Bartimaeus’ faith and Jesus’ question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: October 25, 2009
Jer 31:7-9; Ps 126:1-6; Heb 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” This statement by Jesus to the blind beggar Bartimaeus is powerful; and it is a statement that we, in our culture, are in great danger of seriously misunderstanding. “Your faith has saved you.” What do we think of when we hear Jesus say those words? Do we hear George Michael singing 20 years ago, “Faithuh faithuh faithuh!”? Or, much worse, do we hear the 1940 movie Pinocchio, where for the first time Jiminy Cricket sang, “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires / Will come to you“? Those words from the little cricket capture the error of our culture, which is likely to seriously mislead us about Jesus and what he is telling us, if we are not careful. So let us take a closer look at just what Bartimaeus’ faith was, which Jesus commended.

The first error of our culture is to think that it doesn’t matter who or what we have faith in—that it could be Jesus, or a star, or some other religious figure or object, or even nothing. But faith without an object, isolated and closed in on itself, really isn’t faith at all. Faith has to have an object. And faith will only be as good as the object in whom we believe.

In our gospel reading, Bartimaeus’ faith is clearly in Jesus. He called Jesus “Son of David“—identifying him as a king and a Messianic figure, the descendent of the great King David that the People of Israel had been waiting for God to send to rescue them. He may not have had a complete or perfect understanding of who Jesus is. He probably had more to learn. But clearly he was recognizing that Jesus is not just an ordinary man, not just an ordinary traveling preacher. And Bartimaeus’ faith is in Jesus.

The second error of our culture is to think that faith is all about our own action: as if we are supposed to sit there, believing really, really hard that something is going to happen; and as if our mental activity is going to make that thing happen. Now, we might even think we hear this in Jesus’ words—”Your faith has saved you”—because it sounds like he is saying that our faith has done something. But faith is really a response to Jesus’ initiative; it is a trust in him; it is a request to him to do something; it is an openness to receive what he will give. Our action in faith is really to clear away the barriers and let Jesus act. When we have faith in Jesus, we open ourselves to allow him to save us.

And how did Bartimaeus live out his faith?

  • On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
  • And did he get encouragement from others to keep seeking Jesus? No! They told him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.” And isn’t that just what we often experience?—that we don’t get much encouragement from those around us to keep calling on Jesus, but we may have to persevere anyway.
  • Then, when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was calling him, he threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. The detail about his cloak is interesting. His cloak was important for shielding him from the weather, and surely he had whatever money he had collected inside it. And I assume that he later went back over and picked it up. But at the moment that Jesus called him, he wasn’t going to let anything—not his cloak, not his money—hold him back from responding to Jesus’ call.
  • And finally, we note what happens after he is healed. Jesus tells him, “Go your way“—and we know that plenty of people that Jesus healed returned to their regular lives, sometimes even without saying thank-you. But Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way. He believed so much in Jesus that he became one of Jesus’ disciples; and from then on, Jesus’ way would be his way.

This then is what we see of Bartimaeus’ faith in Jesus. And what about you? Who do you think that Jesus is? Is he a distant figure for you; or do you find him present in your life? What do you think that he can do? Do you think that he can heal you? Do you think that he can change your life?

Now, at the point that Jesus and Bartimaeus actually come into contact with each other, Jesus asks him a question. And it is a question that also helps us to focus on the object of Bartimaeus’ faith. For Jesus could have said, “What do you want?” But his actual question was “What do you want me to do for you?” So the attention continues to be on Jesus.

And this question itself is very telling about the life of faith, so let’s examine it more closely. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus already knew the answer to the question. I mean, we know it, and all the bystanders knew it. The blind beggar may have been asking others for money; but from this man who could heal him, he wanted to receive his sight. So why did Jesus ask it?

Jesus actually asked a lot of questions. It was characteristic of him. Jesuit Father John Dear, in his book The Questions of Jesus, writes that one rainy day he began writing down every question Jesus ever asked in the Gospels; and it took a long time, because Fr. Dear counted 307 questions, leaving out the questions within the parables that Jesus told.

