Sermon for Black History Month: Jesus and Blind Bartimaeus
By Richard Reddie,
Director of Justice and Inclusion, Churches Together in Britain & Ireland
Mark 10: 46–52
Blind Bartimaeus Receives his Sight
46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means ‘son of Timaeus’), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
49 Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’
So they called to the blind man, ‘Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.’ 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’
52 ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
This morning we shall be exploring a passage of Scripture that will be well known to many of you. It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with a blind man called Bartimaeus as he was leaving Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified. This is one of my favourite Bible passages for a number of reasons, and one that I believe is apt for Black History Month, which we are celebrating at the moment.
The story starts with Jesus and his disciples leaving Jericho and they are being followed by a large crowd. If you know anything about Mark’s Gospel, then you know that he constantly mentions the crowds of people following Jesus as he travels from town to town sharing the Good News.
We read that a blind beggar, a man named Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside. In such a society, with no welfare state, the only way a blind person could survive was by begging, and Bartimaeus is no exception. In John 9: 1–12, we read about another beggar whom Jesus heals by the Pool of Siloam. What is very interesting about Bartimaeus is that we know his name. Often, many of the people who Jesus heals are not named. Think of the unnamed woman in Mark 5: 25–34 who touches Jesus’ garment and is healed, or the aforementioned beggar by the Pool of Siloam.
But we know Bartimaeus’ name, which in Hebrew means ‘Son of He Who’s Highly Prized’, or ‘Son of Honour’. A good name, but rather an incongruous one for a beggar. Names are important, they have meanings. How many of us in here today know the meanings of our names? Or the meaning of the names we give to our children? I think I was named after Richard Burton, my dad liked his films, although my parents often said it was Richard the Lionheart – I’m not sure what I make of that! In certain cultures, names signify a person’s standing in society or within a community. I know that is the case within African communities in particular. For instance, Kwasí as in Kwasi Kwarteng, our current Chancellor of the Exchequer, is from the Ghanaian Ashanti day naming system for men, meaning born on a Sunday’. In Ashanti culture, people born on particular days are supposed to exhibit the characteristics or attributes and philosophy, associated with the days. I don’t know what those attributes mean regarding our current Chancellor, but that’s another story.
As we know from the Transatlantic Slave Trade (TST), one of the ways of robbing a person of their identity is by taking their names from them and giving them other ones. One of the sad things about the TST was that enslaved Africans were often given names that ridicule or undermine. Imagine the cruel irony of being called Hercules, Zeus or Caesar, the names associated with gods, demi-gods and emperors, when you are a powerless slave.
Back to the story! We see that Bartimaeus regards Jesus as someone who can restore the honour that he lost; someone who can make him whole again, and when he hears that Jesus is passing by, he begins to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.’ Note that he calls Jesus, ‘Son of David’, which shows that he knows that Jesus is the chosen one, like David, and has the power to heal him. But the people in the crowd tell him shut up. I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but there is a Jamaican translation of the New Testament. In that version, it says the crowd tells Bartimaeus to ‘Shot im mout an tap im naiz’. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is too important to engage with this beggar.
However, all this serves to do is get Bartimaeus to shout even louder and he does this until he gets Jesus’ attention. What is important is that Jesus stops his journey, we know he is on a mission, but Bartimaeus is important enough for him to break this journey. And then he does an amazing thing. He tells the very people who have been telling Bartimaeus to shut up, to bring the blind man to him. Imagine the wonderful irony of this. Imagine how those people in the crowd felt. We know how Bartimaeus felt – he leaps to his feet and makes his way to Jesus. It is also important to note that he leaves his coat behind because he knows that he won’t need this again for begging, as Jesus will change his life.
So, everything stops, it’s all about this man and Jesus. The man who was once on the margins of life, begging, is now the centre of attention. Jesus then asks him an obvious, but important question, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ As people, sometimes the things we need are not the same as the things we want. This is not the case with Bartimaeus. He responds to Jesus’ question by saying he wants, ‘to see’, and Jesus obliges him.
What is also important is that Bartimaeus, after he is healed, follows Jesus, probably all the way to Jerusalem to Jesus’ crucifixion. In many other instances, those who are healed go their own way, but in this case, Bartimaeus follows Jesus.
This story tells us so much, and we can learn a lot from the central characters. We see the large crowd – we often associate crowds with followers or supporters, but they can be strange places. You can be in a crowd yet still feel lonely. But what about those who are excluded from the crowd – not part of the ‘in crowd’ – they are often on the margins, considered outcasts – people who are not valued or wanted. In today’s story, the crowd does its best to silence Bartimaeus and to keep him from receiving the assistance he needed and wanted. Are we ever like that, hindering those who need help? Or, are we in a position to provide help, but unlike Jesus, we are too busy and fail to pay attention to those who need our assistance?
Or, are we like the others in the crowd who used the opportunity to guide Bartimaeus to Jesus with the hopeful words, ‘Take courage; get up; he’s calling you!’ As Christians we should always stand up for justice and help those in need of it, to get it.
And then there is Jesus, who has compassion by the bucketload, and all the time in the world for those on the margins. He stops his vitally important mission to attend to someone who was ignored by most of the people. Jesus not only heals Bartimaeus, but he also brings him in from the margins into the heart of things. The Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives in so many ways; spiritually, emotionally and physically.
Finally, there is Bartimaeus, who would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He would not be silenced and insisted that his voice should be heard, even if it meant upsetting some in society. Black History Month has been an occasion to hear the voices of those who have long been silenced or ignored. Over the many years, it has brought forms of history in from the margins to the point where those stories are now considered mainstream history. While it is still Black history, it now belongs to all the community. When Jesus healed Bartimaeus he restored him back to the community – where he truly belonged.
As the people of God, justice demands that we ensure that people’s voices are heard, especially those on the margins, and that we work to make sure they are valued participants in community life. And unlike Black History Month, which is only celebrated for 31 days in the year, this should be our work throughout the year. Let us be the ones who say: ‘Take courage, he (Jesus) is calling you’; he wants to change your life.