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Mark 10:46-52: Let Us Pray
The healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 is a miracle story that is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. However, unlike Matthew and Luke, where the story falls towards the end of their respective accounts, in Mark it is positioned at the center, just past the midpoint, of his narrative. Accordingly, in Mark, the Bartimaeus story serves as a kind of gospel-fulcrum around which stories that come before and those that follow might be interpreted. For example, in the episode immediately preceding Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus, the apostles are jockeying for position; they want to know who will be at Jesus’ right hand in the afterlife (Mark 10:35-45). Looking back, the Bartimaeus story shows the apostles the proper response to the Divine; Bartimaeus is anything but self-centered as he calls out to Jesus from the side of the road. Looking forward, the Bartimaeus story points to the cross, to Jerusalem, as the “blind beggar” (Mark 10:46) literally leaps up and joins Jesus on the road to his earthly demise. However, just as the Bartimaeus story looks back and then forward in Jesus’ life, it also serves as a teachable moment to the reader, who encounters it presently in the act of reading. And as a story about the moment, the present encounter with the reader, the healing of Bartimaeus is largely a story about the human encounter with God through prayer. In this unique respect, it serves as a kind of instructive epistle on how to pray, with its language providing a most interesting road map to the spiritual life.
So much about prayer has to do with the present condition of the one doing the praying, the condition of the prayerful. In Bartimaeus’ case, his corporeal state is one of utter darkness, as he is identified in Mark 10:49 using the Greek word, τυφλὸν, which literally means “blind man.” In the verse’s structure, τυφλὸν is in the accusative case of the Greek word τυφλός, making it the direct object of the verb “to call.” So the blind one, the one in utter darkness, is the one being called by the Divine, the one in utter light. Jesus’ call to Bartimaeus is literally the seeing-one calling the blind. He deliberately chooses to call the one in utter darkness, and in that act alone, the moment is infused with hope. This is a particularly important point in Mark’s Gospel , since the only other place τυφλὸν appears in his account is in 8:22-26, where a similar account of Jesus restoring sight to the blind is told.i
Wolfgang Schrage, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, points out that the Greek word for “blind man” has both literal and figurative meanings in antiquity. As a literal matter, the one who is blind was thought to be not only unable to see, but also unable to be seen.ii This is most certainly the case with Bartimaeus, as he literally has to shout to be heard, to have others acknowledge his presence. Schrage underscores that, in antiquity, “the eye was the chief organ of sense,” so to be blind was “one of the worst blows of fate that could smite a man.”iii
Figurative meanings associated with blindness also existed in antiquity, but interestingly, according to Schrage, Mark is the only Gospel writer to use τυφλὸν exclusively in the literal sense.iv So his intention here seems to be to present Bartimaeus as a kind of sensual “clean-slate,” as one literally without sight so that all who encounter him, whether they were there in the story or just reading along for the first time, might just think that he could be them. And in this sense, Mark seems to set Bartimaeus up as a kind of “everyman” for all who encounter the story. Our way into Mark’s meaning is through our personal encounter with the blindness of this somewhat nondescript man sitting on the side of the road just outside of Jericho. We literally feel his isolation in his literal blindness, and that feeling seems reminiscent of the very moment that brings us to prayer—the moment when we are ourselves alone, cut off, where God’s absence seems palpable. The first act of prayer occurs when we close our eyes. And precisely, in that moment, we are literally as blind as Bartimaeus. But also, equally like Bartimaeus, in our blindness—or perhaps more accurately, in our darkness— we are fully open to God. The loss of sight increases mental perception, itself another commonly held belief in antiquity.v
Blindness marks the first step in prayer. But almost as soon as the eyes close, our natural inclination is to speak out of our darkness, to petition God. Such is the case with Bartimaeus as he cries out to Jesus in Mark 10:47, “ἐλέησόν,” which is the aorist active form of the Greek verb ἐλεέω, meaning “have mercy.” This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel where ἐλέησόν appears,vi so Mark is clearly making a point. Schrage points out that the plea for mercy is a typical feature in the Synoptic Gospels and is often associated with the plight of the blind and with miracle stories where healing soon follows with “suddenness.”vii So the plea typically accompanies the state of blindness, and as a literary device, it signals healing to come.
But it also further defines the blind state as a condition of darkness that “comes undeservedly”viii and, thus, demands one and only one response—mercy. Rudolph Bultmann, in his study of the Greek word for “mercy” (ἐλος), points out that the plea for mercy on the part of the blind is as much a defining moment of their desperate state as it is a call for all who witness, characters in the story and readers alike, the pathetic circumstances of the afflicted as a moment requiring a radically new human response, what Bultmann calls a “divinely required attitude of man to man.”ix Simply put, when the cry for mercy goes out, as Christians, we must ourselves respond outwardly, expressing our hope for the “eternal welfare of others.”x But this concern is not one-time as the action of the imperfect form of the word, “ἐλέησόν,” implies. Instead, what Bartimaeus is calling for is continuous mercy for the afflicted, from here to eternity, the kind of mercy that can only come to us from God. So in our prayer life, we are called to remember the afflictions of others and to petition God’s mercy for all who suffer for all time. In Form V of the “Prayers of the People,” as found in the Book of Common Prayer, we are first instructed, like Bartimaeus, to seek God’s mercy by saying “Kyrie eleison,” or “Lord, have mercy,” and then to pray out loud “[f]or the poor, the persecuted, the sick and all who suffer…that they may be relieved and protected.”xi What we see as words on a page in the BCP, we witness in action through Bartimaeus’ petition to Jesus.
