Rev. Joseph Keating
30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
We began this liturgical year by “going on a road trip with Saint Mark.” Today we are nearing the end of the road. We’re in Jericho, just about a day’s journey from Jerusalem. And it’s here that we encounter this blind man, Bartimaeus.
Our Gospel reading today follows immediately after the reading from last week in the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. You’ll recall that last week the apostles and brothers James and John were jockeying for position in the Kingdom of God. Their ambition was on full display, and Jesus uses it as a teaching moment, calling the apostles to be servant-leaders.
Then the road trip arrives in Jericho. The most striking thing about this week’s reading, of course, is that Jesus made the blind man, Bartimaeus, able to see—a miracle, to be sure. But if we look a little closer, there are many layers of depth to this gospel passage. If we look beneath the physical wonder of the healing of the blind man, we can discover the spiritual sense of this passage, and what it means in our lives. Specifically, what it says to us about petition, vocation, and conversion.
First about petition. There is a curious parallelism happening in the text from last week to the text from this week. Last week, James and John asked Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:35) And Jesus responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” This week, the blind man calls out to him, and Jesus again responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)
Jesus puts this question to both the blind man and to the apostle-brothers, not because he doesn’t know what they need or what they are going to ask. Rather, Jesus’ purpose is to manifest the intentions of their hearts. In the first case, with James and John, their underlying intention was ambition; in the second case, with blind Bartimaeus, his underlying intention was healing and wholeness.
Herein lies a lesson for us about prayer and the will of God. God’s will is always ordered towards our salvation.
Have you ever asked God for something, and all you seem to get is silence? Or maybe even the opposite of the thing you asked for?
When we ask God for things that are good for us, things that will lead us to salvation, God will grant those prayers. But when we ask wrongly, for things that are detrimental to us, God does not grant our petitions. When the blind man Bartimaeus asks for sight, it is a desire to be complete, to be whole. It is a desire to restore something that is proper to the human nature, namely, to see. On the other hand, the ambitious apostles ask for something that is beyond human nature—to sit at Jesus’ right and left. This request is to grasp for an honor that is beyond human nature. Their desire entails the sin of pride, which cannot exist in the perfection of heaven. For this reason, Jesus does not grant the request of James and John. Only the humility of the blind man can stand before the throne of God; pride will only bring humiliation before God.
Second, we see what this gospel says to us about vocation. There is yet another striking parallelism here, another contrast found between these two stories. This contrast is found in the way each of the men approaches Jesus. In last week’s gospel, James and John come to Jesus of their own will and ambition, as if grasping at him, for their own gain. But in this week’s gospel, the blind man comes to Jesus when Jesus calls him. It is a reminder of the Lord’s words, “It is not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”
This lesson is re-echoed in the letter to the Hebrews this week, speaking of the Jewish high priest:
No one takes this honor upon himself
but only when called by God,
just as Aaron was.
In the same way,
it was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest,
but rather the one who said to him:
You are my son:
this day I have begotten you; (Hebrews 5:4-5)
I think this passage is most applicable to those who are discerning their vocation in life. A vocation is, quite literally, a calling in one’s heart. And that call comes from Jesus. It is not something that we can invent or something to chase after for selfish worldly gain. I am reminded of a relative who said to me on the day of my ordination to the priesthood, “Oh Joe, I’m so proud of what you have decided to do with your life.” And that comment has stuck with me, and it sort of bothers me. I know she meant it as a compliment, but I can’t help but read into it as if I accomplished the priesthood by my own ambition and merit. Rather, it is all grace. It is a calling from Jesus. It is not the life I would have created for myself—on the contrary, it is so much better than the life I would have created for myself. It is not we who choose Jesus, but he who chooses us.
Third, we also must examine the request made by Bartimaeus, which speaks of conversion. When Jesus asks him what he wants, Bartimaeus says that he wants to see. Now, to you and to me who can see, if we try to place ourselves in Bartimaeus’ position, we immediately think that the most logical thing to ask for would be vision. But for Bartimaeus, he has been living presumably for a very long time, maybe his whole life, without the power of vision. He survives by begging beside the road. Now think for a moment what it would mean for him to receive the power of sight. His whole world would change. He would no longer be able to live by begging; he would have to learn a trade and go to work. He would no longer have someone handing him food; he would have to get it himself. Everything about his life would have to change. When Jesus asked him, “what do you want me to do for you?” he could have answered, “Bring me a sandwich!” But then, the day he met the Son of God would have been exactly the same as every other day. And yet, he has the temerity to ask for the gift of sight. Bartimaeus’ act of faith is not so much believing that Jesus can heal him; his act of faith is to trust that the new way of life is better than the old way.
Now, perhaps we can put ourselves in the place of blind Bartimaeus. Perhaps we, too, have been begging on the side of the road, not going anywhere in our journey of discipleship. How is Jesus calling us to get back on the road? What major change needs to happen in my life, like a blind man receiving his sight?
Perhaps we have been only asking for petty favors from God. “Just enough to get me thru this tough spot, Lord; none of that life-changing grace business, thank you very much!” Or do we have the courage to ask Jesus to change our lives?
Perhaps we have been afraid to join Jesus on this road trip, because we’re scared of where he might be taking us. “I don’t know… this Jesus guy keeps talking about getting crucified; oh, looks like this is my exit.” Or do we trust where Jesus is leading us, knowing that he has our best interest at heart?
Do we cling to our old way of life, like an old cloak, refusing to leave it behind? What remnants of my old bad habits to I need to throw out, once and for all?
Today we listen for the call of Jesus. We pray for the courage to get up, come to Jesus, and follow him on the Way.