Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52
In the Gospel which was read to us today we meet Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He tells his disciples three times that he will suffer and die, and be raised to life again, yet the Disciples each time misunderstand him, hearing what they want to hear rather than what he is actually saying. The journey picks up momentum, and the disciples and other followers are at once amazed and afraid. It is clear to them that something of great significance is about to happen.
The fame of Jesus and his great wisdom and power is perhaps what draws the rich young man to come and ask him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in Mark 10:17. Jesus loved this man, and invited him to come and follow but the young man had to walk away sad – he was unable to leave behind his life. Jesus could not give the rich man the assurance he desired. In his shortsighted impatience, the rich man walked away before he heard Jesus announce that the salvation of all people is possible with God, and not only life after the resurrection, but also a rich and fulfilling life now.
James and John ask Jesus to do for them whatever they ask. Jesus says “What do you want me to do for you” and they ask to sit at his right and left in his glory. Jesus tells them that to share in his kingdom means also sharing in his suffering, which James and John affirm. But Jesus cannot give them the assurance that they will sit at his right and left hand. Again Jesus is asked a question which he cannot answer in the affirmative.
What is clear is that Jesus did love the rich young man, and the disciples did say they would accept the great cost of following him. Why doesn’t Jesus give them what they desire? Glory, eternal life, certainty? The rich young man is clearly humble and teachable. James and John are clearly devoted and loyal. Does this not merit them some kind of definitive answer? These are strong, smart, powerful young people who surely could be great co-rulers in Jesus’ new kingdom, which he was going to Jerusalem to establish. Why does he disappoint them so?
In today’s Gospel Lesson we again meet someone who asks Jesus a question, but this time Jesus is able to give this person exactly what is asked.
Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, and like the rich young man he recognizes that Jesus coming by is an event of great importance. He is blind, and so calls out loud enough to be heard. The rich man with all the elegance of his refined personage is welcomed through the crowd such that he might kneel before Jesus. Blind Bartimaeus is scorned, as he shouts out “Son of David, have mercy on me” he is told to settle down, to be quiet.
One would think that after all Jesus had taught about letting the little children come to him and not hindering them, after what he had said about the last being first and the first being last, that the disciples and the other followers would realize that the downtrodden, blind, beggar is exactly the person who Jesus would most welcome before him. Yet Jesus has to stop the crowd and responds to Bartimaeus: “Call him”.
Bartimaeus cried out but did not expect to be welcomed, and so when he is told that he has been invited to meet Jesus he jumps up and throws off his cloak. And standing before Jesus, in quite a departure from so many other conversations when some pharisee or scribe, lawyer or disciple asks Jesus for something, it is Jesus who speaks first.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
He says “Rabbi let me recover my sight”
Jesus had asked the same thing of James and John and these two disciples who had followed him for so long were bold enough to think that they could offer themselves as Jesus’ right and left hand servants. Perhaps they presumed that Jesus would need them, that Jesus needed help in his work. Yet Bartimaeus knows that he is helpless. He doesn’t expect to be granted an audience with Jesus and he comes only with a need: I want to recover my sight.
“Go your way, your faith has made you well” Jesus says. Immediately he recovers his sight. Jesus can give to this person exactly what he asks.
This seems like a fairly simple exchange, one teaching us about the humility and sufficiency of childlike faith which many others in the Gospel story never grasp. Yet the situation of this miracle speaks to a bigger revelation, one which may form us as we too sit on the side of the road waiting for Jesus to pass us by.
The exile from the Promised Land is the drama which constitutes much of the Old Testament. The people of God had been liberated from Egypt to be his faithful witnesses in the land which was prepared for them, made distinct by God’s saving action, by the circumcision of the flesh and by living by a distinct law and practicing a unique faith. However the people of God were not capable of embracing their calling, and are easily swayed to behave like their neighbors. They ask for a king, just like other nations, and they worship idols just like other tribes. The strength of their character is eroded by generations of faithlessness and the time comes when powerful empires easily overrun them. By guile and by trade, by marriage and by war the Promised Land slips out from under the people of God until their beloved city of Jerusalem, the City of David, is sacked and the last remnant of their culture is wiped off the face of the earth. The rulers and priests are taken away into exile to work in Babylon.
