The section of Mark’s Gospel that we have been reading from the last couple of months begins and ends with a story about Jesus healing a blind man. In today’s story from chapter 10, the man called Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus in the street. And when Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him, the blind man throws off his cloak, springs to his feet, and rushes to Jesus to receive an immediate and miraculous healing.
The earlier story from chapter 8 is similar, but with a few differences. It’s only a few verses, so I’ll read it for us: “Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
The Gospels are full of stories of healing… blind people receiving their sight, paralyzed people picking up their mats and walking, deaf people who are suddenly able to hear again, and little children being raised from near death or maybe even death itself. Mark’s Gospel has two stories about a blind man being healed, and we may wonder about why there would be such repetition. The Gospels don’t include a story about every healing that Jesus performed, so why include two stories about men with the same ailment?
But the first story is different. It stands out from many of the other stories of healing because the healing doesn’t come easily. Now that I think about it, this story may be more similar to the experiences of healing that most of us have had. It’s not easy. It’s a long process. And we need help along the way. It’s the man’s friends or family members perhaps, that bring him to Jesus for healing. And it’s Jesus himself who takes the man by the hand and leads him to the place where he will be healed.
The first try doesn’t quite work. The man can see a little bit, but the people walking around look to him like trees. It’s not until he has received a second treatment from the healer that he’s able to see clearly.
It’s important to remember that the Gospels were not written as eye witness accounts of what Jesus said and did during his life and ministry. But they were written and compiled decades later by leaders in the early Christian Churches not only to pass along the stories of Jesus’ activities in the world, but to convey some important theological points about who Jesus was and what it meant to be his followers.
And so, as we consider this story about Jesus healing a blind man… taking him by the hand and leading him to the place of healing, putting saliva on the man’s eyes and laying his hands on him, and then doing it again until the man could actually see clearly… we are invited to think about the healing that we need in our own lives.
For some of us, the healing that we need is physical. We may struggle with illness, whether acute or chronic, and we need to remember that Jesus is taking us by the hand and walking with us through the tests and the treatments, through the diets and the therapies, and the sometimes long process of recovery. A solution may not come quickly, but Jesus is with us on the journey, placing his hands upon us again and again and again if necessary.
For others among us, other kinds of healing are what we need. Healing in our relationships. Healing in our hearts, our minds, or our spirits. We need to heal from past hurts or abuses we have suffered. We need to heal from anger or resentment that is still ruling in our lives. We need to heal from feelings of guilt or regret about mistakes made or opportunities missed. Although most people may be unaware of our need for healing, the need is no less real, and Jesus is no less present with us through the process, if only we will reach out our hands to let him lead us.
But the Gospel writer is very intentional about the choice of infirmity from which the men in his stories need healing. They are blind men, and being healed will mean that they are able to see clearly. After telling the story of the blind man who, step by step, and with Jesus’ help, is able to regain his sight, the author of Mark’s Gospel goes on to tell one story after another about the spiritual blindness of Jesus’ closest followers.
It’s not that they are completely blind. After all, they have understood Jesus’ message enough that they have chosen to follow him. But they’re kind of like the blind man of chapter eight. He could see people walking around, but they kind of looked like trees walking around.
Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Yes, he understands! But then when Jesus talks about undergoing suffering, and being rejected and killed, Peter shows that he doesn’t completely understand. He doesn’t understand that following Jesus will mean denying himself, taking up his cross, and following. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save their lives, Jesus tells him.
Up on the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before his disciple friends Peter, James, and John. Elijah and Moses appear, and Peter starts talking about building tents for everyone to stay in. He doesn’t understand what was happening, that this is a vision with a message from God about Jesus’ identity.
Next, the disciples demonstrate their lack of faith when a father brings his son to them looking for healing from an infirmity. They find themselves unable to do anything to help, but when Jesus tries, the boy is quickly healed. “Why could we not help him?” they ask. And Jesus tells them that they would have had to pray.
As they continue their journey, the disciples argue with each other along the road about which one of them is the greatest. In the context of their recent failure, one wonders why such an argument would come up, but human as they are, they each want to be the best. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all,” Jesus teaches them. “Whoever wants to be greatest must become the servant.”
Jesus makes it quite clear… being his disciples is not easy. It’s a life-changing decision with major implications for the way that they (and we) will live our lives. Followers of Jesus are called to significant responsibility and to give up our own needs and priorities for the sake of God’s purposes and God’s priorities.
Still, like the blind man squinting around at the people who looked like trees walking about, Jesus’ disciples can’t quite see clearly yet either. James and John approach Jesus and ask him for a special favour. When Jesus comes into his glory, they want to have the places of honour with him, one at his left hand and one at his right.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” Jesus says to them. Your vision is still clouded. You’re looking for recognition and acknowledgement when you should be looking for a way to serve. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s what following me will look like. You’ll see.
The author of Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus’ disciples as rather dim. Over and over again, Jesus teaches them, and shows them, and demonstrates again and again that his way is one of service and love, humility, self-giving, and even suffering for the sake of others. And they just can’t seem to get it. They just don’t see.
But despite their human misunderstanding and spiritual blindness, God is not held back from accomplishing his purpose in Jesus Christ. And today’s story about another blind man points that out. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar sitting by the roadside who knows, unlike the disciples, that he is blind. And so he shouts out to get Jesus’ attention. The people in the crowd, maybe disciples, maybe others, try to keep Bartimaeus from getting in the way. They tell him to be quiet, but he just keeps shouting to Jesus until Jesus responds and calls Bartimaeus to come to him.
Unlike the earlier blind man who needed to be led by the hand, Bartimaeus, with just a little encouragement, throws off his cloak, springs up to his feet and makes his way quickly to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks him. “My teacher, let me see again,” he replies. “Go,” says Jesus, “Your faith has made you well.” And immediately… immediately, not step by step or bit by bit… immediately he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.
Sometimes I think that our understanding of Jesus and his way of life grows bit by bit and step by step as we study and reflect and strive to put our faith into action in our lives. And I think with a little scolding along the way, Jesus is fairly patient with us as we try to get our heads and our hearts around the idea that following Jesus means giving ourselves and our lives for others.
But sometimes I think we’re also called to make bold decisions and take brave steps towards Jesus so that he can work to bring healing and transformation in our lives. Like Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, we may be called today to throw away whatever habits, or patterns, or comforts are holding us back. And like Bartimaeus took those brave blind steps towards Jesus, we may be called to step out in faith to discover the new ideas, and patterns, and possibilities that God has in store for us.
The reading from Hebrews this morning assures us that Christ is able to save all those who approach God through him because he always lives to make intercession for us. It is Christ who is praying for us… who keeps on laying his hands on us again and again until we can see… and who gives us the gift of faith so we can throw off our cloaks, and go to him, and be made well.
Christ is able to save us. Christ is able to heal us. Christ is able to transform our lives so that we can live as his faithful servants according to his way of love. Thanks be to God.