The story of Bartimaeus’s encounter with Jesus is such a wonderful antidote to the stories we’ve been hearing through the rest of the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been having a lot of conversations with people who are curious about the kingdom of God and what their place in it will look like. Jesus explains, after a tense discussion with some Pharisees, that to enter God’s kingdom one must be like a small child, humble and vulnerable. Then, last week, we talked about James and John who wanted to secure places of glory for themselves in God’s kingdom. About thirty verses back we heard of the encounter with the wealthy young man who wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven and went away grieving when he learned that it would require giving away all that he had. Bartimaeus doesn’t say outright that he’s worried about the kingdom of God, but his request to have his sight restored sounds, to me, like a request to know the kingdom’s presence in the here and now.
It is interesting that so many people in the gospels want to talk about what it means to enter the kingdom of God. Having the opportunity to speak with a teacher of some celebrity like Jesus prompts certain questions that you might not have quite as readily with your next door neighbour, but it does seem to be something people are thinking about in first century Judea. Something they’re curious about and want to discuss.
Today, I hear very few people talking about how to enter the kingdom of God. I am most definitely not Jesus, but I do spend most of the week journeying around the city dressed like a priest and I have a lot of conversations about religion. How to enter the kingdom of God comes up very seldom. I didn’t grow up attending church regularly, but many of my classmates were devoted churchgoers and the conversations I remember having with them about religion revolved around the same topic that folk ask me about more often than you might think. It’s not how to enter the kingdom of God, but how to avoid entering Hell.
Often the conversation about avoiding Hell revolves around the sorts of conversations that Jesus has with Pharisees throughout the gospels. It’s about knowing certain things, about getting all of the details of belief just right, about memorising certain creeds or prayers or scripture verses and reciting them at the right moments. It’s about knowing the rules, making sure you’re believing in the correct doctrines about God and Christ and atonement and sacraments. It’s about getting your intellect in order, hoping and praying that your heart will follow the course. These conversations always make me sad because they are such a diminished, disappointing, exhausting mutation of our faith. And I think our friend Bartimaeus’s experience with Jesus does much to dispel this notion of intellectualizing your around an eternity in Hell.
On the one hand, I am a universalist. This means that I don’t believe an eternity of conscious torment in Hell is a possibility. I believe that, eventually, every person will know the eternal bliss of full, perfect communion with God. I do believe that there is a way to go between where I am now and that eternity of heavenly bliss and that the road from here to there will absolutely have some difficult, unpleasant, and painful sections. On the other hand, I don’t believe the most critical factor in working out one’s salvation is based on whether you’ve got all of your systematic theology worked out and neatly lined up for evaluation on the last day.
Bartimaeus has heard of Jesus and knows some things about him: He is a teacher and a healer and a descendant of David. This incident is one of the last stops before Jesus enters Jerusalem and the events immediately prior to the Crucifixion begin. In spite of Jesus’s best efforts to keep his identity hidden—a major theme in Mark’s telling of the Gospel—some are beginning to suspect that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. I think Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, has some sense of this. He keeps calling out to Jesus and naming him “Son of David.” This is true, of course, but it also plays into certain political expectations of Jesus.
The people of Judea have been waiting a long time for a leader to appear who will unite them, seize the government, form a militia, oust the occupying Roman forces, and restore Judea to the glory it had under King David’s rule. Of course, they would expect a descendant of David who is a wise teacher and seems to have a knack for miracles to do these things. Bartimaeus has very high hopes for what this Son of David might do for him both in the immediate moment and in the future. Of course, Jesus is the Messiah, but the plan for how to bring about all of this work is rather different than what people expect. Bartimaeus has some of the details wrong. Instead of shouting “Son of David” and hoping for a military coup and a new king, if he were shouting “Lamb of God” and looking for a sacrifice, or even just “Teacher” he might be closer to the truth.
Bartimaeus is also the wrong sort of person to be calling for Jesus’s attention. At this point, Jesus has developed a significant following and probably has quite the entourage on his way out of Jericho toward Jerusalem. Some of the followers are people of means and influence. VIPs in today’s political language. Somebody is financing all of this itinerant preaching and healing, after all. The traveling throng is not going to look favourably on a blind beggar, dirty with dust from the road where he sits, clad in the same cloak every day, smelling of unwashed sweat and bearing the other consequences of poverty, much less when that beggar begins demanding their leader’s attention.
Jesus, however, hears the cries and has his friends call out to Bartimaeus, telling him to approach. Bartimaeus tosses aside his worldly possessions, a cloak, and runs to Jesus, asking the healer to restore his sight. Jesus grants his request and says to him “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately, the beggar can see again and from that moment on he joins Jesus’s followers and walks the road to Jerusalem with them.
Bartimaeus is incorrect in some of his thinking about Jesus. This is not the man he is thinking of when he calls out “Son of David!” Bartimaeus does not have the education, the social status, the wealth, or even the opportunities for personal hygiene that many of Jesus’s followers do. Bartimaeus is not the sort of person the crowd expects Jesus to have time for because he is not the sort of person that they have time for. But, even with all of this stacked against him, Jesus hears Bartimaeus and heals him, making it crystal clear for both the healed man and the crowd listening that his faith has made him well.
His faith. Not his wealth or his status or his intellect or his politics, but his faith. The steadfast, unwavering faith of a beggar, blinded by disease or injury, means more to Jesus than any of these. Bartimaeus’s faith means so much to Jesus that he does two miracles at the same time. The first, the obvious, is the restoration of the man’s sight. The second is the changing of the hearts of the crowd who, from that moment on, include Bartimaeus among their number as one of the followers. In that moment, both Bartimaeus and the crowd who would have ignored him, stepped into the kingdom of God and were transfigured. They drew nearer to God, became more like the perfect selves they were made to be.
I believe, and I certainly hope, that most of us here have had some experience of the kingdom of God. Those moments where we are aware that we have brushed up against the holy, the encounters upon which we reflect for years afterward, the incidents that we can look to and realize that we were changed. Sometimes in warmth and consolation and love. Other times in fear and trembling. But always changed. Transfigured. Places from which we took another inner step toward the kingdom of God. And that is, after all, what all of this is about. Our worship and traditions and teaching and our Church and our work in the world, all of it is a response to our encounters with God.
Christianity is not about avoiding Hell. Nor do I think that it is principally about jumping through hoops for their own sake and doctrinal checklists and our gatekeeping who is “in” and who is “out”. Learning and conversation and intellectualizing can be great helps in reflecting on and sharing our experiences of God. But if they become our gods, we’ve lost the thread. We carry with us the light of Christ, from our baptisms, and we are meant to share it with those that we meet. To help them see and touch and meet God.
Even when we have clumsy language and filthy clothes and a crowd telling us we’re not worthy, just like Bartimaeus, our God wants to see and touch and meet and transfigure us in our faith.
Thanks be to God.