Eyes to See
November 15, 2020
I spent seven years of my life in undergraduate and graduate schooling. I spent four years at Whitworth here in Spokane and then three years at seminary in New Jersey. These seven years were some of the most formative years of my life thus far. I chose to go to college and then seminary for the same reasons that most people do. I wanted a career. But like many of my peers, I also wanted something more than just a career. I wanted to do something with my life that was worthwhile and meaningful. Sure, I wanted a job that would support a family, pay the bills and maybe one day pay off the debt I was quickly racking up to go to school. But more than that, I had high aspirations of making a difference with my life.
College and seminary were these exciting and electric environments where I found myself surrounded by people who all chose to come to the same place because they had a dream, a cause, a vision, maybe even a calling from God. I was struck by the drive I saw in my peers all around me who wanted to change the world; they wanted to fix what was broken, they wanted to right wrongs, they wanted to feed the hungry, heal the sick. In my seven years surrounded by peers who had dreams, visions, causes and callings, as I watched carefully I was also struck by how often these dreams turned into a mean-spirited crusade.
Crusades have never worked out so well for the church. Christians have a long history of trying to enlist God’s help with their agenda. History and our social media feeds are full of examples of people who began with a dream, a sense of calling, a vision for a better world, but who end up just leading a mean-spirited crusade with Jesus slapped on the banner as a poster child. But Jesus is never on a crusade.
Just before we get to our passage today, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem with his disciples. He’s on his way to the capital city, the seat of power in Israel. And as they’re on their way, James and John, also known as the “Thunder Brothers”, pull Jesus aside and make a request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they say. This is a bold request; the “thunder brother” title may be well earned. But Jesus gives them a chance. He responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” The God of the universe is asking these two brothers what they want from him.
I can imagine the brothers looking at each other, a little stunned that their plan is actually working. Perhaps they’ve spent weeks trying to find the right time and place to talk to Jesus. They share their request with him: “We want for one of us to sit on your right hand and one on your left in glory.” They’re on their way to Jerusalem, the seat of Israel’s power, and James and John want in on a little bit of it. Jesus’ disciples don’t yet understand that he is going there to die. James and John, it seems, expect Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a stallion, seize political power and then kick Rome to the curb. The Thunder Brothers want to be a part of it. They want the status, the power, the connection to this world changer they now follow.
Jesus looks at them and says, “You don’t know what it is you think you’re asking for.”
I had a seminary professor who was a pastor for several years. He once shared about how he would sometimes have parishioners come into his office to complain about all the things that needed to be changed at church for their preference, or about how their many years as a member weren’t getting them what they thought it should get them. Every now and again he would hear someone say, “Pastor, I just want to get what I deserve.” My professor would get this slight smile, and he would chuckle a little bit as he responded, “Oh no, trust me, you don’t want to get what you deserve.” I can imagine Jesus looking at James and John in the same way, “Oh no, trust me, you don’t want what it is you’re asking for.” To James and John they think they’re asking for power, status, wealth, a seat at the table full of world changers. They think they’re asking to be a part of something great. And they want Jesus’ help to accomplish it. But they will soon learn that Jesus doesn’t market in any of the commodities they’re seeking his help to attain.
We can all find ourselves next to James and John. We know what we want and we are all certainly happy to let King Jesus help get it for us. But Jesus has his own mission. It’s not a crusade, it’s not success at all costs. He heads to Jerusalem to die for us, to fulfill his promise to be God for us and God with us.
Jesus and his disciples continue forward on the road to Jerusalem and that eventually leads them through Jericho. And as they’re passing through Jericho, processed by a great crowd, there’s a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. His name is Bartimaeus, and who knows how long he has been sitting by the road this day, trying to beg for enough coins to feed himself. It’s not easy work surviving off the compassion of others, but Bartimaeus is probably used to it. And as he sits by the roadside, he hears a great crowd passing by. He probably hears bits and pieces of conversation letting him know that this is Jesus of Nazareth passing through. Jesus’ reputation has preceded him here.
When Bartimaeus hears that it is indeed Jesus passing through, he cries out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” This is actually the first time in Mark’s gospel that someone calls Jesus, “son of David.” Son of David was a messianic title; a title reserved for God’s coming redeemer and Israel’s salvation. Bartimaeus is the first person to see Jesus for who he really is: God in the flesh, God come down to save and redeem. The disciples have been living and traveling with Jesus for a couple years at this point, but even they still haven’t seen who Jesus really is. They don’t see it yet; they’re blinded by their own crusades. It takes a blind beggar to see Jesus for who he really is: one who can offer mercy. Just think about that. There’s a beautiful irony in this. It takes a man who has nothing and is nothing to see Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3).
Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, but the crowd tries to shush him. They don’t want a blind beggar causing any trouble. But Bartimaeus is determined. He cries out all the louder, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” This is a different kind of prayer than most of us are used to praying. This is a request unlike James’ and John’s.
