Philip Yancey, in 2006, wrote a fantastic article on prayer and the homeless.
It really started with his wife, a veteran of inner-city ministry, saying to him: “If you’re writing a book about prayer, you should hang around the homeless for a while… Street people pray as a necessity, not a luxury.”
Her advice made sense, especially after he interviewed Mike Yankoski, a Westmont College student who, along with a friend, left school for five months to live on the street. Mike told him that homeless people, having hit bottom, don’t waste time building up an image or trying to conform. And they pray without pretense, a refreshing contrast to what he found in some churches.
As an example, Mike said: “My friend and I were playing guitars and singing ‘As the Deer Panteth for the Water’ when David, a homeless man we knew, started weeping. ‘That’s what I want, man,’ he said. ‘I want that water. I’m an alcoholic, but I want to be healed.’ As I spent more time with David, I realized that a connection with God is his only hope for healing. He simply doesn’t have the inner strength. He relies on prayer as a lifeline.”
A necessity. A lifeline. A lack of pretense. All of this is something we ought to take notice of when we read this passage in Mark about Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.
As a homeless, blind, and desperate man, Bartimaeus did something that was so striking, so powerful, so radical that Mark felt it was necessary to put his story in the Gospel. It’s well known that Jesus healed many people, but Bartimaeus sticks out as a singular entry. There’s many reasons why, but to be sure, the importance of the story should not be lost on us, because like those folks on the street in Yancey’s story, Bartimaeus had a need that compelled him to act–and that was immediately met with opposition. That opposition is central to this story, and why I think Mark wrote it down.
Who’s Got the Microphone?
One of the things we need to take into account in this story is of course, the primary actor, Bartimaeus.
Not much is told to us about him. He’s relatively unknown, but we know enough about him to get a picture of him. First of all, before his name, we’re given his identity: that of a Blind Beggar. Being blind meant being a beggar; one couldn’t usually find work back then would take a blind man as an employee. Secondly, his family is a known family, and the people of Jericho likely know his background, his heritage, and that he’s been a beggar for probably years. Third, since we know he had a family, either A) they disowned him, or B) there are none left to take care of him. Either are plausible, and either are relatable to our own age.
Here’s something that I don’t know if a lot of people know, but here’s some statistics on disabled homeless. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, somewhere around 40% of all homeless are disabled in some way. Meanwhile, just 17.7 percent of the general adult population reports having a disability meaning that a significantly larger percentage of people with disabilities are homeless compared to the rest of the population.
So Bartimaeus’s situation is not far removed from our own reality. Likely, he has been swept away by a society that would rather not deal with his problems. Many of those who are homeless are practically invisible to the general public, and the only reason they are so is that we have made the active choice to ignore them. What makes it worse is that there are so few who see the homeless as they are, and even fewer in a position to help them. Which makes Bartimaeus’s actions all the more powerful.
Jesus is one of those people who can help him, and Bartimaeus knows it. Jesus entered and was leaving Jericho, but at this point Jesus has become a well-known healer.
Bartimaeus knew it was his window of opportunity, so he seized it. When someone is given so few opportunities, and is then given an opportunity like this, who wouldn’t? And who wouldn’t shout out with all of their might? And who wouldn’t be rude? And who wouldn’t be disrespectful? And who wouldn’t step outside the status they have been shoved in all their life? Bartimaeus didn’t. And I wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise.
However, as there is in most of life, there was a huge barrier between Bartimaeus and Jesus: The crowd.
Barriers to the Savior
Mark recounts: When he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was there, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!” 48 Many scolded him, telling him to be quiet, but he shouted even louder, “Son of David, show me mercy!”
Now, we, the modern audience, hear this particular scripture, and say to ourselves, how callous! How cruel! How heartless are these people! Why would they stand in the way of this poor blind man from seeing Jesus? What monstrous demon possesses them to be a barrier to healing and salvation?
My brothers and sisters, Mark knew this would be the reaction to this story, but told it anyways, not because this crowd was in any way more heartless or demonic than we, but rather to put a mirror up to us, and to show us who we really are.
