Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Beggar by the Road

Most people (at least most of the time) try to ignore beggars as much as possible. That’s easier to do perhaps when one goes everywhere by car, where we just pass people by, without paying them much attention one way or the other. It’s more of an issue if you are walking, which is how nature meant people to travel. And, obviously, Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a walking world, where one walked almost everywhere – to go almost anywhere – where just passing by without either noticing or ignoring was really not an option.

Even so my guess is that most people in Jericho generally ignored Bartimaeus as much as possible. Being ignored remains the typical experience of the powerless in most societies, except when it serves the interests of the powerful to exploit their poverty and powerlessness as we have seen recently in political fear-mongering about the so-called "caravan" of Honduran refugees. But more usually the powerless are ignored. The fact that we now know his name (one of the very few people Jesus healed whose name we know) might mean he later become a familiar figure in the early Church. But that was way off in the future that fateful day that Jesus passed through Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd [Mark 10:46-52] – an exciting glamorous occasion for the locals, not unlike the circus coming to town or a presidential candidate’s campaign event.

Probably knowing that otherwise he wouldn’t be noticed, Bartimaeus shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” He had to make a nuisance of himself – just to get noticed at all. The crowd, of course, tried to shut him up – until Jesus did just the sort of thing he was becoming famous for doing. No doubt to the chagrin of his disciples, who were probably enjoying the parade and their part in it, Jesus stopped to pay attention some nobody – reaching out (as Jesus so often did) across the boundaries that are supposed to keep people in their proper places. Had Jesus actually been a modern political candidate, presumably he’d have had an advance man – or team of advance men – precisely to prevent such things from happening! Notice, however, how quickly the crowd got with the program. Unscripted events have a certain popular appeal all their own. As soon as the people realized that Jesus was actually interested in Bartimaeus, suddenly their scolding turned to encouragement.

Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” was the same question he had asked James and John in the Gospel we heard last week. But what a difference in response! The answer they gave was what one would expect form two young, talented, upwardly mobile disciples, just beginning their careers. Poor Bartimaeus simply said, “I want to see.” Unlike James and John, Bartimaeus wasn’t on some fast track to anywhere. He was, in fact, on a very slow track to nowhere, and he understood that perfectly well.

Beggars, it is said, can’t be choosers. So they ask for what really matters. James and John’s request reflected their greed. Bartimaeus’ request reflected his need. In his closest companions and dearest disciples, Jesus found demanding ambition. In Bartimaeus, he found faith.

The story could have ended there. But, in spite of Jesus’ instruction, “Go on your way,” Bartimaeus did not do so. Instead, we are told, he followed 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 so eluded James and John – what so many Christians have failed to understand – namely, that God’s gifts are given not just for ourselves, but are meant to be shared with the whole world, this world which God loves so much that he has chosen to become a part of it.

Like Bartimaeus, all of us have been changed – and challenged – by the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our lives. Like him, we too 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 – as family members, students, workers, and citizens.

For, in the end, as is often said, we – individually and as a Church community – may be the only experience of Christ many people will ever have in life, the only face of Christ they will see, the only word of God they will hear. So if we fail the Bartimaeus test, if we fail to become credible and inviting witnesses, then we run the risk of concealing rather than revealing the face of Christ; and the word of God may seem strangely silent, precisely when and where it most needs to be heard. The love of God may appear absent, if it isn’t being shared. I’m reminded of Saint Catherine of Sienna’s remark, back in the 14th century: “Preach the truth as if we had a million voices, for it is silence that kills the world.”

Of course, it’s easy to settle for less. It’s always tempting to be satisfied with who’s in and who’s out. The crowd in Jericho was content to keep Bartimaeus quietly on the side of the road, quite literally in the dark. But, by not playing his prescribed part, Bartimaeus enabled them to experience truth and grace way beyond the limits of their expectations – truth and grace to be shared with all – the only alternative to a future spent in darkness.

In the dark, Bartimaeus symbolizes where we are on our own. Following Jesus, Bartimaeus exemplifies the community we can become through the healing, forgiving, and transforming power of Christ present and active in our world. The crowd in the Gospel got the message. Once they realized what Jesus wanted, they stopped hindering Bartimaeus and instead helped him to follow Jesus. The truly happy ending of this story will be when all of us also do the same!

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 28, 2018.

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