Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – October 28th, 2018

Text: Mark 10:46-52Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus

46 And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimae′us, a blind beggar, the son of Timae′us, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; rise, he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Master,[a] let me receive my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

When was the last time you heard the word “theodicy” in a conversation? Probably never, right? And yet every one of us has had to deal with what that word means.

Usually, when the word is used, it’s part of the phrase “theodicy problem.” Basically, that “problem” is this: If God is a loving God, who wants the best for us, why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? One Rabbi, Harold Kushner, even wrote a book by that title back in 1981.

But this question goes back farther than that. During the Age of Enlightenment – the years between 1715 and 1789 – the standard answer to this problem, according to the philosopher Liebniz, was that, first, even with all its flaws, this is still the best of all possible worlds, and second, the existence of evil helps us to recognize, appreciate, and strive for the good. Thirdly, Leibniz believed that God reveals his will through our capacity to use our reason. When we follow our reason, we become more and more enlightened. Of course, following our reason (or not) is our choice – so additionally there was the concept of “free will,” which is familiar to all of us today. Just as God said to Adam and Eve that they should not eat that forbidden fruit, but gave them the freedom to choose, God does not force us to love and follow him, does not coerce us into doing the right thing. We have the choice at any and every given moment to follow what God calls us to do, or not. According to this concept, all the bad things that happen to us are the direct result of our choices not to follow in God’s ways.

This theodicy problem goes back even farther – the very first book of what became our Bible deals with this issue. That book is the Book of Job, which was written some 600 years before the birth of Christ. I should mention that some scholars say that the Book of Amos is the oldest, as we discussed on Wednesday in Confirmation class. In any case, whether Job is the oldest or the second oldest book of the Bible doesn’t alter the fact that people have been wrestling with the issue for thousands of years, because it goes right to the heart of our understanding of the nature of God and our relationship to God, as well as how we are to live, particularly in times of trial and hardship.

Job is a righteous man, blameless and upright, whose life pleases God. But the Tempter says to God, in effect, “Of course Job is righteous – you’ve blessed and protected him all his life! Why wouldn’t he praise you? What do you think would happen if you removed your blessing? I think he’d sing a much different tune.”

So God allows the Tempter to visit all manner of calamity on Job, from the failure of his crops, to illness, to the loss of his family – everything is taken away. For most of the book, Job remains true to God; but finally, even his spirit is broken, and he begins to rail against God, shaking his fist at the heavens at his misfortunes: “Why do you treat me so badly, O Lord?” To use a modern turn of phrase, Job asks, “What have I done to deserve this?”

On the one hand, Job had done nothing to deserve his suffering. But in Chapter 32 of the book we read: “[Job] was righteous in his own eyeshe justified himself rather than God.” Even in the midst of all his trouble, Job had the choice to submit to God’s will, or to become defiant. He chose defiance.

This begins to address the question of why bad things happen to good people. Maybe that’s not even the right question, because as we read in Matthew 5:45, “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”; human life is not now, never was, and never will be devoid of challenges or pain. God does not cause our pain or suffering, but God is always with us in it. The all-important thing is how we respond to it. Job, even Job, who has come down through history to us as an exemplar of faith in midst of suffering, wavered at a crucial moment.  

But that is not the end of the story. God then does something very uncharacteristic of gods in that day and age – God chose to directly address Job, to even debate him. He starts by thundering forth from a whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” This goes on for a couple chapters, until Job finally realizes his error and says: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

The key here is repentance and a return to faith. Shortly thereafter, we read: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”

We can take several things from this. First, making a wrong choice does not condemn us forever, as long as we recognize that we are wrong, turn around (which is what the verb “repent” actually means), and get back on the right track. Second, we see in this story that God is ultimately just, infinitely forgiving, and eternally loving. Third, we see that living a faith-filled life is exactly what God wants us to do.

And this brings us to the Gospel lesson about Bartimaeus.

Just who was this Bartimaeus, anyway? “A blind man,” we answer. True; but there’s more here than meets the eye.

Bartimaeus lived in Jericho. This is actually pretty significant. Jericho is about 15 miles from Jerusalem. Jesus is making his final journey – it will soon end with the cross on Golgotha. Time is getting short; the focus is getting sharper and sharper; and the tensions are rising.

