His name is Bartimaeus. It’s unusual that we know his name at all. It’s the only time Mark tells us the name of someone Jesus heals. This gospel contains 678 verses; 198 of them are about miracles and healing. One out of 198 verses offers us a name. Mark was no sloppy or casual author. His gospel is the shortest, an exercise in an economy of words. If he drops a name in here, he means for it to catch our attention.
Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar. It’s unusual that we know his name at all. The name itself is unusual, too. Jesus spoke Aramaic, and in Aramaic the word “bar” means “son.” So Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus.” In the Gospel’s Greek, Mark makes sure we don’t miss it: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He spells it out as obviously as possible. In Aramaic and in Greek, let the record show this man is the son of Timaeus.
The ancient philosopher Plato spent a long time wondering what makes us human. He wrote an elaborate account of how the universe came into being, how it is ordered, and what it means to be human within that order. By his analysis, the capacity to observe, understand and reason is what sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. This, he says, comes first and foremost through sight. “Let the philosopher’s mind learn and follow what he sees,” he writes. “Let the philosopher’s mind imitate ‘the absolutely unerring courses of God,’ thereby attaining the good life.” The better one’s sight, the better one’s insight; the better one’s insight, the higher one’s place in the hierarchy of things.
But for Plato, the inverse is also true—the worse one’s sight, the worse one’s insight, and thus a lower place in the world. Perhaps it is not surprising that a philosopher’s theory places philosophers at the pinnacle of existence. All others, he believes, the unfortunate masses who cannot reason as well as the great thinkers, they are to be pitied, for they are less human. The name of the work where Plato explains all of this, where he explains the hierarchy of the created order? Timaeus.
And then, go figure, here in this morning’s Gospel reading, we encounter Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Bartimaeus, the son of philosophy, says, “I cannot see. Please, help me see again.”
If I understand this text, the Gospel is standing up against the prevailing, accepted thought of its time. Mark is offering a correction to the teaching of Greek philosophers and calling those who thought they could see…blind. This story reads as a story about Jesus healing someone who is physically blind. But, by telling us this is the story of the son of Timaeus, we start to understand that the story isn’t about physical blindness at all. It’s about spiritual blindness.
Here’s the thing about being physically blind. People who are physically blind…they know they are blind. In my last church, a teenager named Ashley sang in the youth choir. She earned most of the solos, not only at church but throughout the city, because her voice really is something. Ashley is also blind. So, when the choir would file into the church, Ashley would hold tight to another singer. When it was time for her to step forward to sing on her own, someone else would lead her. When it was time to sit down or stand up, someone would tap her elbow. And because she could not see the conductor, she spent untold amounts of extra hours rehearsing. Ashley is an amazing young woman. She has built her life in a very particular way because she knows she cannot see.
Being spiritually blind is another matter altogether. Most of the time, the spiritually blind have no idea. When we are spiritually blind, we are absolutely oblivious to the things we do not see.
James Henley Thornwell was the most significant theologian of the Presbyterian Church in the 1880s. He was a brilliant scholar and a faithful church goer. He accomplished many great things in the name of Jesus Christ. There is a children’s home named for him in South Carolina. James Henley Thornwell left us a significant theological heritage. But, in addition to everything else he believed, he believed God approved of slavery. He wrote, “There are many rights which are owed to other people: the English, the French, and the slave master, for example, but not the slave because God has not fashioned the slave to meet the responsibilities that accompany these rights.” Thornwell also wrote that slavery was a matter for the state. It was not a matter of politics for the church. The church, he believed, had no right, and no business, commenting on it. It was the most significant moral issue in our nation’s history at the time, and Presbyterians said, God has no interest in this.
Thornwell did not lack intelligence, not in the slightest. But in this, Thornwell was wrong. In this, Thornwell was spiritually blind.
We know that now. Now, we find this view shameful and embarrassing. At the time, we did not know what we did not know. We could not see what we could not see. We have all be spiritually blind at one time or another.
Before I moved to New York, I owned a little house in a town called Westwood, Kansas. I loved that house, but shortly after I moved in, I discovered a detail that had not shown up on any of the mortgage paperwork. My street, indeed, my entire neighborhood, loved outdoor holiday decorating. And in Westwood, the holiday season began around October 1, when scarecrows and gourds and cornucopias started showing up in every front yard. Living on my own, it was all I could do to go do work every day and still get the grass mowed and the leaves raked. (Have I mentioned how much I love living in a city?) I developed a bit of a complex about all this.
You are the only one with nothing in the yard, I told myself. Your new neighbors must think you are such a letdown. They probably wish someone else—someone with mums and corn and a scarecrow—had moved in.
And then one day, as Halloween crept closer, I came home from work to discover a beautiful, orange pumpkin on my porch. I am not proud of what I’m about to tell you. I took one look at the pumpkin and thought, Well that’s just great. The neighbors are so tired of waiting on me to decorate, they’ve taken matters into their own hands. I resented everything about that pumpkin. Every time I saw it, it reminded me what a failure of a homeowner I was. I started referring to it as the Pumpkin of Judgement. I took silent bets with myself about which of my neighbors had delivered it. If you didn’t believe me before—truly, I had gone to the bad place with this one.