This past month, we saw Pope Francis arrive in the United States, a man of holiness and high stature in the Roman Catholic church. He met with heads of state, many churches, and made many public speeches. He also spent much time with people in prison, with the sick, with the homeless, and all of those who he saw fit to share his presence with. Both were well publicized. At every event, we saw on the road absolutely surrounded by crowds upon crowds. Now I posit to you: how many of these people were earnest people of faith? How many were simply there for a taste of celebrity? Are the two really so different and distinct? And have you seen the footage of people clamoring, clawing, and edging their way to the side of the road just to get a glimpse of the Pope? And if there was a poor homeless blind man struggling near the back of the crowd, hearing of this holy man, would these people be any less callous than the crowds of Jesus’s day in Jericho to blind Bartimaeus?
Now, I am in no way equating Pope Francis to the level of Jesus Christ–and I’m sure Pope Francis would be the first to shirk that equation!–but I can’t help but make the comparison, because it simply seems so apt.
People, by virtue of being limited and singular, are often selfish and ignorant. They aren’t necessarily malicious or evil in the intent, but if this was the case, then intent is irrelevant. Much like we, who tend to think we are charitable and caring individuals, are just as prone to selfish and ignorant action. In fact, I would say we would be much more inclined to selfishness today than even in Jesus’s time. The people of Jericho at least knew Bartimaeus’s name. Could you say that about the homeless in our community? I know I can’t. I’m just as guilty.
In our ignorant selfishness, we have designed a system of life that is designed to exclude, to put up barriers, and to ignore those of lesser status. As such, we are complicit in the degradation and the mistreatment of the poor, the disabled, and the alien in our society. I am not convinced that we live in a society of true freedom if we fail to acknowledge the lack of equality in our world. I am not convinced that just because there are fewer legal barriers to access to healthcare, community, employment, and education, there does not exist extreme cultural, societal, and financial barriers to these things.
A Hole in the Barrier
All this being said, there is yet a hole in the barrier. A hole in our ranks. That hole is created by none other than the love of God made manifest in Christ. In Mark it says: ” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him forward.”They called the blind man, “Be encouraged! Get up! He’s calling you.”
Do you see what happened there? Even though the crowd may have acted as a barrier, shouted him down, and barred him access, Jesus heard this man’s demands. As soon as Jesus heard him, and drew the crowd’s attention to him, everything changed. Everything shifted. Now, the people were on the man’s side. Now, they were passing him to the front of the line, giving him encouragement, and inviting him with all enthusiasm.
What a change that makes. What a change awareness makes. What a change love can make. It wasn’t even a huge action that Jesus that changed the man’s story. Jesus could have very well not healed him of his blindness, and still in that one moment, in that instance of mercy, of love, of awareness, everything changed for Bartimaeus.
Of course, when he got to Jesus, Jesus asks the famous question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Because as of yet, Bartimaeus had made no demands except that mercy to be shown. Well, that had been done in having that audience with Jesus. And so Jesus was then giving this man the opportunity of a lifetime, and asks he can do for this man.
Bartimaeus then makes his plea, “Teacher, I want to see.” If only that was our plea. If only that was all we asked of Jesus. We, the deafened crowds. We, so ignorant to the needs of others that we were more blind than Bartimaeus. We, who are a reflection of a numb and callous world. If only we were the ones who asked Jesus to help us to see.
What answer does this story give us? Not really a whole lot. Really, it simply asks us many questions. See, Mark designed his version of the gospel to be a test, one that ultimately asks, What are you going to do? In this story, the questions are asked of us.
Who has the microphone in our world, and who doesn’t? Why?
How many people do we ignore, the more they cry out? And why do we ignore them?
Are we the barrier to people meeting Jesus? Are we the barrier to people receiving justice, or mercy, or peace?
And if this passage speaks to you, if any of these questions break your heart, let me ask this one last one: What are you going to do about it?