St Barnabas, Havana—Mark 10:46-52
I’m going to date myself with this, but one of the memories of my teenage years is a record—an actual LP—of Bill Cosby doing comedy. The most memorable line from that recording was its first one, when Bill Cosby just says, “I started out as a child.” The one thing I can safely say, is that every one of us either is a child, or once was a child—there are no exceptions! Childhood carries with it both blessings and curses. Children themselves tend to see the curses—they’re smaller than adults, they’re physically weaker, and they’re forever having grownups tell them what they can and can’t do. It’s really a pain … as I recall.
Adults, however, tend to get all nostalgic about the blessings of childhood, the chief of which is that if you get yourself into a jam, your parents will get you out of it—unless, of course, it’s your parents you’re in a jam with, in which case, if you can’t play one off against the other, you’re cooked! But if you’re in trouble at school, or with the neighbors, or you get lost somewhere or forget something, your parents fix it. You don’t always know how; you probably don’t want to know how, but somehow it happens. It’s just magic.
Eventually, though, we have to grow up. And one of the measures of adult maturity is the realization that there is no magic. Getting out of a jam costs somebody something. There is no free lunch; somebody pays the tab. Some people who are physically and legally grown up cannot face this fact. Intellectually and emotionally, they are still children. They cannot face responsibility for their own actions; they try to shift blame and shift adverse consequences for their behavior on to other people. They expect a Sugar Daddy to come to the rescue, to bail them out.
I suspect that it’s this sort of arrested moral development that lies behind many of our social ills, from crime to drug abuse to poverty. Many of us, however, who are well-adjusted adults, and make our way in the world fairly well, nonetheless revert to childish attitudes and behavior where our relationship to God is concerned. Children are always asking for things, telling parents what they want. Have you ever noticed how much we equate prayer with asking God for something? Of course, God invites us to make our requests known to him. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of our relationship with God.
In our catechism, there are seven different forms of prayer defined. Petition—which is asking God for something on our own behalf—and intercession—which is asking God for something on behalf of someone else—are two of these seven. But the other five—which are praise, thanksgiving, confession, adoration, and oblation—the other five do not involve asking God for anything at all. Yet, how much time do we spend on those categories of prayer in comparison with petition and intercession? Even our liturgical prayer—which is probably more balanced than our personal prayer—even our liturgical corporate prayer is filled with petition. In particular, we are frequently asking God for mercy— “Lord, have mercy … Show us your mercy … Have mercy upon us.” Asking for mercy has been a consistent feature of the liturgy, both in the east and in the west—but particularly in the east; if you’ve ever been to a Greek or Russian service, you know what I mean—asking for mercy has been a consistent feature of Christian worship since the very earliest times. And what is mercy? It’s a rich and all-encompassing word that includes, but is not limited to: pity, blessing, favor, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, patience, and understanding. This is what we’re asking from God when we ask him for mercy.
In the tenth chapter of St Mark’s gospel, a blind man named Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He had a hard time getting Jesus’ attention, but he eventually succeeded, and it became clear that he had a very specific kind of mercy in mind. He didn’t want just general blessing and favor. He didn’t even want money. He wanted to be healed of his blindness; he wanted to be able to see. Bartimaeus, apparently, was not blind from birth. He knew exactly what he was missing, and he wanted it back.
Well, Jesus grants Bartimaeus’ petition—immediately, fully, and without the drama and complication that accompany some of his other healing miracles. He just does it, accepts Bartimaeus’ grateful thanks, and continues on his way. But if we close the book there— “…and Bartimaeus lived happily ever after” —if we close the book there, we miss a very important point. The timing of this account within the larger structure of St Mark’s gospel narrative is critical. It takes place just as Jesus is nearing the end of his slow trip from Galilee to Jerusalem and the final drama that awaited him there.
Because of this timing, then, there is tremendous symbolism in the healing of a blind man when it happened. Bartimaeus’ gift of sight enables him to see. But he sees more than people and trees and sheep on the hillside. He sees Jesus enter Jerusalem, and he sees Jesus go to the cross. For Mark, this is significant, because the cross is absolutely central to his purpose in writing his gospel. Fully one-third of the entire length of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the three days of Jesus’s Passion and Resurrection. Some scholars have called it a “Passion narrative with an extended prologue.” For Mark, everything Jesus ever said or did falls under the shadow of the cross; nothing about Jesus has any meaning apart from the cross.
So, the healing of blind Bartimaeus, when understood on a spiritual and not just a literal level, tells us that God’s answer to our repeated requests for his mercy, even as Bartimaeus had begged for his mercy—God’s answer to “Lord, have mercy” is none other than the cross of Christ. If we look at Jesus but don’t “see” the cross, then we are as blind as Bartimaeus was before he was healed. The gospel of “Christ crucified” is the cure for our blindness. Those who would follow Jesus, those who would want to imitate him or emulate him, those who would ask themselves “What would Jesus do?”, those who would call themselves Christians, cannot avoid the cross. Why? Because Jesus does not avoid the cross. The cross is a scandal and a source of shame, a place of suffering and grief, but there is no knowledge of God in Christ apart from facing that scandal and shame and suffering and grief. These are the conditions from which we need to be healed, and the cross is the place of healing. Those who imitate the persistent faith of Bartimaeus—acknowledging his wretchedness, calling out for mercy, calling out for Jesus’ attention—those who imitate Bartimaeus in this way will share with him in the miracle of enlightenment, illumination, restored sight.
As long as we think of God as a Sugar Daddy, one who magically fixes things for us whenever we get into trouble, we will be disappointed. Of course, God is our Father, and we are His children. But that fact does not absolve us of responsibility for becoming spiritual adults, for becoming God’s grown-up children. Child-like trust in God is positive; child-ish spiritual immaturity is not. If our spiritual development is arrested, we are susceptible to one faith crisis after another. We get sick, and pray, but don’t get better, so we question whether God hears our prayers. We encounter financial hard times, and we ask God for relief, but things go from bad to worse, so we question whether God really loves us. We are horrified by the wars and conflicts that are going on all over the world, and we pray for peace, but the violence escalates, so we question whether God even exists. This is what happens when we look past the cross, when the cross becomes optional in our understanding of how the universe fits together.
But if we embrace the mystery of the cross, if we enter into that mystery, our eyes are opened along with Bartimaeus, and we know the cross to be not only an instrument of shameful death, a symbol of humiliation and defeat, but a source of light and restoration, and the very way of life and peace.
Yes, we started out as children. God invites us to see the light and grow up.