Last week I reminded you of the wonderful offertory prayer in our Lutheran liturgy. That prayer begins with God’s great mercy. “Merciful God,” we pray. God’s mercy releases us from bondage to sin and stuff. “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” we continue. “We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” This is what Christian stewardship looks like. We are made for mercy.
When I played Little League baseball, I was a splinter-collector. I spent so much time on the bench, I had a spot molded to my eleven-year-old backside. The only time I got in a game was when the issue was no longer in doubt. We were either so far ahead or so far behind that my meager contribution couldn’t affect the outcome.
Thus I hated the Little League “mercy rule.” If we were ten runs ahead or behind in the late innings, the umpire would call the game. I understood the need for the rule. Without it, we might have lost some games by a hundred runs after two days of non-stop agony. But the rule meant that I got to play even less.
The “mercy rule” is designed to stop the punishment and pain. That’s our cultural understanding of “mercy.” If we beg for mercy, we are asking for the punishment and pain to stop. That’s true on the ball field, on the playground and on the battlefield. We understand mercy as the end of punishment and pain.
“Son of David,” Bartimaeus cries, “have mercy on me!” What is he asking? Is he asking Jesus to stop the punishment and pain? No, God isn’t punishing the poor man. So he must be asking for something else.
Our New Testament is written in first-century Greek. But Jesus and Bartimaeus probably spoke to each other in Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew. In Hebrew, “mercy” has the same root as “womb.” So God’s mercy is not about the end of punishment and pain. Mercy is God’s “womb-love” for God’s children. God’s mercy is compassion in action. We are made for mercy.
Bartimaeus begins the story as one who lives on the edge – the edge of the road, the edge of the town, the edge of community, and the edge of survival. He moves from the edge to the center by the end of the story. I wonder how many of the composer’s listeners had made the same journey. I wonder how many of us have made the same journey – perhaps many times!
I imagine a performance of the Markan composition as I listen to the story. Candidates for baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the crowd late in the evening, perhaps on the eve of Easter Sunday. They listen to the story in all of its depth and drama as they consider whether they will go through with their commitments to lives of following Jesus to the cross. Perhaps these candidates in particular identify closely with Bartimaeus.
They have, perhaps, been living on the edge as well. Some of them may be enslaved persons who never quite know what the next moment will bring – a beating, a sexual assault, cleaning the latrine, or tutoring the master’s children. They may not be able to see into the next moment, much less the next day. They have heard that this Jesus character might be a source of good news in an otherwise dreary world. And they begin to cry out.
In our liturgy, we often use a section traditionally called the “Kyrie.” “Kyrie” comes from the Greek word for “Lord.” It is a prayer that concludes with the words “Lord, have mercy.” That prayer reflects the prayer of Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading. We often come to worship crying out with Blind Bartimaeus for we know not what. But we know we need it.
What are we asking in that prayer? I know you haven’t thought about it much. But if you did, I wonder if it would go like this. We pray that prayer so God will stop punishing us. We’re here face to face with God. We’ve confessed our sins. Now, God, cut us a little slack. Ease up out of our faces a bit, so we can get closer to you.
That’s the problem Martin Luther confronted in the Reformation. If God is intent on punishing, then God is not someone we love. In fact, Luther discovered that he came to hate the God of pain and punishment. It was when he re-discovered the God whose heart is all mercy that the Reformation began. We are made for mercy.
So we pray, “Lord, have mercy.” Your mercy, Loving God, is your compassion in action. Your mercy is your womb-love for your people. Take us into your heart, Loving God. Wrap your arms around us. Hold us close and heal us. Remind us of who we are. We are people made for compassion in action. We are made for mercy.
There’s a direct connection between the gospel reading last week and this week’s reading. Last week, Jesus asked the disciples, “What do you want me to do for you?” They wanted status, certainty and security. They demanded position, privilege and power. They wanted the wrong things.
Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question. “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus wants help, healing and hope. He wants to rest in God’s womb of love. He asks for mercy. Bartimaeus wants the right thing. We are made for mercy.
We get another second person singular now. “What do you want that I shall do for (or to) you?” The Markan storyteller perhaps turns to those most impacted by the story and asks the question. The “fourth wall” of play-acting is pierced again. The story reaches out and grabs at least some of us with its power.
What do you want Jesus to do for you? Let’s pause for a few moments and sit with that question.
“My teacher,” Bartimaeus responds. The distance has disappeared. The chasm has been bridged. The Son of David has become My Teacher. “That I might see again,” the blind man replies. The word is “anablepo.” The preposition that begins the word vibrates with multiple meanings. Let me see “again.” Let me see “anew.” Let me “look up.” The Markan composer intends and includes all these meanings in that small sentence.
Is that what you want? Do you want to see the world as Jesus sees it? Do you want to see things in a new way? That’s one of the definitions of repentance, after all. And repentance is the precursor to believing in Mark 1. Do you want to look up? For a while in the days to come, looking up in the Markan composition will mean looking up to Jesus on the cross. Is that what you want?
Bartimaeus experiences a preview of the Resurrection. That’s what God’s mercy produces. He throws off his cloak. He rises up. He is made whole. He follows Jesus on the way to the cross. That’s how it can work for us as well.
Is that what you want?
Perhaps your congregation or community is in the midst of an annual financial appeal. Many congregations are. We give in response to God’s great mercy. That’s a confusing theme if we use the cultural understanding of mercy. Then it sounds like we’re giving to pay God off. We’re so glad that God is no longer hurting us that we respond with gratitude. That’s like saying it feels so good when we stop banging our heads against a wall.
We give in response to God’s great mercy. God’s great mercy is the compassion of Jesus. God’s great mercy makes us whole. God’s great mercy wraps us in the womb-love of the Trinity. We give joyfully because we are so happy. We give joyfully because we are so glad to let that mercy flow through us into the lives of others. We give joyfully because we are made for mercy.
“And immediately,” the Markan composer tells us, returning now to narrator mode, “he could see again (or anew or up).” The more I reflect, the more I think that seeing “anew” is the real emphasis for the Markan composer here. That new sight, even though it resembles the old way of seeing, has new outcomes. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to suffering, to the cross – the Way of Discipleship.
“Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” we pray in our liturgy. “We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us.” That sounds a great deal like Bartimaeus, throwing off his cloak and leaping to his feet in trust and hope. Is that what you want?
Then we give our gifts. “May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you,” we pray, “dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Signs of our whole lives returned to God. Is that what you want?
Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Call me to want the right things…