The BCP tells us what to say; Bartimaeus shows us how to say it. He first “shouts out…Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47) The crowd tries to silence him, but instead of backing down, he turns up the intensity of his plea as “he crie[s] out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Mark 10:48) With the second petition, Bartimaeus has caught Jesus’ undivided attention; the absence of the Divine has been reversed, and suddenly the presence of God fills the moment as Jesus gives Bartimaeus his undivided attention. And in response, Bartimaeus does the unexpected: He literally throws off his cloak and springs up to address Jesus directly. In prayer, the right response is to give oneself fully to the Divine, and in this instance, Bartimaeus’ giving is underscored by his casting off his cloak in dramatic fashion. We sense that Bartimaeus has come out of darkness and into the light of day.
The Greek word for cloak, ἱμάτιον, is the same word used to describe the more general term, garment, and in antiquity represented “the most common outer garment for men and women.”xii Based on Hebrew scripture, such an outer garment was usually large enough to sleep in and, thus, was an important piece of clothing to have,xiii particularly if one leads a life, like Bartimaeus, routinely exposed to the elements. So in this sense, what Bartimaeus throws off is something that might very well be critical to his very survival in the world, something essential to life itself. That said, in Hebrew culture, the ἱμάτιον was also something closely associated with the power of the wearer. Mark demonstrates this power in Chapter 5 of his Gospel when the woman with hemorrhages seeks healing by reaching out to touch Jesus’ “cloak” (Mark 5:27). So to throw off one’s cloak is not only to disregard something essential to oneself but also to give up one’s power in the presence of the Divine. What we seem to have, in the case of Bartimaeus, then, is a demonstration of kenosis in action, the self-emptying of one’s own will to become entirely receptive to the will of God. Bartimaeus shows us that, to be made new in Christ, we need to prepare ourselves, in prayer, to receive God’s blessing. And such preparation involves giving up what we think is essential and trusting that what God has to give us will be good enough.
This trust that Bartimaeus demonstrates is rewarded with his healing by Jesus. His sight is restored. But as Schrage points out, “the accent [of the story] falls not on the miracle but rather on the trust of the blind man and the healing power of Jesus’ word.”xiv It is not the miracle per se that has made Bartimaeus well but, as Jesus says to him directly, his “πίστις,” his “faith” (Mark 10:52). Bultmann tells us that πίστις was a term used in “primitive Christianity for the relation of man to God” and is infused with a “sense of trust.”xv Moreover, he points out that “πίστις is fundamentally the faith of prayer,” or more specifically, “the belief of prayer which does not doubt.”xvi It is this power from prayer that is released into Bartimeaus, restoring his sight and setting him on the road with Jesus to go into the world with a sense of joy and confidence. Bultmann calls this transforming moment in the life of the penitent a “radical reorientation to God.”xvii In Bartimaeus’ case, it marked the beginning of a whole new life in Christ.
The language in the story of Bartimaeus provides rich instruction to all readers on how to connect with God through prayer. It reminds us that our petitions to God often emanate from the dark recesses of our lives. It encourages us to seek God’s presence in our prayers with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. It instructs us to make room for God in our lives by letting go of cares and concerns and by embracing a uniquely Christian self-emptying of the will. It reminds us of the afflictions of others and of the importance of seeking God’s mercy for all who suffer. And finally, it demands us to take what we receive from God, in prayer, into the world, in faith and with a sense of joy and confidence in God’s love for us. After Bartimaeus’ sight was restored and he leaped up joyfully to join Jesus, he never looked back. After prayer, neither should we.
Let us pray.
i John R. Kohlenberger III,The NRSV Concordance Unabridged(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 164-65.
ii Wolfgang Schrage, “τυφλός,” inTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VIII, ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: William R. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 270.
iii Schrage, 273.
iv Schrage, 287.
v Schrage, 273.
vi Kohlenberger, 866.
vii Schrage, 289.
viii RudolphBultmann, “ἐλεέω,” inTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: William R. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 477.
ix Rudolph Bultmann, “ἐλεέω,” 482.
x Rudolph Bultmann, “ἐλεέω,” 483.
xi The Book of CommonPrayer(The Seabury Press, 1979), 389-390.
xii Douglas R. Edwards,“Dress and Ornamentation,” inThe Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, D – G, ed.-in-chief David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 236.
xiii Edwards, 232.
xiv Schrage, 288-289.
xv Rudolph Bultmann, “πίστις” inTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: William R. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), 205.
xvi Bultmann, “πίστις,” 206.
xvii Bultmann, “πίστις” 216. BIBLIOGRAPHY Bultmann, Rudolph. “ἐλεέω.” InTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, ed. Gerhard Kittel, 477-487.Grand Rapids, MI: William R. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972. Bultmann, Rudolph. “πίστις.” InTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, ed.Gerhard Friedrich, 174-228. Grand Rapids, MI: William R. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968. Edwards, Douglas R. “Dress and Ornamentation.” InThe Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, D – G, ed.-in- chief David Noel Freedman, 232-238. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Kohlenberger III, John R. The NRSV Concordance Unabridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991. Schrage, Wolfgang. “τυφλός.” InTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VIII, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, 270-294. Grand Rapids, MI: William R. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972. The Book of Common Prayer. The Seabury Press, 1979.