It might be obvious what a blind man would ask for, when Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” And so we aren’t surprised when the blind man answers, “I want to see.” Certainly Jesus knew what he was going to ask for, before he asked. God always knows what we want, and what we need, before we ask.
But he doesn’t always give it to us right away. St. Augustine says that God will often delay answering our prayers because he wants to give us more than we ask for, but our hearts need to grow with longing to be large enough to receive the abundance of what God wants to give us. Jesus didn’t just walk past Bartimaeus and wave his hand to heal his blindness. He waited until Bartimaeus had cried out for him, had formulated in his mind and heart what he wanted most, and had called out again, against the pressure of the crowd. Then, Jesus knew Bartimaeus was ready to receive his gift.
Jesus did not just heal Bartimaeus’ eyes to just be like our eyes. Jesus healed Bartimaeus so he could truly see. And he saw his healing, and everything he saw by it, as a gracious gift of God. And he saw Jesus.
It reminds me of how they used the phrase, “I see you” in the movie Avatar. It was said with a sense of reverence of the true nature of the person. Bartimaeus, with his eyes truly healed, saw the truth of his healer, the Messiah, the Son of David. What he saw first only with the desperate faith of his heart, he was now able to see with the healed eyes of his body. St. Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
As a blind man, Bartimaeus called out, “Jesus, son of David.” Son of David was a royal title, a very brazen thing to call out in Roman-occupied Israel. But it also was an acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah, the eternal king, who would come as a son of David. David had been the great King of Jerusalem. It is believed by many biblical scholars that Jerusalem had earlier been called Salem (a variation of the word “peace”, shalom). And long before David was King in Jerusalem, Melchizedek (whose name means “king of” + “righteousness”) was the priest-king of Salem, who was encountered by Abram way back in the Book of Genesis; Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine as the sacrifice to the Most High God:
Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then [he] gave him a tenth of everything.
That comes up in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, and in the Book of Psalms, and in Eucharistic Prayer I:
Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance,
and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept
the gifts of your servant Abel the just,
the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,
and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,
a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
After his first appearance in Genesis 14, Melchizedek makes one more appearance in the Old Testament: Psalm 110:
The LORD says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
while I make your enemies your footstool.”
The scepter of your might:
the LORD extends your strong scepter from Zion.
Have dominion over your enemies!
Yours is princely power from the day of your birth.
In holy splendor before the daystar,
like dew I begot you.
The LORD has sworn and will not waver:
“You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.”
The Letter to the Hebrews was written for the sake of Jewish Christians feeling the pressure to revert back to Judaism. The author is affirming for them that what they have in Christianity fulfills and surpasses what Judaism offers. In today’s second reading, the author presents three ideas: (1) high priests (of the Levitical priesthood) offer gifts for the atonement of sins, and since they too are sinners, they have to atone for their own sins as well as those of the people; (2) those who are priests do not claim that role for themselves, but are called by God to that vocation; and (3) Christ was also called by God to be high priest, and his sharing in our humanity (but without sin) makes him even more capable as high priest, because in his humanity he can sympathize with our human weakness, and in his divine perfection his offering is purely for the people, not in anyway for himself who needs no atonement; and the high priesthood of Christ is not a succession like that of the Levites, but unique, as God said to him, “You are my son; this day I have begotten you” (from Psalm 2) and “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (from Psalm 110). Long before Christianity, these quotes from the psalms were considered to apply to the long-awaited Messiah.
Catholic priests are not priests in succession after Jesus, but in the person of Jesus (in persona Christi). Jesus is the eternal high priest who once and for all offered/offers the perfect sacrifice of himself, the lamb without blemish, the bread and wine to the Most High God (a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim). Catholic priests are priests in the priesthood of Christ. Priests offer the Mass, but it is Christ who offers (and is) the sacrifice, who effects (makes effective) the sacrament. That is why priests offer the sacrifice of the Mass (the lamb of God who is made present by the transubstantiated offering of the bread and wine) in persona Christi – in the person of Christ, who is the one eternal high priest in the order of Melchizedek, the righteous priest-king of peace.
“Son of David,” while a noble title, is impersonal, it does not communicate a relationship. When Jesus was passing by, Bartimaeus called out, “Jesus, son of David.” But when Jesus calls him to himself and speaks with him, Bartimaeus called Jesus, “Rabbouni,” the same title used by Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning. It means, “My teacher.” It’s possessive; it’s intimate, trusting, and humble. It is a personal relationship. (In the translation of the Lectionary, it’s unfortunately rendered simply as “Master.”) Jesus heals Bartimaeus, and tells him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” But Bartimaeus didn’t go his way, it says “Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.” “The Way” was an early reference to the Church, the followers of Christ.
Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.” There is a neat little phrase from St. Catherine of Siena, that since Jesus is God, and heaven is to be with God, and Jesus is the way to heaven, that “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
(shameless plug) “The Way” is also a good movie about the Camino de Santiago, the “Way of St. James,” the 500-mile pilgrimage from southern France through northern Spain, ending at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The movie was directed by Emilio Estevez, starring himself and his father, Martin Sheen.
