The character Bartimaeus leaps out from the pages of Mark's Gospel and stays with us as we go on our way from Sunday to Sunday. He becomes a follower at the eleventh hour, just before Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, at a stage when those who have been disciples all along are beginning to lose heart. His story is told so that we may take heart, not just sitting by the wayside but actually following Jesus in the Way.
Bartimaeus wasn't born blind, because he actually asks that he might see again. Bartimaeus was no stranger to loss and suffering. Going blind must have meant losing not only his independence and livelihood but being condemned to endure much suffering and humiliation. Whatever status he may have had, Bartimaeus obviously lost it with his sight. In the eyes of the good citizens of Jericho he would have been a person of no account. He sits on the edge both of the road and of their world. But it is his healing that is the final one in the Gospel, and in a way it is the most significant of all.
Bartimaeus stands before us as a man of faith. His call to discipleship comes through healing, in order that others might be given sight of their own weakness as the place through which the call to discipleship leads. Only when we can see and accept our weaknesses can we allow Christ to come and serve us. On the road all the way to Jericho, as Jesus talked of the suffering and death which awaited him in Jerusalem, the disciples were confronted with this paradox, and theirs is a hard struggle with their own lack of faith and understanding, their mixed motives and ultimately their very personal need for God's grace and mercy. The humble, honest and heartfelt cry of Bartimaeus 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me' is not yet theirs. Greatness, seats on the right and the left in glory, and the reward for leaving home and family - these are their concern. But Bartimaeus had learned much from the calamity which had come upon him.
Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus had healed another blind man (8.22-26). It was at Bethsaida in the north near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Other people led that man to Jesus and it was these people, not the blind man, who asked that he might be healed. But Bartimaeus himself cries out boldly to Jesus. When Jesus calls to him, he throws away his cloak, leaps up and goes to him, which is odd because blind people do not throw their things about. They need to remember where their things are, so that they can find them again. They don't leap up and go to someone in a crowd. They feel their way bit by bit. It is as if Bartimaeus has no longer any need for a cloak. It is as if Bartimaeus could see already.
Although blind and vulnerable, Bartimaeus is not helpless for he can receive and embrace the words 'Take heart, rise, he is calling you', and move confidently towards Jesus. Jesus had used those words himself. Once at night when the disciples were in a boat and no longer had the strength to row against the wind to Jesus came to them, walking on the water and saying, 'Take heart, it is I, have no fear'. However, the disciples did not understand and did not take heart. But Bartimaeus is ready. In God's providence, Bartimaeus has come to know his own weakness and need and has the insight to know that what matters is that Jesus is there to serve him and this is seen in the way Mark tells us that Jesus stopped and said 'Call him'. Immediately he is off the ground and on his feet.
All through the Gospel the other disciples have been on the road with Jesus as he goes from town to town teaching and healing. But they have failed to truly see him or understand his words. All that time, Bartimaeus was sitting in the dust by the side of the road, day after day, going nowhere it seemed, yet he was in truth like a tree planted beside a flowing stream, the roots of his faith growing unseen until the day his Master came and said 'Go your way, your faith has made you well.'
By God's grace, Bartimaeus made that great leap from sitting by the wayside to following Christ along the Way. May the good Lord who cured the blind and the lame lead us to streams of water, that our eyes may be opened and our hearts receive him, so that we too may follow him along the Way.