Jericho has even a greater significance than just its closeness to Jerusalem, though – Jericho was and still is a symbol of victory for the Jewish people. Remember the old spiritual that goes: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho / Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.” When people heard this lesson read, immediately all the associations and ancestral memories of Jericho came to mind. The battle of Jericho was that stunning victory when the People of Israel first crossed into the Promised Land to claim it for themselves. For these people, the battle of Jericho was Lexington, Concord, Yorktown, Saratoga, and Antietam all rolled into one. It was the beginning of the nation of Israel. So Jesus’ coming to Jericho was no accident – it foreshadowed the coming of a new, greater kingdom – the very Kingdom of God.

Then there’s Bartimaeus. There is a deliberate irony here: “Bartimaeus” means “son of honor” (“Bar” = “son of,” “Timaeus” = “honor”). So imagine the mental contrast that arose in the minds of the people who heard Mark’s words. And, just in case the hearer misses it the first time, Mark repeats that Bartimaeus is “the son of Timaeus” and is “a blind beggar.” The point was impossible for them to miss.

But this led to the question as to how a blind man could be a “son of honor”? In that day and age, if you had any kind of handicap, any kind of chronic illness, or even any kind of blemish, the assumption was that there was something wrong with you, or your parents, or someone close to you. You were automatically considered a sinner, defective, unclean, unworthy. Yet here Bartimaeus sits, the son of honor, in the very gate of the city where Israel began. I imagine there was some head-scratching going on when people first heard this.

Bartimaeus shouts out to Jesus, not once, but twice, despite being told to be quiet. Bartimaeus was desperate. He had this one chance to be cured of his blindness: Jesus, that rabbi he’s heard so much about, that healer who casts out demons and makes lame people walk, that amazing man who even raises people from the dead, is just a few feet away from him. He’s not about to let it pass him by.

When people of faith act on that faith, despite calls for them to be “seen and not heard,” or to back down, or to just slink away into the night, incredible and wondrous things happen. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.”

We all face difficulties in life, but what makes all the difference is how sincerely we want to overcome them and how determined we are to persevere. Bartimaeus showed more dogged determination, more sincerity, and a deep, rock-solid faith – more even than Job.

“And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Master, let me receive my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”

Unlike other examples of healing, Jesus doesn’t even touch Bartimaeus. Instead, he simply tells him, “Your faith has made you well.”

You see, it’s all about faith.

Just what is “faith,” anyway? That’s a question that’s really for all of us. I’ll bet we have all asked that question from time to time. It’s not the kind of question that we answer just once, and then forget about it. It’s a question that comes back, again and again, and needs to be answered, again and again, in new ways that help us in new situations. My understanding of faith is much different today than it was a year ago. And it will be different a year from now.

Faith is not an object or a commodity. It’s not something we can buy, or earn. It’s not something we can measure. It’s not something we can hold in our hands. We can only hold it in our hearts as the gift from God that it is.

Faith is more like a state of being. We know it in its effects. We know we have faith by doing faithful things. We see the effects of these acts. And, by seeing and doing faithful things, our faith grows. Like that famous snowball rolling down a mountainside that becomes an avalanche, our faith may start small but, with each faithful deed to do, it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

It’s all about faith. Bartimaeus had faith enough to ignore those people who wanted him to be quiet in order to see Jesus. Bartimaeus had a faith, a hope, a confidence, in Jesus that was big enough to be healed of a life-long disability.

People of faith throughout history have done some pretty remarkable and even astonishing things. People of faith have even literally changed the world we live in. Think of Martin Luther, for example, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Theresa. Thinks of people you know who have been shining examples of faith for you, and because of whom you are here today.

Words are important, but actions speak louder than words. It’s really not so much about talking as it is about doing, and, even more,  about being.

So, let us, today and every day, live and act as Bartimaeus did and certainly as Jesus did, living that faith that, though small as a mustard seed, moves mountains; that faith that heals the blind; that faith that sustains us in our troubles and makes our times of joy even greater; that faith that keeps our eyes fixed on the Kingdom of God, which is both here and on its way!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.