AS CANDIDA MOSS warns, we misunderstand the story of Bartimaeus if we regard him simply as “a problem to be solved”. Rather, Mark shows him to be “a model disciple”. His physical blindness leads the able-bodied followers of Jesus to regard him as an inconvenience and an impediment, but, in reality, he is the one who has perceived who Jesus is (“Matthew and Mark” in Melcher et al., The Bible and Disability: A commentary).
This Sunday’s Gospel ends with Bartimaeus both physically healed and following Jesus “on the way”. As Mary Healy observes, “he is the only recipient of healing whose name is recorded by Mark, suggesting that he became a disciple and was known in the early Church.”
He is also the first person in this Gospel to apply the title “Son of David” to Jesus. The title means “the heir of God’s promises, the Messiah-King”, and one of the promises associated with the coming of the Messiah is “the opening of the eyes of the blind” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark). Bartimaeus’s refusal to be silenced flows from his recognition of Jesus’s messianic status. His audacity in calling on Jesus echoes that of the Syro-Phoenician mother, and the woman with a haemorrhage.
In our reading through Mark’s Gospel, this is the eighth successive Sunday in which the Evangelist has made the same contrast. He juxtaposes a series of able-bodied men who either misunderstand or reject Jesus’s message with marginalised people (women, children, and now Bartimaeus) who exemplify a faithful response.
The Church’s practice of mission can (more or less consciously) assume that a privileged “we” are called to evangelise, serve, and care for a needy “them”. Yet, in Mark, it is those in greatest need who grasp the nature of the Kingdom, and exemplify the pattern of faith to which all are called. The Church cannot, therefore, be a body that is for or even with the poorest and most marginalised. In Pope Francis’s words, it must be “a poor Church of the poor”. The transformation that our society needs “cannot be driven from the centre, but rather must come from the peripheries, whether existential and social or political and religious” (Rafael Luciano, Pope Francis and the Theology of the People).
The implications of Bartimaeus’s confession of Christ as Son of David are drawn out in our epistle. The “word of the oath” in verse 28 is a reference to Psalm 110 — to the oath God swore to David, that he would be “a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek”.
As Jason Byassee explains, the writer of Hebrews uses this oath to build an entire theology of Christ’s priesthood. While this priesthood is contrasted with that of the Old Testament — the “Son who has been made perfect for ever”, as opposed to the “high priests who are subject to weakness” — it is, none the less, rooted in the story of God’s relationship with his chosen people, and, in particular, with Abraham and David (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Psalms 101-150).
Jesus’s healings fulfil another part of that story: Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will gather a “great company “, including “the blind and the lame”, for salvation. As Walter Brueggemann explains, the prophecy is uttered at a time when there seemed few grounds for hope: “God has pledged to work a newness precisely where there is no evidence of such newness on the horizon” (A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming).
As Walter Brueggemann observes, it continues to be the poorest who find these promises of scripture most compelling. Like Bartimaeus, they are also the most likely to recognise God’s renewing work. This has been true throughout the history of the Church. To take one of many examples, the spirituals of African Americans affirmed their dignity — as children of God, saved by Christ and destined for glory — in the midst of slavery and segregation. Far from being other-worldly, this faith has led African American churches to play a central part in the historical struggle for justice.
The newness of God’s Kingdom has both a temporal and an eternal dimension. It has been enacted by Jesus in his earthly ministry, and will be brought to completion when he comes in glory. In each generation, his Spirit raises up new disciples such as Bartimaeus — placing those who endure the greatest injustice at the heart of his work of liberation.