46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49 Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Taken on its own, the healing of Bartimaeus appears to be a rather straightforward story in which Jesus restores the sight of a blind man. Yet understood within the context of the Gospel of Mark, it serves as a profound revelation about the nature of true discipleship, which follows Jesus toward the vulnerable rather than seeking its own influence and power.
The story of Bartimaeus functions as the closing scene of a larger unit of stories that begins in Mark 8:22 with the healing of yet another blind man. Together, these two stories of blind men provide the narrative framework for a set of stories focused on the disciples’ inability to understand that, as messiah, Jesus must suffer (8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-40). Using the blind-men stories as framework, Mark transforms them into narrative metaphors describing the nature of discipleship, first negatively and then positively.
The first framing story (Mark 8:22-26) presents one of Jesus’ strangest miracles. Traveling through Bethsaida, Jesus attempts to heal a blind man, but initially fails to heal him fully. After laying hands on the man once, Jesus asks him whether he can see anything. The man responds, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking” (8:24). Jesus must lay hands on him a second time before he can see everything clearly.
As a miracle story, this double-healing is merely an oddity, a miracle misfired. But as a narrative metaphor, it comes to represent the disciples themselves, who have until this point in Mark been blind to Jesus’ identity as the messiah. Immediately on the heels of this story, Jesus asks his disciples the key question of Mark’s Gospel: “Who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The disciples finally see Jesus for who he is, as Peter declares, “You are the Messiah” (8:29).
Yet it soon becomes clear that the disciples, like the blind man at Bethsaida, have gained sight only partially. While they now see that Jesus is the messiah, they fundamentally fail to understand the nature of his messiahship. In the sequence of stories following Peter’s declaration, Jesus three times declares that as messiah he must suffer and die, yet the disciples repeatedly fail to grasp this fundamental point, imagining instead that following Jesus will bring them personal glory and power.
The first time Jesus announces that he must be crucified, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. Jesus famously replies by referring to Peter as “Satan” and telling him that he is “setting [his] mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:32-33). Peter understands the messiah as humans would understand and not as he truly is. The significance of the disciples’ misunderstanding becomes clearer the second time Jesus foretells his crucifixion (9:30-32). Immediately afterwards, Jesus catches the disciples arguing about which of them is the greatest (9:33-34). The third time Jesus describes the suffering he must endure, James and John ask him if they may be seated at his right and left hands in his glory (10:3-37).
The disciples have misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ messiahship by anticipating that following him is going to give them power. Though Jesus repeatedly corrects their misunderstanding, the disciples cannot see the reality that following means not power and influence but taking up their crosses and following him in the way of radical love for the most vulnerable in society. Like the blind man at Bethsaida, they have been allowed to see, but they do not yet see clearly who Jesus is or what following him means.
I have come to think that this misunderstanding of discipleship is common among us as well. At a meeting of church leaders I attended a few weeks ago, one of the presenters asked, “What does it mean for us to proclaim the Gospel in a world that no longer seems to need God?” As I pondered the question, I began to wonder if in fact we do live in a world that no longer seems to need God or whether it only appears that way from within predominantly white North American and European Protestantism, which has historically been heavily invested in our own cultural influence and respectability. In other parts of the world, and among the more colorful threads of the global tapestry, Christianity is thriving. It is churches like mine that are struggling.
It seems to me that it is not the case that the world no longer needs God, but rather that the world no longer needs a church that follows Jesus as a means of gaining cultural respectability, influence, and power. We have become too accustomed to being an institution where the where the powerful and influential gather to hear our preaching. We have too often construed Christianity as a comfortable middle class lifestyle that could never disrupt the status quo. Seeing only partially, through half-healed eyes, we have confused faithful discipleship with cultural prominence. And as our significance wains, we imagine that the world no longer needs God, when in fact the world no longer needs us.
Yet the closing frame story, the healing of the blind man named Bartimaeus, offers hope of a more authentic mode of following Jesus, an alternative to the half-sighted discipleship of the previous chapters. Like the earlier story of the double-healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, this one too serves as a narrative metaphor in Mark, showing the kind of response to Jesus that is possible, even if the disciples (and we ourselves) have fallen short.
The exemplary nature of the story is indicated not only by its position in the frame narrative, but also by the name of its main character. This man is named Bartimaeus which means “son of honor” or “honorable one” (bar meaning “son of” in Aramaic and timaios “honor” in Greek). In case we missed it, the story again describes him as “son of Timaeus” or “son of honor” (10:46). Twice named, he becomes a model for how one honorably responds to Christ.
Sitting beside the road, Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is approaching and, recognizing him without being able to see him, calls out to him, asking for mercy. When the crowd shouts him down, as crowds do to poor beggars who embarrass them, he cries all the louder, knowing that Jesus is not swayed by cultural respectability. When Jesus asks him what he wants, he asks to have his sight restored, and Jesus, seeing his faith, heals him.
Yet the key to the story is not the healing itself, but in Bartimaeus’ response to the healing. As with the blind man healed in Bethsaida, Jesus instructs Bartimaeus to go on his way (10:52). But Bartimaeus does not go away, according to Mark. Instead he “followed him on the way” (10:52).
We do not hear of Bartimaeus again, but given that in the next verse (11:1) we find Jesus entering into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we must imagine Bartimaeus has fallen into step behind Jesus, walking with him toward the humiliation and suffering of the cross. He has followed without question, never asking where they are going or what will happen when they get there. Unlike the disciples, he does not compete to be the greatest. Nor does he seek a position of influence at Jesus’ right hand. In gratitude for mercy received, he simply follows Jesus.
For Mark, this is the essence of discipleship: to follow Jesus along the way, wherever that way may lead. And if Jesus is who Mark says he is, we must believe that following Jesus would lead us toward the most vulnerable in society, toward those who have been left on the streets to beg, toward those who have been shouted down by the crowds, toward those who have been treated mercilessly. The world needs a church that sees clearly, like Bartimaeus, and not a half-sighted church that seeks its own glory. It needs not a church that seeks to restore its place of honor in society, but a church willing to risk itself on behalf of those who suffer, to give up its life so that others may live.