In this reading from Mark a blind man named Bartimaeus shows us all something important about ourselves. Not so much that we’re all blind in our own sort of way, although I guess you could say that that’s true. But what I think is going on here on its deepest level, is that we see a man in desperation who comes face to face with a fascinating and powerful question.
Bartimaeus is blind and he cries out to Jesus when he hears that he is near, he cries out specifically for mercy, acknowledging his own need for help from a source outside himself. And so Jesus calls him over and gives him this question; “What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus often asks questions to the people he meets. And the kinds of questions he asks are cutting—they put you on the spot, and make you reach down into your gut for an answer.
He asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” To others, “Do you want to get well?” “Why are you so afraid?” “What are you thirsty for?” “Why are you weeping?”
“What do you want me to do for you?” What do you want, what do you need? What are you afraid of? We all have our own answers to these questions at different times in our lives, but deep down, after days or years of searching, I think our answers end up being the same.
We want to be loved. We’re afraid that we’re unlovable. We want to be appreciated, to be safe, to be comfortable, to be healthy and for our loved ones to be healthy. We want to be good friends and parents. We want to be a parent. We want someone to care for, we want someone to care for us. We want to be successful, we’re afraid to fail, we’re afraid to die.
When we can’t secure these things for ourselves, when our health fades, or our marriage fails, or maybe they don’t and things are supposedly great, but we just don’t seem to be able to find rest or peace in our lives—when try as we might, we just can’t save ourselves from the things we’re afraid of or manifest the things that we need—when life plays itself out like it does for each and everyone one of us, at some point we will all find ourselves looking for mercy and looking for salvation. As Martin Luther King once said, “we may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” We may think that we have different desires, but deep down our need is the same.
Almost ten years ago, when I was a Christ Church Fellow, I went to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on our mission trip. While we were down there we stayed at a place called our little roses. A home for girls who come from some of the most dangerous and difficult situations in the world. We had so much fun with these girls while we were there, but I was honestly pretty overwhelmed by the circumstances they came from and the road they would have ahead of themselves when they graduated and moved on. And we also spent time working alongside the members of an episcopal church called San Jose de la Montana up in the mountains in a squatters’ community. I studied Spanish in school, but I was a terrible student, so my Spanish skills were awful. The girls at our little roses and the kids up on the mountains learned quickly that they trick me and even convinced me to let them shave my head when I thought I was just getting a trim. But for the first few days of the trip I was overwhelmed like I said and I felt disconnected because of the language barrier and just incredibly far from home and what was familiar to me. One morning we went up the mountain and joined our friends for a worship service. They began with songs and welcomed us all again. They made announcements and we greeted one another but I felt completely lost. I smiled and shook hands but despite being surrounded by these loving beautiful people I felt disconnected and in an odd way I felt alone. The service continued on, and like I said I knew a little Spanish, but not enough to follow along or know what was happening. And then something incredible happened—something powerful. We all kneeled together and bowed our heads and we prayed “Dios de misericordia, confesamos que hemos pecado contra ti” and we prayed “Padre nuestro, que estas en el cielo”
We prayed the confession of sin and the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed and we confessed the very same things that were being prayed and confessed all over the world that Sunday morning. In New York and Haiti. In hospital rooms and resort towns. In a squatters’ village in the mountains and in Charlottesville, Virginia. We were all confessing our brokenness and failures; things done and left undone. We were all lifting up our fears and our need for mercy; deliver us from evil, thy kingdom come.
The immediate needs and fears of people around me that day and every day, regardless of where we are may look and in fact be very different than our own. But eventually we all find ourselves on the wrong side of the line of righteousness and immortality. Every single one of us. All of us become haunted at some point by this fact that we aren’t perfect, and that we can’t save ourselves. Deep down the human condition is universal, but it’s met with the universal truth of the Gospel: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
It turns out that this haunting feeling is another word for faith. The blind man cries out for mercy, he says that he’s scared and try as he might he can’t see any way forward, he can’t save himself. He’s haunted by his blindness, his brokenness, and cries out for salvation. Jesus heals him and says, “your faith has made you well.” But of course he hasn’t done anything. All that he’s brought to the table is his fear and his need, and Jesus gives him everything, even his life.
This passage is a reminder that this life of shared suffering is also a life in which our eyes are opened and we sees things as they are—not only that we are not the only ones struggling, but what we see with this corrected vision is Jesus with us, treading a path that converts death into resurrection—that transforms brokenness into new life.
I was talking to Ethan Richardson yesterday and he was asking me how my sermon prep was going. I said that I still needed an illustration to finish it and I was really looking for something funny and of course something that makes me look as creative and clever as possible. I was thinking about this question Jesus asks us—“what do you want me to do for you?”—the question piercing beneath everything we do and everything we fear and I was thinking about how it’s answered by Christ on the Cross, and put to death in his resurrection. Ethan’s a smart guy, so he just sort of smiled and said well isn’t that what the whole thing, what the whole Christian story is about. Maybe there isn’t any better illustration of death and resurrection than Jesus’ own death and resurrection and the power it still has in this world and in on our own lives.
“So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
[Later on] Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. She said, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” And she turned and said to him in “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). And she left and went out and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Risen Lord”
What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks each and every one of us. What we all want, and what we all need, has already been done and already given to us. Jesus reaches out his hand to us from the Cross and says, “You are loved. You are forgiven. Come and see.”