It was just a few days before Halloween when Lexa Carr came by my house. Lexa was the chair of my search committee in Kansas City; some of you met her a few weeks ago at my Installation. Lexa and I were standing outside in my yard when she said, “How do you like your pumpkin?”
That was all I needed. You are never going to believe this, I told her, and I filled her in with all the gory details about the Pumpkin of Judgement. As I was talking, I didn’t immediately realize how still she had become. Finally, after a moment of silence, I looked her in the eyes. “You left the pumpkin for me, didn’t you?”
“I did,” she said. “I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.
I tell you this story not because I am proud of it, but because it reminds me how often we do not see what we cannot see.
Throughout the entire pumpkin ordeal, I did not see my neighbors rightly. All I could see was from my own perspective. I didn’t see the kindness of Lexa, or the exhaustion of the couple with three small children. I didn’t see the medication delivered to the single woman on the corner, or the elderly parent that lived with the couple across the street. I didn’t see the activities that filled their days or the worries that filled their hearts. I was limited to my worldview, but I also assumed my worldview was universal. I was spiritually blind.
I told you that story not because I am proud of it. It is shameful and embarrassing. And it reminds me how much I need Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus knows he cannot see. So, he calls to Jesus over and over again, even as the crowds get mad at him and tell him to be quiet. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, he shouts. And, as soon as he hears Jesus calling him, he jumps up and, Mark tells us, he throws off his cloak before running to Jesus. Another strange little detail taking up space in this efficient little Gospel.
But no matter how you wish to interpret this story—whether you are convinced by the idea of the Gospel taking on the conventional philosophy of its day, or whether you are convinced it’s more of a traditional healing story—either way, I am convinced Bartimaeus’ action here is tremendously important. Some say the cloak represents the philosophy of Timaeus. Scholars of the time did not make a habit of walking about in robes and cloaks. When Bartimaeus tosses his away, then, he is saying, I will no longer liver by this hierarchical human order. There is nothing that makes any one of us better than any other. I am going to Jesus, because he will help me see.
Others say the cloak is less representative and more literal. A blind beggar, they say, would have nearly no possessions. For him to leave a cloak behind would be foolishness, as the odds of him finding it again would be slim to none. When Bartimaeus does this, then, he is saying, I am going to be healed by that man. It doesn’t matter if I have my cloak or not right now. Because after this, I’ll be able to see again. I’ll be just fine.
Either way, before he runs to Jesus, he sheds his old way of living. Before he runs to Jesus. Before he is healed. Before he can see again. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar. Bartimaeus, patron saint of imagination.
Because, here’s the thing—for Bartimaeus to ask for his sight back makes all the sense in the world. For him to believe Jesus can actually do it, for him to have enough faith that it will happen, so much so that he is willing to discard his worldview and his worldly possessions…well, that requires tremendous imagination. Tremendously holy imagination. In so many ways, faith and imagination go hand in hand. Because both ask us to look at things the way they are and consider another possibility. Something better. Something beyond ourselves. Something about what life looks like for others.
In throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus is not only imagining; he is so compelled by that imagination that he is already living toward the new life Jesus offers. The Greek verb Jesus uses is sodzo. It can mean “to be made well.” It can also mean “to be saved.” But what about the Greek noun Jesus uses? It’s “pistis,” which we typically translate “faith.” But what would happen if we thought of it, even just occasionally, as imagination? “Your imagination has saved you.”
“Your imagination has made you whole again.”
“Your imagination has made you fully human.”
It’s not far off the mark. It takes imagination to live toward God’s promised day. It takes imagination to follow Jesus. It takes imagination to live like Bartimaeus. And imagination has always been part of our story, for imagination is a gift from God. This whole passage is tied so tightly to the idea of discipleship. That is—how we are to live our lives. And when it comes to that, Jesus does not treat us with kid gloves. Take up your cross. Lose your life. Become a servant. Give it all away. Follow me. Protect the vulnerable. Step out on the water. Do not be afraid. Look at one another. See one another. Love one another.
Make no mistake—Jesus asks a great deal of us. And there are times when we may be tempted to throw our hands up in the air and just give up. But here is the thing: Jesus’ imagination is much holier than ours, even, and Jesus would not ask us to do something if he didn’t think we were capable of it. There is nothing about Jesus that has ever wanted us to fail or set us up to fail. These words are commanded because he is utterly convinced that we are, somewhere deep down inside of us if nowhere else yet, capable of doing exactly as he asks.
Brian Blount, professor of New Testament and the President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, taught me about the Gospel of Mark. One day, a student asked him, “Why Mark? Why have you chosen to specialize in Mark?”
Brian thought, and then he said, “Mark consistently shows me the Jesus I am not expecting.”
Jesus’ imagination has the power to show us sides of ourselves that we are not expecting, either. To make us better than we ever would have hoped or dared to think possible. To see more than we ever would have realized there was to see.
Jesus said to the blind man, Go. Your faith, your imagination, they have saved you. They have made you well again. Immediately, he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.
It is by faith, and imagination, and all sorts of grace, which is the imagination of God, that we, too, can follow Jesus on the way.