October 25, 2015
In today’s gospel, we meet a man named Bartimaeus sitting on the side of the road. It would have been easy for Jesus and his followers to overlook this man. Sitting just off the road, Bartimaeus could easily be sidelined by the focused, forward-marching Jesus movement at this stage in Mark’s gospel. Jesus and his followers are on the road from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem, and they’ve made it as far as Jericho. They have just fifteen miles to go.
It also would have been very easy for this blind man by the roadside not to notice who or what was passing him by. But he manages to stop the mission-driven followers of Jesus just long enough to join them on the way.
As someone who is delighted when my Sunday morning drive from my home in Fayetteville to Grace Episcopal Church takes me thirty-nine minutes instead of forty, I know that it can be hard to stop and pay attention to people by the roadside. What makes it harder, though, is that people by the roadside aren’t always as easy to spot as people with a flat tire on the highway, or people with a cardboard sign at a busy intersection. People “by the roadside” can be anywhere, can be any of us—watching a busy world pass us by, unable to see what others see, unable to join all those people who are really going somewhere, waiting and wondering whether we should even get up. Sitting by the roadside.
But so often, the roadside is where God calls us—from the edgy margins and stuck places. And it’s where Jesus asks us to meet and call others.
There’s actually a theory that this is how God called together the original social grouping known to us as God’s people, or the Hebrews. The theory goes that the Hebrews didn’t always have a clear and coherent identity. One church historian puts it this way: He writes, “From an early period, the Children of Israel were also called ‘Hebrew’—usually . . . by those who did not think much of them.” He points out that the word “Hebrew” (or Habiru) appears in sources from different time periods and places. When the word Habiru appears, it seems to mean, as he claims, “people who were uprooted and on the edges of other societies, people of little account except for their nuisance value . . . . They were those who had been marginalized: nomads, semi-nomads, the dispossessed who now began to find ways of settling down and building new lives” (p. 53, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch).
Perhaps this is the way that God’s people have always been. Maybe they didn’t start out as a clearly-delineated and specially-chosen tribe or ethnicity that developed into a kingdom and then shared their God with other people. Maybe they started out as an assortment of wandering people who found their way from the edges of other tribes and societies and then were called—or thrown—together by God. And then, as this historian puts it, “the dispossessed, the migrants, the Habiru, could themselves find comfort and a new identity” in the God who reveals himself to people—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses—rather than being attached to one fixed place (pp. 54-55).
Of course, this is just one theory of the early meaning of “Hebrew,” but it is consistent with the way we see God acting in the Scriptures—calling people from the edges, from the margins, and giving them a way to walk and somewhere to go.
In our first reading today, God says through the prophet Jeremiah that he is going to gather his people “from the farthest parts of the earth,” and that this caravan will include not only the obviously strong and capable, but “the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together.” And the road that God provides for them will be straight and cleared of stumbling-blocks, and it will track alongside a source of running water. God calls people from the edges of their communities and leads them along a road.
We find Bartimaeus like one of these people—pushed to the side, isolated by his physical difference, and dependent on the occasional mercy of others. How does he move from being one more person by the roadside to one who follows Jesus on the way?
First of all, he shouts. He hears that a man called Jesus of Nazareth is near, and he starts shouting: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When people tell him to quiet down, the gospel tells us that he cries out even more loudly. Shouting, raising our voices, asking for mercy: It’s a good place for people by the roadside to start.
But what moves Bartimaeus from the side of the road to the way of Jesus is also the help of others. In fact, the people who were just telling him to be quiet now tell him to “Take heart” and “get up.” Just when it seemed like no one was listening, people call to him.
From there on, it’s a matter of throwing off an old cloak, springing to his feet, asking for healing, and following Jesus those last fifteen miles into Jerusalem—and possibly beyond. As the gospel tells us, Bartimaeus is now “on the way.”
The good news of God’s Word is that God has always gathered people from the edges and called them from the side of the road. And that’s where we should look to find God’s people.
We don’t have to push people to the side to fulfill our mission in this life; we can bring along with us the people we find by the roadsides of our communities.
Nor do we have to sit and wait while this world passes us by. We have a God who will call us and walk with us. That’s news worth shouting about, even on a peaceful Sunday morning.