This week is Anti-Poverty Week in Australia. It starts on the United Nations Day for the Eradication of Poverty, 17 October and it ends 24 October. According to Anglicare Australia’s statistics, more than 3.24 million people in Australia live below the poverty line, including 774,000 children, which means at least one in six children live in poverty in our country. In the world, over 700 million people earn less than $2 US per day.
During this week we were treated to a particularly gruesome and selfish opinion of an ex-politician, now academic, who wrote in the Australian Financial Review, arguing there is an “underclass” of Australians who are “appalling” housekeepers and neglectful parents and “almost entirely lacking [in] discipline”. Her critique of the poor is brutal, lacking insight, completely ignoring our political choices about funding and deliberately scapegoating the ‘other’.
In Dunsborough this week, I delivered food and clothes to a homeless man after the parish had paid for his accommodation for a week at a local caravan park while he waited for assistance, but who was sleeping in his car as he has nothing left to live on and his serious ill health is exacerbated by lack of accommodation.
We have beggars in our streets in Busselton and as the holiday season approaches our poorer neighbours are being evicted to make way for owners to make more money from their properties during the high season.
In Perth this last year, it is reckoned at least 44 people have died on the streets due to their homelessness, poverty, ill health and despair.
At our Synod two weeks ago, we had highly respected members of our church family stand up and describe their own experiences of homelessness, family violence, destitution and despair.
I thought about all these stories as I now meet Bartimaeus, ‘bar’ meaning ‘son’ of Timaeus’. Bartimaeus was a blind beggar sitting on the roadside in Jericho hearing the gossip of the arrival of Jesus heading towards Jerusalem. Mark’s gospel (10:46-52) is the only one to name the blind beggar, although Luke and Matthew carry a similar story. It is only in Mark’s Gospel where we are told Jesus calls the beggar to come to him.
For Jesus the end of the road, literally and metaphorically is not far away. Jericho is only about 15 miles from Jerusalem where Jesus was heading to celebrate the Passover. It was the law for every male Jew over 12 years old living within 15 miles of Jerusalem must attend the Passover. While this never happened, it did mean the roadsides to Jerusalem were lined by those unable to attend, wishing the Passover pilgrims Godspeed on their way.
Many of the priests and Levites, when not in attendance on duty at the Jerusalem temple, apparently about 20,000, lived in Jericho. There would have been many watching out for this troublesome young teacher and healer heading to Jerusalem, while they themselves, busily spread gossip, perhaps hoping to damage Jesus’ reputation and deny his teachings and way of life as it challenged their own.
The story of Bartimaeus and his healing is the last of the miracle stories in Mark. It describes Jesus’ last encounter with someone whose faith in him as the Son of David, the anointed Messiah was full of hope.
Bartimaeus calls out: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (10:47)
It reminds me of the Jesus prayer which I regularly use:
Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I suspect many of us have sat at the side of the busy road of life, watching others going about their work and lives, purposefully and successfully while we feel useless and broken, perhaps with grief and loss, despair and greyness at the difficulties of the world, the loneliness and heartache of separation and hurt, and all our hearts can manage is the Jesus prayer.
Can you say this?
Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Our hearts may stutter and our courage fail, our words scattering into the air without form and strength, but we can manage, ‘Jesus, mercy, me.’
One thing about being a member of the ‘underclass’ as the ex-politician called many of our neighbours, those who Hilary Clinton famously referred to five or six years ago, as the ‘deplorables’, is it is easier to lose your inhibitions and ignore those who try manage you and make you invisible. This example of privilege, entitlement and wilful blindness is challenged on the dusty roadside by Jesus.
Bartimaeus was shouting at the side of the road, in the press of people walking with Jesus, many straining to hear his teaching, along with those lining the road to bless the pilgrims. This noise and the crowds would have made Bartimaeus’ wish to attract Jesus’ attention very difficult. We’re told, many ordered him sternly to be quiet as those nearby sought to shut him up with his troublesome yelling.
However, Jesus heard him above the tumult, and stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ In his excitement, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak on the roadside as he jumped up and was shoved and pushed through the crowd, arriving trembling in front of Jesus and we can hear the stillness as everyone went quiet to listen to what was going to be said.
Like the bystanders, we lean in to hear the exchange. But I wonder if you are in the crowd, or are you Bartimaeus himself, calling out with despair and desperate hope.
Jesus, Son of God, Son of David, Messiah, God’s anointed one, have mercy on me.
Will God hear you in the crush of humanity and all its competing desires and needs? Will God hear me, a beggar and a sinner ignored by all, always pushed to the back, always silenced among the more deserving and well to do to whom we are an embarrassment, a failure, a disgrace?
Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (10:51)
It’s the same question Jesus asked James and John, the sons of Zebedee when they asked to be seated beside Jesus in his glory, as they sought, power, might and prestige in his kingdom. (10:36)
Bartimaeus answers: ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ (10:51)
If Jesus asked you what you wanted, would you know what you would ask for?
As the dust and tears are washed away in the joy of healing, the sunlight pierces Bartimaeus’ darkness and his eyes are opened to see the face of Christ. In the stillness the enormity and significance of this quiet miracle in that tiny moment is breathtaking. You too, may have experienced such moments with God in your own lives.
For John and James, in their worldliness, they wanted power, might and glory. Others too, want success for their children and themselves in this world rather than in Jesus’ world. Perhaps we haven’t heard Jesus asking us the same question: What do you want me to do for you?
The offer from Jesus to do something for us, for me, for the beggar is seen and heard in that moment. Bartimaeus fills up Jesus’ sight, precious in his dustiness, need and blindness. Bartimaeus is seen by God, made real by Jesus’ seeing, hearing and speaking with him.
Jesus affirms with truth, compassion and love; it is Bartimaeus’ faith which has healed him.
Jesus says: ‘Go your faith has made you well.’
Bartimaeus abandons his cloak and follows Jesus on the way. He brings his begging, his blindness, his poverty, his life and the humiliations of his existence to Jesus for healing, and like all disciples, we too are invited to shed all our unnecessary and non-essential aspects of our lives, including our old habits like well-worn clothes, and follow Jesus instead.
If we accept the gift of courage from God, we can lose all we treasure and we will find it was worthless. Sight in the place of darkness and hope in the place of despair turns our world on its head.
As we think about the UN Day for the Eradication of Poverty, our welcome, inclusion and assistance for all of God’s children who live among us trying cope with the systems we have put in place, we know we too can change the life of Bartimaeus with God’s help.
I remember a song at the end of ‘Les Miserables’, which says: ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’. As Jesus’ gazes on Bartimaeus and hears his prayer, Bartimaeus sees God and Jesus sees God in Bartimaeus. No wonder Bartimaeus left everything behind to follow Jesus to the cross. Nothing else could come close.
The Lord be with you.