Seeing Bartimaeus

Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 10:46-52

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Seeing Bartimaeus

We know the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man sitting and begging by the roadside at Jericho. Even if we do not recall the details of it, we know the type of story it is.

There are a few odd details, odd enough to be worth pointing out. For one thing, this blind fellow has a name—Bartimaeus. Literally, it seems to mean “son of Timaeus”, and the wording of the passage in Mark’s Gospel may go a ways toward explaining the variation in Matthew’s account. Mark literally wrote “the son of Timaeus Bartimaeus”, or one might read it “the son of Timaeus ‘Son of Timaeus’”. The construction is awkward, and maybe the writer of Matthew’s Gospel simply read it wrong and thought there were two of them.

The Blind Leading the Blind. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1568.
The Blind Leading the Blind. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1568.

The important bit is that the fellow has a name. He is no anonymous leper or unnamed lame man. This is Bartimaeus, an individual with a past, a name, a face. He is not just anyone; he is someone in particular. One might imagine there was no shortage of blind men in the ancient world, medicine being limited and eyesight being vulnerable to such a range of maladies. This man’s blindness may have been common, but he is set apart, named, set face to face with Jesus.

That gives us hope. Our own maladies, failures and needs may be commonplace, but in the eyes of God we are not. In the eyes of this God, we are each known, we each have a name.

Continuing with the use of names in this passage, it is very odd that Bartimaeus begins calling Jesus by the title “Son of David”—it is the first time the title is used in the Gospel of Mark, and in this Gospel Bartimaeus is the only one to speak the phrase other than Jesus himself (chapter 12, verse 35.) Mark records Bartimaeus using the phrase twice, in fact, in this short passage.

Perhaps a man whose days were spent sitting by the road leading into and out of Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, would have been inclined to think in terms of history and of the passage of time. Perhaps he had heard stories of the birth of Jesus from other travelers on the road, and the idea that Jesus was of the house of David had impressed him.

Whatever the reason, Bartimaeus called to Jesus in a very particular way. He understood something of waiting, this beggar, and he understood something of seizing the moment when opportunity comes. By calling Jesus “son of David,” Bartimaeus recognized the long generations that his people had waited for the coming of the Messiah. By his insistence on being heard, despite the angry responses of the crowd, blind Bartimaeus demonstrated the importance of seeing the truth with one’s own eyes and acting on it.

It is also odd that Bartimaeus would have thrown aside his cloak as he rose to go to Jesus. The fact that he had such a garment speaks to his ability as a beggar. The fact that he cast aside something of such obvious value speaks to his recognition of the greater value of getting Jesus to see him.

Finally, there is the word ἀναβλέψω — ‘that I might receive my sight’, or literally ‘that I might look up’, or perhaps ‘that I might see again’. If it is the latter, that I might see again, then there is the implication that Bartimaeus was not always blind. It may be that he once could see.

It is one thing to treasure what we have. It is altogether another thing when we measure what we have lost.

We are left like Bartimaeus son of Timaeus. We sit in the dust, cloaked, all of history passing before us. Though God should pass close by, we cannot see, hemmed in as we are, crowded by the expectations of the people around us, anesthetized, immobilized by the net of our own ideas that keep us begging for scraps when we could look up and see and know the immanence of God.

Christ Healing the Blind, by El Greco
Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco. (1570)