Bible reading: Mark 10:46-52
Most of you would have seen a picture of an eyechart and perhaps have even had to use one. Generally, the charts show 11 rows of capital letters, with the top row containing just one (usually the "big E"). The other rows contain letters that are progressively smaller. It’s called the Snellen eye chart. It’s named after the Dutch eye doctor Hermann Snellen who developed it in the 1860’s.
During an eye examination, the eye doctor will ask the person to find the smallest line of text letters they can read. 20/20 vision is considered "normal" vision, meaning you can read at 20 feet a letter that most human beings should be able to read at 20 feet. Usually the 20/20 line of letters is fourth from the bottom, with 20/15, 20/10 and 20/5 below that. Not many people have 20/10 or better vision, but many animals do, especially birds of prey, which have been estimated to have 20/5 vision or even better.
At the other end of the scale, a person is considered legally blind if they cannot read anything below the big E at the top. Their vision is considered 20/200. That means you can read at 20 feet a letter that people with "normal" vision can read at 200 feet.
In today’s Gospel reading Bartimaeus—we’ll call him Bart for short—can’t even read the “big E.” He’s not just legally blind, not just 20/200, but he’s got 0. He is completely blind. Which is why he is sitting by the roadside begging. In those days blind people couldn’t be employed. There weren’t the social security benefits we have today. And there wasn’t specialist health care, certainly no optical specialists like Fred Hollows, an Australian eye surgeon and national hero.
Bart is sitting by the roadside, begging. What a pitiful existence. He has nothing. He has no future. He is totally dependent on the mercy of others. We don’t understand how that would feel, because we like to be in control of our lives. We don’t even like asking help from others when we need it; the prideful, independent self kicks in.
But imagine being Bart for a moment. No real hope. No pathway to healing and no positive future opportunities will ever open up for him. All he has are empty hands held out, hoping to receive help from another. So when Bart hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth, he begins to shout, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
He begins to shout, but the crowd seeks to hush him. Our reading says that many rebuked Bart and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
This is an incredibly important confession. Bart doesn’t just think Jesus is a good teacher or a nice bloke or someone with magical powers to help him. He is saying that Jesus is the One the Old Testament prophets pointed ahead to as the Saviour, God Himself, Son of the Father in Heaven and Son of David, the One born from King David’s royal line as the Saviour of the world. The title of honour that Bart expresses (“Son of David”) shows his faith in Jesus. Bart shows that he understands Jesus’ divine nature, power and authority—an authority to bless and save.
There is a definite contrast between Bart and the rest of the characters in the Gospel account today. Bartimaeus, the empty-handed one, with nothing, desperate, crying out to Jesus for help. The crowd, with plenty, not knowing what it is to be materially bankrupt, thinking they know best, not calling out to Jesus, but rebuking the beggar who is. This isn’t just an issue of propriety and decorum. It is wanting to deny and silence the truth that Jesus is the Christ from God, the Saviour they need.
They hated Jesus because He wouldn’t give them the honour they thought they deserved, so when they heard the people hailing Jesus as the Saviour, they became enraged and plotted to destroy Him. In a strange way, it is Bart who has true sight. The knockers and mockers in the crowd were so blinded by their own pride and lack of understanding of the Scriptures that they couldn’t see what the blind beggar could see – that here was the Messiah they had supposedly been waiting for all their lives. Bart really had true sight. He saw Jesus as the Saviour of the world.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t presume what Bart wants. He asks him: "What do you want me to do for you?" Why does Jesus ask that? As God, He is supposed to know everything isn’t He?
Jesus does know. But His question intentionally opens the way for a conversation; it creates a relationship. That’s what God desires for all people. That’s why He sent Jesus. So instead of following the social norm of avoiding Bart, Jesus stops and calls Bart to come to Him.
Bart asks Jesus: "Let me see again" and so acknowledges that it is Jesus who has the authority who can restore his sight. But it is this faith, this trust, this bonding with Jesus which is the basis for an even greater sight for Bart. "Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Our reading doesn’t say where Bart follows Jesus to, but after this passage is the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, marking the beginning of Holy Week where Jesus will ultimately be handed over to the rulers. Another crowd will line the street, and want Jesus hushed.
There they shout “Crucify Him!” From the Cross Jesus will cry out: “My God My God why have you forsaken me?” This is where Bart follows Jesus to. Following Jesus means dying to the self. Dying to our pride, dying to un-forgiveness, dying to the harmful thoughts, words and deeds we hang on to, dying to our selfish motives and desire for greatness, dying to our self-justifications about not worshipping God and welcoming His Word to rule over our hearts.
Bart shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Faith in Jesus as our saving God is the only way to share in His resurrection.
It’s a faith that Frances van Alstyne had. Born in 1820, Frances became a Methodist rescue mission worker, poet, lyricist, and composer. She is best known for her music, being one of the most prolific hymn-writers in history, writing over 8,000, including "Blessed Assurance", "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour", "Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home", "Praise Him, Praise Him", "Rescue the Perishing", and "To God Be the Glory". But when just 6 years old, Frances was left blind by an illness for the rest of her life. One day a well-meaning minister said to Frances, "I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts upon you."
"Oh no!" Frances replied. "If I could have only one request, it would be to be born blind." "Why?" asked the surprised minister. "Because," answered Frances, "when I get to heaven, the first face that these blind eyes will ever see is the face of Jesus, my Saviour."
Bart received the gift of sight. Frances lost hers. But both had true sight, following Jesus as their Saviour. Today’s text asks us, the hearers, to ponder some of the most important questions we will ever have to consider, for they do have eternal consequences.
Are you blind? Are you willing to see now?
What do you need Jesus to free you to do and to be?
How will you respond to Jesus’ call to you?
Bart follows Jesus. He follows him to the Cross where Jesus won eternal life for all, by paying the price for the sin of the world, and thereby conquering death and the devil forever. He rose again and lives, the relational God, who is present even today, right here, waiting to forgive and to bless and to give spiritual sight so that whoever believes in Him will be saved.
The sight Jesus gives is a free gift, but it cost Jesus His very life. But that is His love for you. Amen.