Jesus heals Blind Bartimaeus in the story we are studying for Sunday, September 19 as told in Mark 10:46-52. The story exemplifies Christ’s call and the ideal human response. [Here are some questions on this text.] Here are a few notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are reading this story in Mark’s gospel. Mark is thought to be the earliest of the gospels, possibly written as early as the late 60s CE, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Or, shortly thereafter – it depends who’s trying to establish the date.
Mark is known for being direct and to the point; focusing intensely on Jesus’s activity from the beginning of his ministry to his death and his disciples’ discovery of the empty tomb; using “Aramaisms” or traces of the Aramaic language that would have been Jesus’s and his disciples’ first language; and being organized around “the Messianic secret:” the dramatic revelation of Jesus’s identity as God’s messiah, and then the full meaning of that identity, over the course of the gospel.
The story of Jesus’s healing of Blind Bartimaeus plays an important role in the gospel’s revelation of that Messianic secret. It balances an earlier story about giving sight to the blind, the story of the Blind Man of Bethsaida, told in Mark 8:22-26. That story is described as “a paradigm of the gospel” by the commentator in the Access Bible – it’s a two stage healing, where the first contact with Jesus brings back some dim sight, and then a second contact with Jesus clarifies everything. That story takes place immediately before Peter makes his dramatic announcement that he says Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus immediately starts explaining to the twelve exactly what that has to mean: arrest, torture, death, and finally resurrection. Which they completely fail to understand. Despite the transfiguration, and God’s instructions to “listen to him” (Mark 9:2-13).
Then comes a series of teaching moments (Mark 9:14-10:45). Spiritual healing that can only happen by prayer. Arguments about leadership that lead to Jesus’s explanation about what leadership means in his movement. The undesirability of divorce – which in this context likely means something about loyalty and commitment to God, and about God’s commitment to God’s people. Who can be a follower of Jesus, and what it means to be a follower, with the object lessons of the little children, who are the role models, and of the rich young man, who has so many possessions it will be hard, maybe impossibly hard, for him to sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor and come follow Jesus.
Finally, closing out this mid-section of the gospel, the story about Blind Bartimaeus. Who regains his sight just in time to see for himself concretely what it means for Jesus to be the Son of David, the Messiah.
This healing is the last thing Jesus does before entering Jerusalem, for the events that will later come to be commemorated by Christians in Holy Week: the triumphal entry, which in Mark gets about one verse; anointing in Bethany, cleansing the Temple, teaching, last supper, betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, burial, Easter morning’s empty tomb.
The setting of the story is Jericho, the profoundly symbolic gateway to the promised land, the city of Rahab the convert.
This story is the lectionary’s gospel for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year B – coming up in about a month this year, in fact, October 24 – and is likely to be one churchgoers have heard preached in church more than once.
CLOSER READING: It’s worth noticing some of the contrasts between this story and the earlier story of the healing in Bethsaida:
- Bartimaeus is named, vs. the anonymous man in Bethsaida; [it might not be a coincidence that Timaeus, a Greek-sounding name, would mean something like “honor” or “honorable one,” making Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus, a Son of Honor]
- Bartimaeus has an occupation – he’s a beggar – vs. the man, about whom we know only that he’s blind;
- Bartimaeus is already “on the scene,” vs. the man, who is brought by others – they are the ones who “beg” Jesus to help the man;
- Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus himself – a significant name, no less, “Son of David,” affirming Jesus’s Messianic connection; people try to shut him up, and he persists;
- Bartimaeus comes to Jesus under his own power – he “sprang up and came” once Jesus tells … someone … to “call him here”;
- Bartimaeus calls Jesus “Rabbouni,” “my teacher” in Aramaic, vs. the man who doesn’t address Jesus, though he does speak with him;
- Bartimaeus follows Jesus, vs. the man whom Jesus tells to go home without telling anyone at all.
Bartimaeus strikes us as an exemplary character, and a symbolic one. He begs Jesus, of Nazareth, Son of David, for mercy. Maybe not coincidentally, that has a liturgical ring to it. The mercy of being able to see – which could be literal and physical, but also metaphorical and spiritual.
“Calling” is involved, and emphasized: Jesus said to “call him,” “they call” him [whoever “they” are – presumably the disciples around Jesus], they repeat to Bartimaeus “he calls you.” Jesus’s calling is grounds for taking courage and rising up. Verse 49 is an epitome of Jesus’s evangelical command, and its great promise.
Bartimaeus responds – he was already ready to do that – by throwing off his cloak, which is presumably everything he owns, and getting to his feet and coming to Jesus.
The dialogue in vv51-52 creates a different impression in Greek than in English. After Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do to or for him, Bartimaeus answers, “Rabbouni (my teacher, one of those “Aramaisms”), so that I might see again.” It’s probably an idiom, but if we squint at it, it is almost like, if Jesus would be his teacher, then he would be able to see. Then, Jesus tells him to “go, your faith has saved you.”
“Go” is a common word, of course. So maybe it doesn’t mean anything special that Jesus has told a couple of other people to go recently in this gospel: Peter, in Mark 8:33, when Jesus has to tell him to go behind me and calls him Satan; and the rich young man in Mark 10:21, when Jesus tells him to go sell all his stuff. But Bartimaeus’s going will sure be a contrast to either of those.
Because Bartimaeus, now that he can see clearly, will go follow Jesus.