A little over a month ago, Shannon’s water broke at our house and we needed someone to watch Ruthie while we went to the hospital. She stayed with Val and Tess for the afternoon and then Mosoba and Dorcas came and took her to spend the night with them. That evening, on my phone, I received several videos of Ruthie and Mosoba playing and getting ready for bed. In one of the videos, the two girls are in their pjs, laying on the bed and Ruthie is holding Mosoba’s phone and watching cartoons. Dorcas, filming the scene, asks Ruthie to look at the camera and say something to her parents. Ruthie is completely absorbed in the cartoon and doesn’t even look up. After trying several times to get Ruth to look away from the phone, Mosoba finally snatches it out of her hand and then points Ruthie to Dorcas camera. Ruth looks up with shock on her face, stares at Mosoba, and shouts, “Mine!” Of course, the phone was not hers. It was Mosoba’s. Mosoba had given it to her only moments before. But in those few minutes with Mosoba’s phone Ruth had begun to feel that it was hers. That the phone belonged to her, that she had a right to watch the cartoons on the phone, that she was entitled to this phone. In only a few moments Ruthie had gove from the grateful recipient of Mosoba’s generosity and mercy to an entitled jerk, convinced Mosoba’s phone was her birth right, and dismayed that anyone would have the gall to take it from her. Its an unfortunately common trait in us human beings, this jumping from gratitude to entitlement- and it can bring out the worst in us.
The story of Blind Bartimaues comes at the end of the middle section of Mark. The first half of Mark has Jesus doing ministry in Galilee and doing his best to keep his Messianic identity a secret. In the second half of Mark, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will confront the authorities and be crucified. But this middle section, this is the part where Peter correctly guesses Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and where Jesus attempts to describe that as Messiah he will suffer and die. The disciple’s have a terribly difficult time understanding and accepting that Jesus’ fate is to suffer; their minds are stuck on the possibility of their own glory. If Jesus is the Messiah, and they are his followers, surely they are headed to glory and greatness. First there is Peter who outright rejects Jesus’ own claim that he will suffer and die. He rebukes Jesus over his claim that he will suffer, insisting upon the glory that he has only just begun to imagine. Then the disciples begin to focus on themselves, their own role in what they are sure is Jesus coming glory, they argue over which of them will be the greatest. Finally, James and John, work themselves up into a blinding sense of entitlement and approach Jesus by demanding that he do for them whatever he ask of them. Can you imagine? Like a 6 year old trying to tie the hands of their parent, “Whatever we ask you, you have to do for us.” And what it is it that they feel so entitled to demand of Christ? That they be allowed to sit at his right and left hand in glory.
Before Jesus found them and called them to follow him, these disciples were fishermen and tax collectors. They were ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Everything that they now have, their relationship with Jesus, the authority that comes with being among his select followers, the prestige amongst the crowds, the incredible responsibility to follow Jesus, all of this has come to them from Jesus’ free gift. From his decision to call them, these ordinary people, with ordinary lives, to be his followers, these men have been given new lives and great new importance. And now, only months after their call, they seem to have forgotten their gratitude entirely. Instead of remembering that they were outsiders called to follow out of God’s mercy and grace, they have come to think of themselves as part of the in crowd, deserving and entitled to perks and benefits that must be denied to others.
In addition to the entitlement of the disciples, this middle section of Mark, also introduces the story of the rich man who wishes to follow Jesus. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus replies that he must follow the law, he must love the LORD his God with all his heart, and mind, and strength, and spirit and love his neighbor as himself. The rich man happily replies that he already does all of this, and asks if there is anything else. To this Jesus replies that he must sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. And the man, turns away, chooses not to follow, because he had many possessions. In a society as materialistic as ours, it is almost possible to miss the humor in this story, for we tend to value possessions over nearly everything else. Jesus has just told the man the secret to eternal life, he can live forever, all he has to do is give up his possessions, and he chooses instead to hold onto his stuff and die. Why? What a crazy choice! The answer may be in how the rich man views his possessions. Are they gifts from God, given to him freely out of sheer grace? Or are they His possessions, the things he worked for and acquired himself, things that he deserves, possessions to which he is entitled? This man who knows the law of God and seeks to follow it, he too, has forgotten that everything he has, everything he is, is a gift of God’s mercy. His sense of entitlement keeps him from sharing his gifts, it keeps him from helping others, it keeps him from eternal life.