“Jesus, have mercy on me.” This is a prayer we save for the last resort. When all other options and hopes are exhausted, this is the prayer we shoot heavenward like a flare gun in the night. “Jesus, have mercy on me. I’m worn out and have nowhere else to turn.” We don’t usually like praying this prayer, which is why we save it for last resorts and triage situations. Usually we prefer James’ and Johns’ type of prayer, the “Lord help me” prayer.
You see, to ask Jesus for help is to tell him what our goal is. It is to tell him how we plan and strategize the ways he will be of help in this goal we’re trying to achieve. To ask for Jesus’ help in our attaining, our achieving, our world-changing, our finding happiness and success is to enlist Jesus in our crusade to get what we want, to change what we want, to fix what we want. We want Jesus’ help in our crusade to fix our spouse or our dysfunctional family. We want Jesus’ help in our crusade to make sure certain elected officials make it into political office. We want Jesus’ help in our crusade to make our friend see the error of his ways. We want Jesus’ help in our crusade to solve climate change or some other worthy cause, and to shove it down everyone’s throat who hasn’t yet come to see the importance of these issues. We want Jesus’ help in our crusade to find success, wealth, whatever it is that will help fill that emptiness that is tucked deep inside the darkest corners of our hearts.
But Bartimaeus does not ask for Jesus’ help. He asks for mercy. And here is what I think might be the most important line in this passage: upon hearing Bartimaeus’ cry for mercy, “Jesus stands still.” Isn’t that fantastic? Jesus keeps moving through the crowd of people who are asking for his help with their own personal agendas. He is not interested in notarizing their personal causes. But then he hears the cries of a man asking for mercy, and he stops. This is what Jesus came for.
He calls Bartimaeus over and the crowd helps him come to Jesus. I can imagine Jesus with a knowing smile on his face, perhaps glancing over his shoulder at James and John as he asks this blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“I want to see,” says Bartimaeus. Jesus responds, “Go, your faith has saved you.” These men are talking about the same thing. To have faith is to see. To have faith is to see how in need we are of God’s mercy every hour, every minute of the day. To have faith is to see that life can’t be achieved, it can only be received as a gift.
Bartimaeus could have asked Jesus for anything. Why didn’t he ask him for coins? One would think that Jesus would be an easy mark—a Rabbi looking to show compassion in front of a crowd. This was Bartimaeus’ chance to be a successful beggar. He could’ve asked for Jesus’ help in the form of some coins. But Bartimaeus doesn’t want to be a successful beggar; he wants a new life. And he knows that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the only one who has the mercy to grant him one. Who knows how long ago Bartimaeus ditched the “Jesus help me do this or that” prayer. But here on the road to Jericho, he asks only for God’s mercy.
These last eight months of Covid have been extraordinarily difficult and exhausting for all of us. As a pastor, for much of this Covid season I’ve found myself praying for God’s help with my own agenda. “Lord help me to do this…Lord help council make the right decision…Lord help the church have grace for me if I make an unpopular decision…Lord make this problem go away.” These prayers sustained me for a little bit, until they didn’t anymore. And lately I’ve found that the only prayer I can pray anymore is “Lord, have mercy on me.” I have no idea what I’m doing, so Lord, please just be with me. Let me know the depths of your love and grace for me. This is a fundamentally different prayer than one I spent the first several months of Covid praying. Because once we stop asking for God’s help to accomplish our own agendas and crusades, once we throw our hands up and say I am nothing and I have nothing, only then do we have eyes to see God’s extraordinary mercy waiting to be poured out upon our parched souls.
I am nothing apart from God’s beloved; I have nothing apart from God’s mercy. It is only once we stop trying to achieve a “good life”, an “important life”, that we recognize the impossibility of such a quest. Life cannot be achieved, it can only be received as a gift. I’ve seen too many people waste away their lives trying to attain and grasp for all that they think life has to offer, only to find it empty in the end.
Jesus’ haunting question, “What do you want me to do for you,” should give us pause. What is it that I want Jesus to do for me? Too many ideas pop too quickly into my head. Few of them involve asking for God’s mercy, for new life, for eyes to see Jesus for who he really is. Jesus’ question is ever with us, beckoning us to keep searching, to keep failing, to keep falling until we’ve found that we’ve fallen into grace.
After Bartimaeus’ remarkable encounter with God himself, our passage says that “he followed Jesus on the way.” I love that. Bartimaeus doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s just following Jesus “on the way.” Isn’t that what the Christian life is really about? We have no idea where we’re going or when we’ll get there. But we’re confident in Jesus, whom we are just following “on the way.” We don’t need to know where we are going because God’s mercy sustains us. When the winds of suffering and uncertainty rock the boat that is our life, we have the eyes to see that we are not alone in the boat. We have a savior with us. Once we realize that we do not need God’s help, we need his mercy, then complaints turn to gratitude, anxiety turns to trust, and the empty shell of a life we were living is made anew. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on us.” Amen.