This was a pretty good way of dissolving all the tribes and faiths of a large empire into a vast melting pot, preventing disagreement and creating some kind of peace. There are dozens of small nations, tribes, and faiths which are forgotten to history because they surrendered their uniqueness to the Assyrians or Babylonians or Greeks yet something different happened amongst God’s people.
While they were away in captivity, God spoke to them. He had been speaking for generations, but much of what we have recorded in our Old Testaments are the oracles and songs given to a people far from their land. I suppose they kept these words because they were finally able to listen. Our lesson from Jeremiah today contains the comfort and hope God gave to his people when they were in captivity.
The first assurance that God gives is that he has not forgotten the promise to his people that they would have a place in the world:
“Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth”
And so we are to anticipate a mass-movement of people who will leave behind their misery and go back to that place where they will be safe. The people of God will be gathered back from the places they have been scattered
“among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together; a great company, they shall return”
But this return will not be a war-march or a military take-over. The young and the strong may be summoned to fight, but the most vulnerable, the disabled and those bearing children, they would be left behind where they can be safe, left behind because they are not useful in a fight. God instead declares that these most vulnerable members of the community will go with the people of God back into the promised land. God will lead the people back in safety, they will take the easy and straight road, they will go slowly so no one is left behind and the only reason this could be possible is if God miraculously protects them.
“With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble”
Pleas for mercy will bring the people back, not cries of war. And this miraculous return will be a sign that there is a God who watches over his people, all of his people, even the weakest and most vulnerable. God’s people are not the strong or the proud but those who have no one else to defend them but him. Side by side with the young and the mighty will go those who cannot add anything to a fight and so Jeremiah speaks of God’s opposition of the arrogant who think they have knowledge or ability. But to bring back those who are the weakest is beyond the strength of the remnant of exiles, and so they are challenged to wait and hope with all of God’s people for God to act for them. God will make the path straight and none shall stumble.
When God acted to restore his people to their land he did so through a king called Cyrus, who was moved to allow God’s hopeful people to rebuilt Jerusalem.
The Psalm we prayed today invites us to share with God’s people of old the joy of their deliverance:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.
And yet even this Psalm is not only a thanksgiving for victory, but also asks:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!
Even after the return from Exile God’s people remained filled with hope for a future where they would be able to be the people God had called them to be. This is quite a transformation from the Exodus out of Egypt, when God constantly contended with a people who were stubborn and stiff-necked. Now, they hoped for a Messiah, that God would send his chosen one to fulfill the promises they had inherited.
Jesus of Nazareth walking on the way to Jerusalem is this Messiah and he has come to lead God’s people into the fullness of God’s promises. On his way he has been met by a rich person who thinks of him as a teacher to point him in the right direction and has been offered help by two of his disciples, James and John. But Jesus is not a wisened teacher who needs to be served, he is the Messiah who has come to be the servant of all, doing for them what they cannot do for themselves, reconcile them to God.
Jesus cannot teach the rich man how to inherit eternal life, because eternal life comes from following him. Jesus cannot make James and John his most important servants because he has come to serve THEM. But he stops and listens for the voice of a despised blind beggar who cries out for mercy.
With pleas for mercy he will lead them. Not with pleas for knowledge or position. With pleas for mercy. And so Jesus calls Bartimaeus and offers himself to be HIS servant – what can I do for you?
Bartimaeus’s eyes are opened and immediately he follows Jesus. Like the return from the exile, Jesus leads his people slowly and gently so that all who might otherwise be forgotten or excluded can come and meet him and walk with him to the fullness of God’s promise. He isn’t a purveyor of moral opinions to guide us, nor a leader in need of servants. He is God’s Messiah who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and when Bartimaeus followed him into Jerusalem he was a witness to the strange way of God’s salvation, with a cross and an empty tomb.
With pleas for mercy he will lead us, and with pleas for mercy he will make us able to follow, and with pleas of mercy he will work his gentle transformation amongst us.
May it be that we will learn to pray in such a way, not only for ourselves but for others too, and when we are healed from what ails us may we rise up and follow, because our Lord Christ is bringing about his kingdom in our day and we can see it if our eyes are open.
And may we do the miraculous things we have been called to, healing and loving, establishing works which change the fabric of our community, responding to the cries of those in distress because Christ in no way intends to bring about the renewal of all things, our return to a world God as intended, with our strength, intelligence, or skill, but by leading us slowly so no one need be left behind.