Jesus said to [Bartimaeus], “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.Mark 10:52
A man runs up to Jesus with an urgent request. Again. Two weeks ago, I preached on a similar story, featuring a man running up to Jesus with an urgent request. But these two stories – both from the same chapter of Mark’s Gospel – conclude with very different outcomes. Two weeks ago, the would-be follower of Jesus went away grieving, and choosing not to follow him. This week, the man leaves everything and eagerly follows Jesus on the way.
So, what’s the difference between these two stories? Why does one man choose to follow Jesus, while the other man does not? And what might it mean for us, and for all would-be followers of Jesus? That is what I want to explore with you today.
The Rich Man and the Blind Man
But first, let me remind you of the story from two weeks ago. This was the story of the rich man who wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. He ran up to Jesus, fell on his knees, and asked him this pressing question. What must he do? The answer to that question would probably be different for everyone, as I pointed out two weeks ago. But in this man’s case, the answer from Jesus was not what he wanted to hear. Jesus looked at him with love, and said,
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
When the man heard this, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). He chose not to follow Jesus. The cost for him was too great. He could not bring himself to do what Jesus asked of him.
That was two weeks ago. Today’s story (Mark 10:46-52) is also from the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. But today’s story is very different, in many other ways. For one thing, we know the name of the man in today’s story: Bartimaeus. Church tradition suggests that Bartimaeus became a leader of the early church. The rich man from two weeks ago was never named, and is now forgotten to history.
But there are other differences between these stories. Bartimaeus, as we just heard, was anything but a rich man. He was, in fact, a blind beggar. Living on the outskirts of his town and community. His only possession of any value was probably the cloak he threw off as he approached Jesus. And after Jesus healed him and told him to go on his way, he did not go, but followed Jesus on his way.
A Lot to Lose or a Lot to Gain?
So, think again of these two stories, and of the differences between them. And think of the differences between these two men. One who is rich, the other poor. One who is healed, the other not. One who follows Jesus, the other who goes away.
What is the difference? It seems to me that one of the most important differences between these two men is that one has a lot to lose, and the other has a lot to gain. Bartimaeus has very little to lose. He does throw off his cloak in his eagerness to approach Jesus. But, other than that, he has nothing to leave behind. And what he has to gain is his sight, and a chance at a normal life.
The rich man, on the other hand, has a lot to lose. He is asked by Jesus to sell all that he has, and give it to the poor, which is a lot; he has many possessions. And what does he have to gain? Well, the promise of eternal life. Which is arguably a greater gift than sight. In fact, it wasn’t too many Sundays ago that we heard Jesus tell us to tear out an eye if it causes us to sin, for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than not at all. So eternal life is certainly the greater gift, compared to the gift of sight. But eternal life, ironically, is harder to see, isn’t it? It doesn’t offer an immediate reward. It requires faith and patience. So, the rich man has more to lose, and it is more difficult what he has to gain.
So, you might ask, where am I going with all of this? What is the point of all these comparisons? Well, to me, when I place these two stories side-by-side, I see clearly that Bartimaeus is how we are supposed to approach our life of faith, but the rich man is how we often do.
It’s not easy for us to have the kind of faith and trust that Bartimaeus has. Partly because we have more to lose, if Jesus asks it of us. And partly because it is difficult to see what we have to gain. We can be so focused on what we can see and touch and possess that it can be hard to see the gift of eternal life, and to recognize its value. It can be hard to “seek first” the kingdom of God, as Jesus commands us, because we have so much to lose, and because it is hard to see what will be gained.
Eugene Peterson on the World of Grace
Eugene Peterson describes this challenge in a simple but profound way in the opening of his spiritual classic, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” He writes that:
“This world is no friend to grace. A person who makes a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not find a crowd immediately forming to applaud the decision nor old friends spontaneously gathering around to offer congratulations and counsel. Ordinarily there is nothing directly hostile, but an accumulation of puzzled disapproval and agnostic indifference constitutes, nevertheless, surprisingly formidable opposition.”
It’s true, isn’t it? This world is no friend to grace. It is hard to follow Jesus in today’s world. There is an “agnostic indifference” to the life of faith that can be exhausting. A world that is so little focused on God and on grace undermines the faith of even the strongest among us. This world is no friend to grace. Peterson goes on to say that:
“People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel as if they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet.”
We all can experience this. But here’s the good news, according to Peterson.
“Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.”
This dissatisfaction with the world, in other words, drives us toward the promises of God. Think of Bartimaeus, who was profoundly dissatisfied with the way things were. Unlike the rich man. And this prepared Bartimaeus for the good news that Jesus came to share. To quote Peterson one last time:
“A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.”
Learning from Bartimaeus
Bartimaeus had acquired an appetite for the world of grace. He was dissatisfied with the way things were. He was not sitting on the side of the road thinking that the next Roman emperor would make things better for him. He was not putting his hope in a scientific breakthrough. He was not thinking that a pile of money would offer him a life of tranquility. He had lost hope in the ways of the world. And that made him ready to follow Jesus.
To put it another way, if we don’t know that we are sick, we have no need for a doctor. If we don’t know how much we need Jesus, we won’t come to church, or pray, or read the Bible. If we get so focused on the things of this world, we might live a good life, like the rich man, but we will still, eventually, wonder whether there isn’t more. We will lead “lives of quiet desperation” until we throw off the cloak of this world, and follow Jesus.
The story of Bartimaeus teaches us the life of faith is what we are looking for. The world of grace is what we seek. But we can only find it in Jesus. We can only find it by throwing off our cloak, and following him. We won’t find it by placing our trust in wealth, or politics, or in progress. We won’t find it in this world. Only in Jesus. And until we turn to Jesus, we will always have a restless heart in this world, a God-shaped vacuum in our souls that cannot be filled apart from God. Nothing in this world will satisfy, in the end. Only Jesus.
Here is an interesting thing to note about today’s gospel reading, the story of Bartimaeus. This gospel reading typically falls on Reformation Sunday, which we will celebrate next week. But on Reformation Sunday, we read from the Gospel of John. So, in my twenty-plus years of ministry, I have never preached on this passage. This year, partly because we have five Sundays in October, we finally hear this wonderful reading on a Sunday morning together. And I finally get to preach on it. And I am thrilled.
Because I love Bartimaeus. I love that he, in calling Jesus “Son of David,” already “sees” who Jesus is. I love that Bartimaeus insists on mercy. I love that he asks boldly for what he knows that he needs. I love that he knows what he needs. I love that he trusts in Jesus recklessly, throwing off his cloak. I love that the very first thing that Bartimaeus sees, when his eyes are miraculously opened, is Jesus. I love that when Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “Go,” he doesn’t: he follows instead.
I love his desperation, which led him straight to Jesus. I want to be that desperate. I want to know how much I need Jesus. But it’s not easy, for me, or for any of us. It’s why I love this story, and I need this story. Because it helps me to acquire or re-acquire “an appetite for the world of grace.” It helps me to have my eyes opened or reopened to what really matters in this world.
Bartimaeus helps me to remember that without Jesus, we will never be happy. And that with Jesus, we will always be blessed. So, let us keep throwing off our cloaks, and running to Jesus. That our eyes may be opened, and that we may hunger again for the world of grace. Until Jesus welcomes us to the place he prepares for us, and to the undying gift of eternal life. To the glory of God.