Why so many questions? In fact, why this question, when he already knew the answer? Well, why do we ask a question when we already know the answer? We call it a rhetorical question. Why do we ask them? Why am I asking you a rhetorical question right now? (We could have a lot of post-modern fun with that one!) Because it engages you. It gets you working on the project, the puzzle, that I am posing. When you discover the answer to the question, you will know it better, and find it more convincing, than if I simply told you. And so Jesus kept asking questions to the people that he met; and, by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture, he continues to ask us these questions today.

In asking the blind beggar this question, Jesus is addressing him in his full dignity: Bartimaeus, as a person, a man created in the image of God, who has the gift of freedom. And Jesus wants to engage his intellect and his will, fully.

“What do you want me to do for you?” It’s a probing question. And it pushes us to ask real questions of ourselves. You are facing the One who really can do anything for you. What do you want to ask him for? What do you truly need? Is it really good for you? Is it what were you made for? What if you don’t know the answer? What if there is a blindness that gets in the way of knowing what to ask Jesus for?

We’ve actually heard this question before. Last week, if you remember, Jesus asked this same question of James and John. They had asked him to do for them whatever they asked, and he responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Their answer was that they wanted to sit at his right and his left in his glory. They wanted to be put at the top of his kingdom in power and honor, second only to him. And Jesus’ answer to them was: No. It wasn’t what they really needed. Their own blindness prevented them from truly seeing themselves.

And so it’s interesting that Bartimaeus’ answer to that question, in a sense, addressed his limitation itself. “Master, I want to see.” It may be that he was seeing more clearly who Jesus was and what he was about than the disciples James and John, who had been following with him for years. When he then began following Jesus on the way, that way led directly to the Jerusalem. The very next passage after this one is Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; and so Holy Week begins, and Jesus’ Passion and cross draw near. And Bartimaeus follows him.

And what about us today? Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” He healed Bartimaeus and many others; and we know that he heals some physical illnesses today; but not all. Will he heal us if we ask? Maybe; maybe not. His calling to each of us will lead us to be conformed to him on the cross. But the cross that he has for each of us is perfectly designed to be just what that person needs to be made into a saint, in union with Christ. If some illness is not part of that person’s cross, then he will heal it. But none of us can know in advance whether or not he will say yes to a particular request.

But there are areas of healing that we know that he wants to give. Jesus instituted the seven sacraments; and two of those sacraments are classified as sacraments of healing. He instituted these sacraments, and he instituted the priesthood to make them available, and he continues to call men into that priesthood, because he wants to make this grace available to everyone.

One of these sacraments is the anointing of the sick. It is meant for anyone who has a bodily problem that puts them in some danger of death. A stubbed toe is not enough; but it is also not necessary to wait until someone is moments from dying. If you have some bodily difficulty that moves you somehow in the general direction of death, then this sacrament is for you. Sometimes he will physically heal through it; sometimes not. But what he will always do is give the extra grace to overcome the extra challenges that these bodily difficulties give. They make it harder to trust God; and harder to continue to respond to others with love, rather than pulling inside. The anointing of the sick gives additional grace to overcome these additional challenges, so that we may continue to be strong in faith, hope, and love; and especially so that, when the time of death comes, we may complete the sacrifice of our life in union with Christ’s sacrifice, all the way to the end.

The other sacrament of healing is confession; the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. And this is a sacrament that the world desperately needs; and yet which seems to no longer be a regular part of the lives of so many Catholics. By our sins we hurt others and we hurt ourselves. We carry this around inside. And Jesus wants to meet us in confession and to forgive us and to heal us and strengthen us. There is nothing that he cannot heal. But will we, like Bartimaeus, jump up and go to meet him? Will we have faith like his to pull down the barriers and let Jesus heal us?

Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?”


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Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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