There are several stories I have used for decades, and now find that they have revealed more about me than I would have thought or wanted. One of these I found years ago in a book about Zen Buddhism.
There was a young man who sought enlightenment. He travelled many miles across many countries to sit at the feet of a great master. When he saw him, he ran to him, cast himself at his feet and told him that he wished to be Enlighted. The master asked him how much he wanted to be Enlighted and he responded more than anything in the world. The master slapped him across the face and told him to come back when he was serious. The young man said had crossed deserts and mountains to see him wasn’t that proof enough. The Master slapped him again, only harder. The young man went away, got a job in the town and studied harder. The next year he returned to the Master, said the same thing, this time the Master smiled but said nothing to him. He returned to his job, waited another year but this time did not visit him in public but found him while he was bathing in a river. He waded out to him and again told him he wished enlightenment, the master asked again how much, and he answered more than anything in the world. The Master took him by hair and with surprising strength pushed him under the water. The young man struggled but could not break free, finally when he was about to drown he master released him. When he came out of the water, gasping for air, the Master calmly asked him “What did you think about under the water. He answered: “Air”. The Master told him to come back when he would think only of enlightenment.
This is not only a commentary on this immediate passage of Mark’s gospel but the entire section. We read about the rich young man. His life seemed full, but he knew there was more to existence than what he was experiencing. Jesus offered him that something more, but he could not let go of what he had and walked away. James and John followed Jesus, but they had an agenda. They wished to sit one at his right and another at his left. They had enough faith to follow Jesus even though he said he was to be sacrificed but not enough to let go of the desire for status and position. I can identify with all these people. When I first began to use this story, I too realized there was more to life than my immediate experience but interpreted it as doing some work around the edges of my regular existence. To be enlightened was simply being a good person. Later I was more like James and John, committed to following Jesus but unaware that I was putting my own ideas about what was a successful person instead of being led by Jesus. In both cases I thought I was truly seeking Jesus above and beyond all other possibilities of life although I now realize that everyone around me knew I was not.
Now let us look at Bartimaeus. We have been examining people who were very much aware of their position in their world and would like to either keep or build on it. Bartimaeus however has no status he is blind man beginning by the road. Unlike others he does not stand by ceremony but cries out to Jesus. He recognized he had nothing and so have nothing to lose. This has given him both impetuousness and wisdom. He is the only one whom Jesus cures to call him by his first name. It is also the first time that Jesus is called “Son of David”. For the Jews this meant the Messiah, He knew as well that one of the signs of the messiah would be in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see (Is 29:18)
He did not stand on ceremony, nor engage in niceties. He wanted to see and let noting hinder him.
Mark then asks him the same question that he asked James and John. What do you want me to do for you?
James and John asked to be important, Bartimaeus asked to see. Through his faith he received his physical sight, but he was also spiritually enlightened. In the gospels several times physical blindness was linked to spiritual blindness. Trust in Jesus always gives more than we ask, and Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way. “The Way” was the first description of the Christian life. The proof that one is enlightened is walking on it. He asked for sight that the doctors could not give and received the joy that only Jesus can.
It has taken me a lifetime to find myself alongside the road with Bartimaeus. Now knowing that nothing but Jesus can offer satisfaction in this life and fulfillment in the next, but unable to make the next step, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, a sign of willingness to change his life. I am content to, in the words of Brooklyn Height’s greatest poet W.H. Auden, beg to “remain His disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep His word for long”.
Bartimaeus and St. Mary Magdalene are the only persons to call Jesus “Master” in the New Testament. Both were overwhelmed by their lives at the time. They were under water, yet they sought Jesus, not oxygen. I am not there yet so I cannot offer you much wisdom. I have come far enough, however, to offer an observation. Shall I ever be able to call Jesus my only master, more important than the air I breathe. Whether by darkness or light, despair or ecstasy it will not for greater comfort, but for total joy.