“The ‘style’ of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant ‘for us’.” That is what Pope Francis told the US Bishops at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, just over a month ago. No doubt that was how Jesus made Bartimaeus feel that day that he passed through Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd [Mark 10:46-52] – an exciting, glamorous occasion for the locals, not unlike when the Pope Francis visited Washington, New York, and Philadephia last month.
In contrast, of course, most people (most of the time) try to ignore beggars as much as possible. Most likely that had been Bartimaeus’ experience. So no wonder he made such a nuisance of himself! He had to - just to attract Jesus’ attention, just to get noticed at all! The crowd, of course, tried to shut him up – until Jesus did just the sort of thing that he was becoming famous for doing. No doubt to the chagrin of the disciples, who were probably enjoying the parade and their part in it, Jesus interrupted his parade to attend to some beggar, a person of no noticeable importance, a nobody – reaching out (as Jesus so often did) across the boundaries that are supposed to keep people in their proper places. (Notice, however, how quickly the crowd got with the program. As soon as the people realized that Jesus was actually interested in Bartimaeus, suddenly their scolding turned into encouragement).
Jesus’ simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?” was the same exact question that he had asked James and John in the Gospel account we heard last week. What a difference in response, however! The answer that they gave was what one would expect from 2 young, talented, upwardly mobile disciples, just beginning their ecclesiastical careers. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Poor blind Bartimaeus simply said, “I want to see.” Unlike James and John, Bartimaeus wasn’t on any fast track to anywhere. He was, in fact, on a very slow track to nowhere, and he knew that perfectly well.
In his closest companions and dearest disciples, Jesus unsurprisingly found overwhelming ambition. But, in Bartimaeus, he found faith.
The story could have ended right there - an uplifting, edifying story with a happy ending. But it didn’t. In spite of Jesus’ instruction, “Go on your way,” Bartimaeus did no such thing. Instead, we are told, he followed Jesus on Jesus’ way. Having himself found healing and salvation, he wanted to share what he had found with others. Bartimaeus seems to have immediately understood what eluded James and John – what James, John, and the other disciples, for all their quality time with Jesus, still abysmally failed to understand – namely that God’s gifts are not given just for ourselves, but are meant to be shared with the whole world, this world which God loves so very much that he has chosen to be a part of it.
Like Bartimaeus, Saint Paul understood this. If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!
Like Bartimaeus, all of us have been changed - and challenged - by the transforming power of Jesus Christ. And so, like Bartimaeus, we now have to live that change, in our ordinary everyday lives as believers, in the wide and complicated variety of situations in which we find ourselves. In other words, we should mean what we say when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s Kingdom come and his will be done on earth.
That is nothing less than the mission of the Church, what all of us in our different states of life are called to do, what the Church at her best has always done. As Pope Francis said in Philadelphia, ours “is a story about generation after generation of committed Catholics going out to the peripheries, and building communities of worship, education, charity and service to the larger society.”
For, in the end, we may well be the only experience of Christ most people will ever have in life - the face of Christ they see, the word of God they hear. So if, for whatever reason, we fail as credible – and inviting – witnesses, then we run the risk of concealing rather than revealing the face of Christ. Then the word of God may seem strangely silent - precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed. The love of God may appear absent, if it isn’t being shared.
It’s always tempting to be satisfied with the way things are. The crowd in Jericho was content to keep Bartimaeus quietly on the side of the road, quite literally in the dark. By not keeping quiet, Bartimaeus helped the crowd too to experience something beyond the limits of their previous experience – something to be shared with the whole world, a world whose only alternative would be a future spent in darkness. In the dark, Bartimaeus symbolizes so well the human condition apart from Christ and in obvious need of an alternative to the way things are. Following Jesus as his disciple, Bartimaeus exemplifies what we can all become through the transforming power of God’s mercy present and active in our world. The crowd in the Gospel got the message. Once they realized what Jesus wanted, they changed their attitude and, instead of hindering him, helped him to follow Jesus. The truly happy ending of this story will be when we, all of us, have likewise done the same!
Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 25, 2015.