Today's Gospel: The sum of mercy

When Jesus encounters the blind man Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, in Mark’s Gospel, he has just unveiled the last of the three Passion predictions, in which he explains the suffering and death that await him in Jerusalem. Jesus is leaving Jericho on the way to his destiny in Jerusalem, and Bartimaeus is begging on the roadside. The identification of Bartimaeus by not only his given name but his father’s name as well is unusually precise and detailed for Mark. It marks, therefore, an important encounter in Mark’s narrative, though it might seem Jesus has more significant things on his mind.

The use of Bartimaeus’s name and his father’s indicate the historical dimension of this encounter and suggests that Bartimaeus became a disciple after his healing, since he “followed him on the way.” The memory of the healing on the way to Jerusalem might also have remained especially significant in the minds of the disciples because of its timing, since in Mark it is the last of Jesus’ healings during his ministry. But there is more to it than these convincing historical and narrative explanations. The importance of this encounter has to do with mercy.

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When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is on the road, “he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” Bartimaeus understands Jesus’ identity, for it is the first time in the Gospel that anyone has identified Jesus as “the son of David,” one of the most significant of the Messianic titles, connecting its bearer to the historical David and the Davidic kingship.

The response of the disciples is telling. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” and these many included Jesus’ apostles and other followers. The verb used here, epitimaô, has the sense of scolding, rebuking or censuring with contempt. People told him, basically, to shut up.

To Bartimaeus’s credit, he would not listen, “but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” Why would you shut up if the son of David is walking by? One wonders whether the fact that at this point, long into Jesus’ ministry, disciples are still telling blind men who call to Jesus to leave him alone offers us a glimpse into their stubborn lack of understanding of Jesus’ mission of mercy and the nature of their Messiah.

Bartimaeus has something these followers of Jesus’ lack: the understanding that even if he is physically (and spiritually?) blind, he knows where to go for the cure. He has faith in the mercy of Jesus and he will not be put off by disciples shooing him away as a nuisance.

Jesus stops and tells his disciples to “call him here,” so they go to the blind beggar saying, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Bartimaeus needs no further invitation, and “throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?,” is more powerful when you imagine it visually rather than simply as words on the page. Remember, Bartimaeus has twice called out to the “son of David” to “have mercy on me.” What exactly could this blind man begging at the side of the road want?

Jesus knows exactly what he wants, what the sum of mercy is in this context, but he wants Bartimaeus to say it again, not for Jesus’ sake or to exasperate Bartimaeus but for the sake of the disciples and the crowd, some of whom moments ago were telling him to be quiet, shut up, leave the great man alone. Bartimaeus simply asks, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus’ response is just as direct, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus’s faith leads to Jesus’ mercy, but Jesus’ mercy leads to spiritual discipleship, not just physical sight, as Bartimaeus does not “go” but “followed him on the way.”

Bartimaeus’ discipleship is the result of Jesus’ mercy and the reason why mercy must be at the heart of the church’s mission. Who do we tell today to shut up, to quit bothering the Messiah? Bartimaeus at the side of the road is an example for all those at the margins of the church calling out to be heard: Do not give up on Jesus; he will listen and heal those who call out to him. 

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