When I asked the young woman what she found so special about her new boyfriend, she replied: “he really sees me.”
The need to be seen, to be recognized, is a basic and legitimate one. This is a fact that we considered last time. We need to be noticed. We need others to pay attention to us. When we are ignored or neglected or dismissed, we just do not flourish as human beings; we wither and shrivel up inside.
In our world this need among the healthy and intelligent and talented is seldom frustrated. They are seen. People do pay attention to them, not least because they are actually or potentially useful to them. But those about whom there is nothing special, those who have nothing about their appearance that might attract others to them—they are often not seen. People do not pay too much attention to them. And consequently they have a harder time in our world satisfying this need. And those who have a visible weakness, a perceived defect, a chronic difficulty? They have the hardest time. People do not pay attention to them, or, if they do, it is only long enough to put them aside.
In our gospel lesson there is a man named Bartimaeus. Now Bartimaeus is blind. But to be blind means not only that he does not see. It means also that he is not seen. In this connection, note that Jesus’ retinue was going to pass by him on the roadside. To be blind is a hard thing, both then and now, but we can imagine it as one to which Bartimaeus has adapted over time. People are adaptable. We may even know blind people who succeed in managing their own lives fairly well.
But not to be seen—that is a condition to which one never really adapts. It is pain in the heart that remains.
In 1952 a novel was published that received critical acclaim. It is still considered a classic today. The novel is Invisible Man and the author is Ralph Ellison.
The main character, an unnamed black man, begins by describing where he lives: an underground room wired with hundreds of electric lights, operated by power stolen from the city’s electric grid.
He goes on to reflect on the various ways people have chosen not to see him during his life, beginning in his teenage years.
Not to be seen is a source of shame. It is the shame that comes from the message the world is constantly sending: you have no value, or at least not enough for us to pay attention to you.
When the poor and the unwanted make their presence known, people want to make them invisible again. When we see them holding their cardboard signs at the intersections in our towns and cities, we avoid looking at them in the eyes. When public receptions are organized in a city for VIPs, the city officials drive away the poor and the unwanted from the nearby streets.
Parenthetically, one Bible student observed that often in Jesus’s encounters with the sick and needy, there’s a kind of lethargy to their response. They’ve been kicked to the curb so often that they’re used to keeping their head down and their body low. They don’t want to move; perhaps they have even lost their appetite and thus their energy. In any event, they are so used to a life of need, of deprivation, that it’s hard for them to really think that something can be done for them. They’ve lost hope.
But with God there are no hopeless causes. Nobody is beyond the reach of Jesus. In our gospel lesson he is the VIP passing through the city of Jericho, and the city officials are trying to silence Bartimaeus. They do not want him to make his presence known. But Bartimaeus does not want to be invisible any longer. He wants to draw attention to himself. That is why he cries out. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
It is significant that he addresses Jesus as king. The Son of David is a messianic title, as you already know. The irony here is that this man who is blind “sees” Jesus’ true identity.
The petition that Bartimaeus makes to this king is really a prayer. In the Eastern Orthodox churches there is a spiritual practice that involves repeating a short prayer. In its earliest form, it runs: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” It is known as the Jesus Prayer or simply The Prayer. In fact, we sing a variation of it in our liturgy. We call it the kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us!”
These are the words that Bartimaeus is praying. Only he is not mouthing the words under his breath. He is calling or shouting them out, as we have already noted. When we are in deep distress, when we are in anguish of spirit, we too cry out to God, or at least we should feel free to do so. For his part, King David expressed confidence that God saw him and heard him at all times: In Psalm 18:6 he wrote, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.”
But God not only sees and hears kings. In Psalm 33:13-14, David affirmed, “From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth.” That is why he can say: “Trust in him at all times, all you people, pour out your hearts to him. For God is our refuge.”
Bartimaeus is not seen and heard right away. The city officials want to silence him, as we have already mentioned. They want to keep him from being noticed by Jesus. But this does not deter him; it makes him cry all the louder.
