This story of healing is the third in a sequence in Mark’s account of the gospel which collectively give us a teaching segment on the nature of faith.
Each of the three stories shows us a different aspect of what it means to follow Jesus, and togther we get a clear picture of what we are signing up for – although when I say a clear picture, I don’t mean a blueprint with instructions.
It seems that Mark’s idea of a clear picture is a bit more sketchy than most of us might like…let me show you what I mean.
The first story is one I’m sure you are very familiar with, and you’ll have heard it read to you three weeks ago, but it wasn’t the text which was preached from, so let me refresh your memory….
A rich young man came to Jesus and asked his question “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
and after some back and forth, Jesus looks at him, is moved by love for him and tells him
‘Go, sell all you own and give it to the poor and then come and follow me.’
The young man is discouraged, and walks away.
Jesus then reflects with the disciples on how hard it is for the rich and privileged to enter into the kingdom of heaven and the disciples are also discouraged.
Mark’s message to us seems clear: following Jesus is costly, one way or another.
There is much to let go of, give away and give up if we hope to be faithful.
The second story, which you heard last week, focuses in on the disciples as James and John corner Jesus with a special request.
We want you to do whatever we ask, they say, and while Jesus makes no promises, he asks them:
“what is it you want me to do for you?”
and what they ask for is positions of power and status in the kingdom of heaven.
A kingdom whose nature they clearly have not grasped or they wouldn’t have asked their question.
This exchange is followed by a conversation with all the disciples who are angry with James and John –
presumably because they got in first with the promotion request, not because James and John were out of order with the group values.
Jesus tries again to be clear about what faithfully following in his way looks like.
We are friends; we treat each other as equals; we serve each other without looking for privilege or reward; we love one another and suffer with and for one another.
And now we come to Bartimeaus.
He has a request to make of Jesus too, but he isn’t rich or able bodied, so he doesn’t get to approach Jesus as an equal like the rich young man.
Nor is he in the inner circle so he doesn’t get to make his request quietly like James and John.
Instead, he is obliged to shout for mercy from the edge of the crowd, and against the merciless pressure of the crowd to pipe down.
But he is insistent – the crowd cannot deter him – and he keeps on calling out for mercy, making a big enough fuss finally to get Jesus’ attention and an interview.
And Jesus asks him the question.
The same question he asked James and John.
What do you want me to do for you?
Here at last is someone who is free enough to follow in the way of Jesus.
He has already freely let go of his possessions as he cast off his cloak when Jesus called him.
He already knows his own weakness and vulnerability – how could he not? - but he doesn’t accept that it makes him less worthy.
And he asks for mercy, for compassion.
He asks for the very thing that Jesus tells us is the source of Life and the ground of God’s being.
It takes a blind man to recognise that we need to ask for mercy to see again. To see as God sees, with the eyes of the heart.
This is the last encounter in Mark’s account before Jesus sweeps into Jerusalem and resolutely follows his path to its violent end
– the path of solidarity with the poor and the marginalised,
- the path of disrupting the accepted status quo,
- the path of compassionate, non-violent response to hostility and assault.
The path of forgiveness instead of vengeance and of vulnerability instead of invincibility.
This is the picture of discipleship that Mark paints for us, and yes, it is a sketchy picture in more ways than one.
It is not tidy and ordered.
And it does lead in a disturbing direction.
So as we come to the end of ordinary time, with advent fast approaching and the joyful celebrations of Christmas already in our sights, perhaps it is good to pause and ponder for ourselves Jesus’ question:
What do you want me to do for you?
Because as I have mulled over this question and these three stories, what I noticed is that only one request reflected a true understanding of what was wanted.
The rich young man thought he wanted to know the path to eternal life, and he was told:
You can have what you want, but first you have to give up what you’ve got.
The disciples thought they wanted status and power and they were told:
You don’t know what you are asking for.
I can promise that you will suffer.
I cannot promise that you will rule.
Only Bartimeaus truly knew his deeper desire and asked for it.
Yes, he wanted to see, but he was ready to give up social acceptance, possessions and going his own way in order to receive.
What do you want to ask God for?
Have you listened beneath the surface of your life for the deeper desire?
Life coach Martha Beck tells a story of how she asks her client to list five things they really want, they don’t have to be at all realistic.
People write things like a bigger house, a secure income, a pay raise, a new car.
But they also write things like more friends, a job I love, more time for hobbies or family, my parents’ approval.
Then she points out that for most people, what they think they want isn’t a thing, it’s a feeling.
The thing is a means to an end – a larger house might result in a sense of peace – enough room for everyone without crowding.
More friends means a greater sense of belonging and love.
A pay raise means greater sense of security, no longer afraid of having a heap of bills you have no spare income to meet.
But the thing we identify as what we want isn’t usually the feeling underneath.
We don’t usually look too hard underneath our desires, and our culture positively discourages us from this.
We are bombarded with adverts for things that promise to make us feel a certain way, from shoes and cars to pills and insurance plans.
And even though we dutifully purchase more and more things, we never seem to question their failure to deliver.
There is always a bigger house, or a bach or boat or whatever, to long for.
There’s always another pay raise to chase, a bigger saving cushion for real security…
We don’t ever doubt the connection of the thing with the feeling we hope for, so we keep chasing the next one and hoping that, at last, one of them will truly satisfy.
I wonder what you really know about your deep longings?
I wonder what you know about your deepest longings?
Today, in this scripture, Jesus asks us the question: what do you want me to do for you?
And you may not really know. Or you may be afraid to say.
But perhaps this week you might close your eyes and listen beneath the surface.
Perhaps this week you listen with the ear of the heart and watch with compassion for the longing that rises from deep within you.
Who knows what good may come into being through you when your deepest longings and God’s longing for you finally meet?