By any reckoning we, each and every one of us, are among the most blessed and fortunate people ever to walk the earth. We live in the wealthiest country in world history. We live free of the violence of war. We have access, to varying degrees, to food, to health care, to employment, to education. We have a government that has peacefully changed hands for over 200 years. We have religious freedom in a society where our religion is the norm. As we all know these blessings are not universal and timeless, we are among the minority. The vast majority of the world’s people do not have such fortune, such incredible blessings. The question that Mark’s gospel raises for us today, is how we are to think about such blessings? Are we to understand them as the entitlements granted to Jesus’ in crowd, those closest to the Messiah? Are we to understand them as our just deserts, things we have earned and worked for and come to deserve? Are we entitled to these blessings because of our hard work and virtue? How are we, as Christians, to think about our great privilege?
After the disciple’s miss the point, and the rich man chooses his wealth over eternal life, it is Blind Bartimaeus whose story ends this middle section of Mark. Jesus is in the midst of a great crowd of followers and disciples when a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road calls out him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The term Son of David, is a messianic one, the Son of David, was to sit on David’s throne, he was to be the Messiah. Bartimaeus has correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, just as Peter had done. Without ever having met him before, without hearing his teaching, without the gift of sight, Bartimaeus knows Jesus to be the Messiah. Yet this knowledge does not lead him to view himself as deserving, entitlted, or part of the in crowd. Instead of demanding that Jesus do whatever he asks him, Bartimaeus instead says, “Have mercy on me.” Batimaeus knows that he is need of Christ’s mercy, he knows that he cannot earn his sight, he cannot deserve healing, but through the mercy of God he may be healed regardless. When he hears that Jesus has called him, Bartimaeus throws off his coat, his one and only possession, and eagerly goes to Jesus. There is nothing he is not willing to set aside, no possession he feels so entitled to that he cannot give it away to come to Jesus. Finally, When Jesus asks him, using the exact same language as when he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” Blind Bartimaeus does not ask for glory, but merely for sight… “My teacher, let me see again.” He wishes to see, to regain his vision, but also to truly see, to see things the way they are, to see himself for who he truly is, to see who he is before God. To this Jesus replies, “Go, your faith has made you well.” When he regains his sight, Bartimaeus immediately begins following Jesus on the way. He has been given the ability to see that all he is is due to God’s mercy and that the only response to such an incredible gift is to give yourself to Jesus, to God, to others. Bartimaeus, though blind, came to see what the disciple’s and the rich man could not, he saw that his very life was contingent upon the mercy of God.
What might we, the fortunate children of the United States in the 21st century, from Blind Bartimaeus? Remember from where our blessings have come.All that we have and all that we are is a gift from the God who created the heavens and the earth. We do not deserve any of it, nor are we entitled to any of it, it is all a gift of God’s mercy. Remember that we are called to throw off any possession that would keep us from following Christ. Our incredible fortune is not a private treasure to be hoarded, it is to be shared with all God’s children as they have need, and as God calls us to give it away. We must remember that our being Christians does not grant us entrance to an in-crowd more deserving of God’s blessings than those outside. God calls those on the outside to the center, and God calls us to do the same. If we wish to follow Jesus in 21st century America we will have to share our blessings with the rest of the world, we will have to ask for vision to see the sufferings of our neighbors, and we will have to remember that we live and breath only by the mercy of the God who loves the entire creation and all of Her children throughout the world. Amen.