“A Prairie Home Companion” is a music and variety show broadcast on Saturday evenings on National Public Radio. A few weeks ago the cast performed a very droll summary of “The Odyssey” by Homer. In their tongue-in-cheek version of the story Ulysses returned from the Trojan War, after having been away from home for twenty years. His wife greeted him rather nonchalantly, and asked if he had remembered to shop for the milk and cheese she requested when he was departing for Troy.
In “The Odyssey,” Ulysses was led on a seemingly random journey by fate. He encountered numerous dangers, trials and temptations. The soldiers who had survived the war with him were lost to post-war troubles. After spending ten years in battle, it took Ulysses another ten years to return home.
Listening to the story, my mind wandered to the topic of the several generations of Americans who have returned home from war. Many of those women and men found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. I wondered if Homer’s inspiration for the story was his observation that it takes a great deal of time and effort for a former soldier to leave a war behind.
Ulysses’ long journey home from a long war was more than tedious; it was very costly to him. Despite the cost, Ulysses soldiered on, because the reward awaiting him was reunion with his loved ones. A long journey can be tedious or taxing; sometimes, however, the taxing nature of a journey can bear disproportionally positive fruit. Today’s Gospel reading is an example of a difficult, though short, journey that was more than worthwhile.
The author of Mark’s Gospel mentions Bartimaeus in very casual, familiar terms. The Gospel describes him as “the son of Timaeus, (who) sat by the roadside begging.” (Mark 10:46) From the tone of the statements about him, Bartimaeus seems to have been familiar to the members of Mark’s congregation. This well-known man was required to make a rather taxing journey.
Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was approaching, and began to shout, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” (Mark 10:47) The crowd of bystanders tried to keep him quiet, but Bartimaeus was persistent. (Mark 10:48) Despite interference from the crowd Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ plea, and called to him. (Mark 10:49)
There is an intentional dissonance in this story. Jesus might not have known the exact nature of Bartimaeus’ troubles (blindness), but the nature of the plea made it apparent that Bartimaeus was in need. We might well ask why Jesus demanded that he come forward. The blind man was forced to make a difficult, if brief, journey through the crowd. Wouldn’t it have been more merciful for Jesus to walk to the blind man rather than making the blind man come to him?
Bartimaeus’ short journey through the darkness of blindness plays a central role in this story. At this point in the Gospel the disciples, who were constantly in Jesus’ company, still had no adequate understanding of Jesus’ true identity. Though able to see, the disciples were spiritually blind. In contrast, the blind man was able to ‘see’ and understand that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to deliver God’s people from the darkness of unbelief.
Although Bartimaeus was miles ahead of the disciples on the journey of faith, there was one more step for him to take. After Bartimaeus made his blind trek through the crowd, and made his request for healing, “Jesus told him, ‘Go your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.” (Mark 10:52) Having ‘seen’ Jesus’ identity and acknowledged him as Messiah, the next step to take was to follow Jesus to the Cross and Resurrection.
Jesus made Bartimaeus walk blindly through the crowd in order to create a lifelong relationship with him. Jesus certainly could have gone to the blind man, or cured him at a distance, but that would not have satisfied the blind man’s longing to find salvation. Only a conscious, growing relationship offered the blind man possession of what he ‘saw’ in Jesus.
Bartimaeus’ difficult odyssey toward Jesus is given to us as an example to follow. Like the disciples, we have the benefit of being familiar with Jesus’ teaching. Like the disciples, we have regular contact with Jesus through our reception of Holy Communion. These things alone, however, are no guarantee of salvation. Like the disciples, we have not yet set foot on the path to salvation until we imitate Bartimaeus’ journey to Jesus and his resolution to follow Jesus “on the way.” (Mark 10:52)
The call that Jesus made to Bartimaeus is repeated to everyone through the proclamation of the Gospel. Each of us is called to make a personal journey through the darkness of isolation into a personal relationship with Jesus. Each of us has to make the choice to abandon the role of bystander, and accept Jesus’ invitation to accompany him “on the way.” (Mark 10:52)
For most of us, this is a rather short journey, but still a difficult one to make. Where are you on your journey? Does Jesus’ teaching seem attractive to you, or have you moved beyond mere interest to the lifelong task of walking the path to the Cross and Resurrection? Most people have no trouble imagining what salvation might be like. However, only those who know and follow Jesus are able to possess what they previously saw at a distance.