David! Have pity on me!” The crowds may have wanted to spare Jesus’ trouble and embarrassment of having to deal with the mad rantings of a blind beggar, but they fail to see that their reprimand of Bartimaeus threatens to limit the range within which the Lord might dispense His compassion and grace. Bartimaeus knows better and persists.

 Another translation of Bartimaeus’ cry, “have pity on me,” is found in our familiar liturgical response, “Lord have mercy.” Our modern translation 'have mercy' is a limited and insufficient one. The Greek word which we find in the gospel and in the early liturgies is “eleison.” “Eleison” is of the same root as “elaion”, which means olive tree and the oil from it. We find the image of the olive tree in Genesis. After the flood Noah sends birds, one after the other, to find out whether there is any dry land or not, and one of them, a dove brings back a small twig of olive. This twig conveys to Noah that the wrath of God has ceased, that God is now offering man a fresh opportunity. In the New Testament, in the parable of the good Samaritan, olive oil is poured to soothe and to heal. In the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it is again oil that is poured on the head as an image of the grace of God that comes down and flows on them giving them new power to fulfil what is beyond human capabilities. Both king and priest stand on the threshold, between the will of men and the will of God, and he is called to lead his people to the fulfilment of God's will; to act for God, to pronounce God's decrees and to apply God's decision. But here Jesus is no ordinary King although He is hailed as “Son of David,” “the Messiah”, “the Christ,” which means the Anointed one of God.

 So, as blind Bartimaeus cries out “have pity on me” or “have mercy on me,” he is a representative of fallen humanity crying out for mercy, a cry for the end of the wrath of God, of the peace which God offers to the people who have offended against him; further it speaks of God healing us in order that we should be able to live and become what we are called to be; and as He knows that we are not capable with our own strength of fulfilling either His will or the laws of our own created nature, He pours His grace abundantly on us (Rom 5:20). He gives us power to do what we could not otherwise do. Bartimaeus, like all of us sinners, is crying out for forgiveness, redemption and salvation.

 Because of the persistence and steadfast faith of Bartimaeus, what happened next is surprising. Verse 49 tells us, “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him here.’”  Jesus, who was on His way to Jerusalem to fulfil His mission, stopped. Christ stood still. The Lord could have simply carried on with His busy schedule, but in His great mercy and compassion He stopped and took notice of the poor blind man. Unlike James and John in last week’s gospel, who had asked for seats of honour, Bartimaeus asks for the right thing. He only asked that his sight be restored. Bartimaeus seeks no special privileges. And he gets it right. The Lord has not come to bestow power and honour but to open our eyes to the new spiritual, social, and material realities made possible when God reigns. He came to offer us the greatest gift of all, salvation. Seeing his faith, the Lord said “Go, (or in some translations highlighting the word “way”, “Go your way”) your faith has saved you.”

 Bartimaeus is not the first person who approaches Jesus in faith, seeking a miracle, but he is the only one who ends up following Him, presumably straight into Jerusalem and into his confrontation with the priests, scribes and Pharisees. He follows Jesus on the road (on the “way”). He moves from the periphery (begging by the side of the “road” or the “way”) to the center (following Jesus on the “way”). The movement on the “way” actually points to Christ Himself, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our relationship with Christ is anything but ambivalent. If we are not on the way, we are most likely in someone else’s way.

 The faith of Bartimaeus comes as an important reminder during these crucial times. It’s been a tough year for everybody. It’s been a tough year for the Church as a whole. Given the current situation, giving up seems the easiest thing to do. However, giving up will only lead to nothing. These are times when we require the resilient faith of Bartimaeus, who in spite of the obstacles and push-backs, kept steady on his course. He kept his focus on Christ and did not allow the negative voices and behaviour of others to distract him or discourage him. His story is also a critical reminder that life may be full of setbacks and disappointments. The Christian community and the visible Church may fall short of our expectations, even leaders and shepherds can disappoint, but hope helps us to cast our vision beyond this passing world to have a glimpse of the eternal. While we sometimes get stuck focusing on the here and now, our present dilemma isn't the end of the story. God's plans are nearly always bigger than we think. The Church is much bigger than the earthly pilgrim church which plods along on its journey to its heavenly perfection. The sting of our relatively short-term disappointments in no way compares to the ultimate hope we have in Him, the One who does not disappoint.