Bartimaeus and Jesus: a familiar story, perhaps. It contains a vital narrative beyond the act of Jesus restoring sight. Christians today, and perhaps especially Catholics, are coming to terms with the demands of discipleship. I would see this passage from Mark’s Gospel as an invitation for the sick person to see serious illness as less a path to life as it used to be. Illness can change us, to beckon us to new directions. Why not the path of discipleship?
Over the years, the Lord repeatedly confronts me with the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Maybe it seems a silly question for a sick person to ask. Is the answer always the same? Make me well. Restore my health. Heal my body, mind, and spirit.
For a dying person, perhaps there is a different answer instead of these. Give me relief. Grant me peace. Or even, take care of my loved ones.
Toward the end of Jesus’ public ministry, at least as Saint Mark relates it, Jesus is confronted by a blind man. Many of us know the story. The crowd shushes the man. Why? Is he unsuitable for the journey ahead? Is a suffering person seen as baggage to the community? Do the healthy have low expectations of sick people, especially those who struggle with chronic and debilitating illness and perhaps demand too much of our energy?
Note that when Jesus responds, the crowd changes their tune right quick. All of a sudden, they are supportive. Here’s the text in its entirety:
As (Jesus) was leaving Jericho
with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
“Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.
But he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me.”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
“Take courage; get up, he is calling you.”
He threw aside his cloak,
sprang up, and came to Jesus.
Jesus said to him in reply,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man replied to him,
“Master, I want to see.”
Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.
Scripture scholars would have much to tell us, but in the case of the Church’s liturgy, there’s a context with the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, or the sacraments. In this case, anointing or viaticum. What does it tell us?
- The Christian tradition affirms the sick person in her or his insistence on mercy. That cry belongs in the ears of the Lord as well as in the community.
- In calling out to Jesus, we petition him as a person of power and authority over our physical lives, and indeed, the entire universe.
- If sick people are indeed called, they are invited to set aside fear. This is not insignificant. Often in the Bible, a person approaches God, a messenger, or a situation, and courage is counselled. We need not go groveling and afraid.
- We can keep in mind that question, and be prepared to know, to really know, what we want Jesus to do for us. He asks. Having an answer ready, even an audacious one, is at the invitation of God.
This passage illustrates a very important principle in the potential of the sacrament of anointing for us, one that we often miss. The response of the sick person to recovery is not always going back to a comfortable old life. Sometimes this is impossible. New diets, new exercise programs, or even adapting to the loss of something physical or mental. The Lord invited Bartimaeus to “go your way.” What did the man do? He didn’t go his way. He followed Jesus’ way. He adopted the journey of Jesus as his own. To the Passion and Cross.
As the Catholic Church comes into a deeper awareness of the importance of discipleship, this Gospel reading is extremely significant. In fact, if the Pastoral Care rites were ever updated, I would say this Scripture could be the illustrative passage in the rite of anointing. At the moment, it isn’t.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.