It was then that the fox appeared, writes Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince had just discovered a garden filled with thousands of roses, but instead of delighting in their beauty and fragrance, he despaired. He had thought himself rich, prince of his own little planet with three volcanoes that came up to his knee and a rose who had claimed to be unique in all the universe. Now, on a visit to earth, surrounded by roses and towering mountains, he suddenly thought he was not fortunate after all. And he lay down in the grass and cried.
It was then that the fox appeared. The fox asked the Little Prince to tame him, explaining, If you tame me, then we shall need each other. And so the Little Prince returned each day, as the fox suggested, sitting closer to him every time until the fox was tamed. He was no longer just another fox to the Prince, and the Prince was no longer just another little boy to the fox - they saw one another differently. And so it was, the Little Prince realized, with his rose. So what if there were thousands of other roses in the universe - his rose was special because he loved her, and she loved him.
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, the fox said to the Prince. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
If only Jesus had carried a copy of Saint-Exupery’s beloved story with him, and had read it to his disciples in the evenings as they sat around the fire for warmth, weary from walking and wondering and worrying along the way to Jerusalem. We have been walking with them for weeks now, witnessing Jesus’s efforts to teach them what it means to be called, what it means to follow on the way, what it means to be a disciple.
Jesus has restored sight to the blind, opened the ears of the deaf, made the lame to walk, healed diseased bodies and sin-sick souls. He has cast out demons, raised the dead, walked on water, and calmed a storm. He has spoken of his death and of his resurrection. And still they do not see.
The disciples were looking for a kingdom come, some future kingdom in which Jesus, having mightily defeated all who oppressed God’s chosen people, would take up his rightful throne and seat his faithful by his side. They were looking for a kingdom that looked like all the other kingdoms they had ever known, in which power and authority are evidenced by strength and superiority.
But over and again on that long road to Jerusalem, Jesus tried to illuminate the kingdom in their midst, to turn their gaze upon a kingdom in which power and authority are evidenced by vulnerability and grace, by being opened, by being last of all and servant of all, by taking up the cross, by giving everything away, by being like a child, by living and loving in order to be Christlike, rather than in an effort to be liked by Christ. It was a new vision, and the disciples, but for a glimse here or there, just could not see it.
And so they arrived at Jericho, in the shadow of Jerusalem, where Bartimaeus, whose name means son of honor, sat in the streets of the city where once the power of God had tumbled down walls. Stricken blind, he begged of passersby, who accorded him no honor. Remember that in his time, disabilities such as his were seen as the consequence of some sin, so that Bartimaeus was not only a burden on the community but also an outcast in their eyes. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? the disciples ask Jesus in the gospel of John, when they once encountered a blind man in Jerusalem.
Bartimaeus would have had no possessions other than his cloak, a threadbare piece of fabric, too worn to warm his bones, spread on the dusty ground to catch whatever coins were tossed his way. He was probably dirty and smelly. And he was apparently loud, very loud, shouting over the crowd, Mark tells us, shouting and saying, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.
I wonder what caught Jesus’s attention. He had heard countless cries for his healing touch, countless pleas for mercy, countless calls for help. Surely Bartimaeus wasn’t the only beggar in Jericho. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy... Perhaps what made Jesus stand still in the midst of the crowd that swirled around him, perhaps what compelled him to say call him here, perhaps what caught his attention was the way Bartimaeus looked at him. The way Bartimaeus saw him. It is the first time in Mark’s gospel that anyone has called Jesus Son of David, linking him to the deeply held hope that God would send an anointed one to save God’s people. From where he sat in darkness, Bartimaeus saw the Light of the World.
What is essential is invisible to the eye...
Your faith has made you well, Jesus told him, and light would fill Bartimaeus’s eyes just in time for him to see Jesus in the shadow of the cross, the gloom of the grave, the darkness of death. Go, Jesus said. But instead Bartimaeus came and followed, having already cast aside his cloak and the few coins it held, his confidence a counterpoint to the confusion, fear, and hesitation of the disciples, his purposeful steps a foil for their fumbling.
So it is that this last story of healing in Mark’s gospel is also one last story of what it means to means to be called, what it means to follow on the way, what it means to be a disciple, not safely by the Sea of Galilee but on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The disciples had seen something extraordinary in Jesus when they left their lives behind to follow him, but became blinded by what they thought a messiah ought to be. To be fair, it is hard to see the world the way Jesus does, to look squarely in the face of what is evil, to touch the world’s worst wounds, to embrace those whom society keeps at an arm’s length. We might rather stay blind, or perhaps focus, as the disciples did, on artificial lights strung up by world...Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory...
That’s what James and John wanted. In their minds, they saw a man who would rule the world when Jesus asked them, What do you want me to do for you? In his heart, Bartimaeus saw a messiah who would save the world when Jesus asked him the same thing, What do you want me to do for you? My teacher, let me see again. Immediately he regained his sight, Mark tells us, but it was more a formality than a miracle, I think, as superfluous the Scarecrow’s diploma or the Lion’s medal of valor or the Tin Man’s testimonial. Even in his blindness, Bartimaeus had been able to see to the heart of who Jesus was, to see what was essential.
What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks us in the dark places of our disabilities and doubts, our sins and shortcomings, our fears and our failures. We all suffer from episodes of blindness. What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks, and waits for our response. What is essential? What do we need?
Lord, let us see. Amen.
Artwork: Rose in the front yard; "Bartimaeus," by Pamela Swan; "L'aveugle de Jericho," by Macha Chmakoff.