The Sign Called Bartimaeus

A subtle and slender thread often connects the Old and New Testaments. For instance, Jeremiah 31:7-9 prophesies a great throng of returning exiles from Babylon about 70 years after the great catastrophe of Babylonian conquest which struck Israel in 587 BC. Promising that the Lord has not abandoned Israel, he notes several details of a great moment of restoration to come, when the blessings on Israel would be renewed and a great age of glory would begin. Jeremiah foretells that a crowd of celebrants will come from the north (the direction returning exiles from Babylon would come from and also the direction from which, centuries later, the Prophet from Galilee would come). And he tells us this crowd will be a gathering which will involve the whole world. Finally, in this passage, he notes it will include “the blind and the lame.”

Jeremiah’s prophecy was partly fulfilled when Israel was restored to her homeland by Cyrus of Persia. The temple was rebuilt. Jerusalem was restored and again became the center of Jewish life. But life remained a struggle and the national fortunes of Israel never really seemed to fit very well with the glowing promises of the Prophets. Israel, in fact, experiences a series of conquests under Alexander the Great, the Seleucid kings, and finally, Rome. In the midst of all this, the Jewish memory of the promises made by God to the House of David that “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me” waxed brighter and brighter. The Jews lived in the constant hope that Messiah, the Son of David, would bring the complete fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promises from the Lord. But (naturally enough, given the grueling political situation of the first century) the Jews increasingly tended to think of Messiah as a Warrior King like David who would, like David, establish a political kingdom. The “immense throng” of Jeremiah would, so it was thought, be an avenging Messianic army. That was the fulfillment which Israel was awaiting.

It is that fulfillment, so like and yet so unlike what contemporary messianic expectation was looking for, which Mark 10:46-52 is hinting at. Rather than the Rome-destroying army of popular messianic expectation, Jesus is instead shown at the head of a “sizable crowd.” He is heading for Jerusalem, the city to which Jeremiah prophesied, but he will enter on a donkey–a sign of peace–not a war horse. He is explicitly addressed as “Son of David”, a messianic title, by one who is, quite literally, a blind man, in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophecy. But the crowd, filled with contemporary messianic expectations of Jesus, yet does not see Jesus’ true nature. For instead of grasping Messiah’s love of the poor, they instead try to silence the blind beggar who, for his part, only calls out the louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”

So Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah, calls the blind man to his side and heals him. However, note the way in which the healing is given. He does not say, “I command you, by virtue of my authority as Messiah, to see!” On the contrary, the messianic Son of David asks Bartimaeus what he wants. Then and only then does he act and it is entirely in response to Bartimaeus’ request. Jesus commands the blindness to leave, but he does not command Bartimaeus to stay. Instead, he waits for a completely free response, saying, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” The “immense throng” of Jeremiah’s prophecy, whose ultimate fulfillment is the Body of Christ, is, above all, free, not an army pressed into service and ruled by power and fear. Jesus compels no one to join him on his way. But in that freedom, there is a greater binding power than any other known to the world: love. And so Bartimaeus chooses his way. Seeing Jesus in the moment he received his sight, he “followed him on the way.” In so doing, he becomes, without realizing it, the very fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “I will gather them from the ends of the world,/with the blind and the lame in the midst.” The “way” that Jesus walks on and which Bartimaeus joins him on is indeed the way of restoration and freedom that Jeremiah prophesied and that the blind man has felt in his own flesh. Who better to understand restoration than a man who has had his sight restored?

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