But there is another “way” mentioned in our first reading–well, not another way, but another mention of “the way.” Jeremiah had prophesied to the Israelites in Exile that there would be a grand procession (the level way through the desert leading them to the restoration of the Promised Land) in return to Jerusalem when they were freed. It would not just be the restoration of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, but also include Israel, the long-lost Northern Kingdom (whose leading tribe was Ephraim). And it would not just be the strong and the proud, but even the least and most vulnerable of Israel would share in the jubilant restoration: “Behold, I will bring them back from the land of the north; I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst, the mothers and those with child; they shall return as an immense throng. They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble.” Of course it makes sense why this would be the first reading for today: the blind and the lame in their midst, on the way to restoration, led by the King, the Messiah, who was long prophesied as the fulfillment of Psalm 110’s “priest in the line of Melchizedek.” Jesus’ Messianic mission, as we’ve said before, was to bring all the nations of the world (where the lost northern tribes had dispersed to) into the new covenant, reconciling all (the many) with the grace of the Father, leading them into the Promised Land.
Bartimaeus was not simply healed to go his own way, but healed to be able to see Jesus as the Way. Why? Because he had called out to Jesus persistently, with everything he had. And when Jesus called him to come, Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak, anything that would be an encumbrance to him, and came to Jesus. The perfect response of faith. “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Remember a few weeks ago when Jesus healed the deaf and mute man, and Jesus said in a loud groan, “Ephphatha,” which means, ‘Be opened,’ “and immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.” A Lutheran pastor friend made the point that the verb in “Be opened” is singular, not plural. It doesn’t refer to the man’s ears, it means the man himself. Jesus heals not by fixing our parts, but by healing us in the depth of our woundedness, our being closed off to the living grace of God. Jesus didn’t heal Bartimaeus’ eyes. He healed Bartimaeus’ fallen humanity, his separation from God, because his faith had made him able to receive Jesus’ gift of gracious healing. Even as a blind man, he had seen who Jesus truly was. Then as a healed man, he could follow Jesus on his way, beholding with joy his teacher, his God who had healed him. He had taken the risk of putting all his eggs in the basket that Jesus was truly the Son of David, the Messiah, who could heal him of his blindness. And when his faith proved well-founded, he used his healing to follow Jesus.
Bartimaeus was totally committed to Jesus. Jesus is totally committed to us. With regards to us, Jesus is a maximalist: He couldn’t have given more than the everything he gave. With regard to Jesus, we are often minimalists: what’s the least we have to do. What’s the minimum participation in the Mass? How far away can I sit? How early can I leave? What’s the minimum to just make it into the purgatory? Do I have to go to church? It’s boring. And cold. They’re asking for volunteers, or offering opportunities for more involvement. That’s more than the minimum. What, a holy day of obligation not on a Sunday? You’re lucky I’m here on Sunday (some Sundays anyway).
When you plan your vacations, do you find out what Catholic Churches are nearby and when their masses are? Do you invite your weekend visitors to church with you on Sunday? When you’re signing up for your children’s sports league, are you letting the coach know at the beginning of the season that you’ll miss events on Sunday mornings, even if that means sacrificing playing time? Have you told your manager that you’d prefer to start later on Sundays so you can take your family to church? Do you fit your Catholic identity somewhere, sometimes, into your life, or do you build your life around your Catholic identity? Are you putting first things first?
To borrow from Fr. Michael Schmitz (famed youth pastor and speaker for Ascension Presents), if Jesus is not your Rabbouni, your teacher, your Lord, then every time he asks you to do something, you’re going to resist it, resent it. And you’re going to look at Jesus like you look at the IRS. You say, “Ok, I’ll do what you want, I’ll pay. But don’t ask for anything more. And if I can find some loopholes, then good for me.” A lot of times we look at Jesus like the tax man. We don’t want him to get too into the details of our life, or he’ll ask us to give more. We give him just enough to stay at a comfortable distance. But Jesus doesn’t want to be at a distance. No one says to the IRS, “Here’s access to everything, take what you want.” Are we really making ourselves fully available to God to heal us, as Bartimaeus did, so that we can truly see? Are we persistent and patient in our prayers to be healed, allowing God to grow our hearts in trusting anticipation? Are we surrendering to his will to heal us?
Are we guilty of being Christian minimalists, resisting and resenting when our faith in Jesus makes demands, making sure Jesus stays at a “safe distance” so we can live our life (remember the convenient-but-not-too-personal road-side assistance god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism!)? Or are we Christian maximalists, who give everything so that we might truly receive our life from God—to be healed, be reconciled, have life, and have it abundantly? To see God’s work in our lives, to see ourselves and others as the miracles that we are, to see God’s glorious plan for our flourishing (and that of our children). “Jesus, Son of David! Rabbouni! I want to see!”