Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus compares effective prayer to widows being rude to judges and people waking up their friends in the middle of the night. Clearly just because we are kindly Christians, we are not expected to always be polite when something important is at stake. Rather we sometimes need to shout about it!
And when Bartimaeus does get Jesus attention and is sent for, we are told that he leaps up, throws aside his cloak and runs to him. This is quite extraordinary. According to Exodus 22:25-26 and Deuteronomy 24:12-13, the most essential possession of a poor person (and a beggar would undoubtedly be poor) is his cloak. It is his only shelter, and if it is taken it must be returned by evening. In Biblical times, moreover, the cloak is the “instrument” with which a beggar performs his duty: he puts it down on the road in the hope that passers-by will deposit their gifts on it . So this reference to the cloak is not just a picturesque detail, but an essential element of a story that is not just about healing, but is also about call. When Jesus calls people to follow him in the gospels, we see again and again the abandonment of the occupation and possessions of the person who has been called - think of Peter, James and John leaving their fishing nets or Matthew leaving his tax collectors booth. In exactly the same way Bartimaeus leaves the means of his livelihood and follows Jesus on the way.
Bartimaeus, a poor beggar, is every bit as important a disciple as those whom Jesus called first. If last week had not been St. Luke's day we would have heard the story about James and John asking to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus in the kingdom - and in fact Sherrie talked about that in the children's talk. Jesus asked them if you remember, 'what do you want me to do for you?'. They wanted power, prestige and the best seats. It is no accident that just a few verses on in today's passage Jesus asks exactly the same question of the blind beggar Bartimaeus, 'what do you want me to for you?'. To each disciple, as to us, Jesus offers choice, responsibility, agency. Bartimaeus wants to be able to see - literally; but also spiritually. He understands as James and John did not, that the disciple is called to follow Jesus on the way - what way? - the way that leads to Jerusalem, to suffering and an ignominious death. He can see with his spiritual sight, that the way of Christ is a way of service and suffering. Bartimaeus is the last disciple to be called in the gospel story. Often we miss his call, because we are paying attention to his healing. Yet of all the disciples he is the one who truly recognises the cost of this path.
Now the thing is, we too are Bartimaeus, and every Sunday morning, to say nothing of every day in our prayers, we are sitting by that roadside hoping for a chance to speak to Jesus. But I wonder if we really think that he will stop and call us and listen to what we need? Sometimes I think we just expect that Jesus will walk right on by - and maybe that is because somewhere along the line we do not have the courage or faith just to speak up and ask for what we need.
And maybe that is partly because we are not too sure in our heart of hearts what it is we really do want or need. We know that it is not a matter of material gain - and we are probably wise enough not to ask like James and John to sit at his right hand. When we are sick we know that we want to be well again but beyond that sometimes I think we are just not too sure and then become afraid to ask.
But there are some things that when we ask for them Jesus is always going to give. When we ask for more love, for closer relationship with Christ, for deeper faith and more openness to the spirit God is always listening. So then we have to start asking ourselves is this what I really want? Or in that request is there something I am actually afraid of - that like those early followers in order to answer Jesus call I may have 'throw off my cloak', to let go of some of the things on which I have come to rely for comfort and security in my life, and maybe even change my livelihood or my comfortable assumptions about life. What if this Way actually proves rather more costly than I expect?
These are questions that can inhibit us in our life of prayer. But they are also questions to which we can find the answer only by prayer. As we come each day before God and open ourselves to that simple question 'what do you want me to do for you.', so we are invited into ever deeper and transformative relationship. Little by little we find ourselves changed and our inner sight restored. For at the end of the story Bartimaeus is changed -and this tells us that if we genuinely ask God to increase our faith and help us to follow we are likely to find ourselves changed as well - probably not all at once but gradually over our life time.
So let us give thanks today for Bartimaeus whose story of healing and call gives us insight into what it is to leave everything and follow on the way. May we like him be ready to leave everything we have and follow the call of Christ, in whose name, Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Pentecost 22 Year B, 25 October 2015