Bartimaeus’ determination here rings true to our experience of prayer. We cry out to the Lord for mercy, as did Bartimaeus, but we do not always get the sense that the Lord notices. As a result, our prayer becomes more intense. It comes from a deeper place in the heart. In the Jewish tradition, prayer has been often compared to a bow and arrow: the deeper the prayer comes from inside us, the “farther” it shoots towards heaven.
How does this image affect your attitude towards your own praying? In his book The Only Prayer You’ll Ever Need, author Douglas Fletcher tells about an event that changed his family when he was growing up. A neighbor child went to the hospital with a serious illness. She wasn’t expected to recover. When the child finally came home from the hospital, Fletcher’s family laughed and cried together with the parents. It was an intense emotional experience of relief and joy for everyone.
But there’s more to the story. Fletcher’s mother had felt responsible for the child’s illness, and she prayed for the child’s healing like she had never prayed before. Her prayers were heartfelt and unceasing. She prayed as if her own life was at stake. When the child recovered, it seemed as if it came as a direct response to her prayers. Fletcher relates that this experience changed his family’s picture of God, as he writes: “from a benign, distant sovereign on a throne somewhere in heaven, managing God only knows what, to an engaged, caring Lord, willing to hear and respond to our prayers.”
It is no distant sovereign that hears Bartimaeus’ call; it is an engaged, caring Lord whose ears are attuned to the cries of the human heart and who therefore responds to Bartimaeus’ call. When Jesus notices him, he calls him. He invests this beggar with all the dignity of an honored client. Bartimaeus “throws of his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” The gospel writer uses language here to emphasize his eagerness and energy. Whatever lethargy may have been there before is gone. How can it co-exist with the presence of Jesus?
“What is it you want me to do for you?” The significance of these words that Jesus addressed to Bartimaeus is not immediately apparent to us in our time and place. But with these words Jesus shows himself to be king.
What do we mean here? In the ancient world there was a relationship in which a subject stood to a king that has no exact parallel in our world. We refer here to the suppliant-benefactor relationship. The king possessed absolute power in his realm. He could use—and was expected to use—his power to grant favors to whomever he admitted into his presence.
We find multiple instances of this kind of relationship in the Bible. Thus, Esther approached King Xerxes on behalf of her people, who were threatened with extermination. The king replied to her: “what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.” And Nehemiah, the repairer of the walls of Jerusalem, approached King Artaxerxes, who responded to him similarly: “What is your request?”
So too here does Bartimaeus approach the Son of David. He stands as a suppliant to the king whom he already recognizes as such. And Jesus responds to him in the way we expect a king to: “What is it you want me to do for you?” As one in a position to grant a favor to the suppliant Bartimaeus, Jesus shows himself to be the Son of David, the Messiah, the king of Israel.
When Bartimaeus receives his sight, he receives also the awareness that he is seen. Jesus really sees him. We have already said that to be invisible is the source of shame. To be seen is a basic and legitimate need, as we have said. But it finds its deepest satisfaction in Jesus.
We mentioned last time the widespread compulsion, especially among young women today, to post pictures of oneself on Instagram. These young women want to be seen. But when this basic need is satisfied by Jesus, they break free of the compulsion. Here is what woman wrote:
“Before I gave my whole life and everything I am to Christ, I was so dead inside. I used to post pictures on my social media to make me feel better. But I deleted all of them. I’m not that person anymore. And the only reason why I decided to keep Facebook (which is the only social media I have) is to share the gospel with friends and family.”
“Your faith has made you well.” This certainly applies to this woman. From the Bible we learn that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. There is a word that is addressed to Bartimaeus from Jesus’ retinue: “Take heart, get up; he is calling you.”
This is a word that awakens Bartimaeus to new life. His life is transformed. He once lived his life in the shadows, ashamed and without hope. Now he begins his new life as a disciple of Jesus, his teacher. Bartimaeus made Jesus’ way his own; he joined Jesus on the road to Jerusalem where the cross and resurrection would reveal the true meaning of Jesus’ kingship.
“Take heart, get up; he is calling you.” This is a word that so desperately needs to be heard and accepted by faith today. To the one who hears them, they mean: “I am seen.” Seeing God in the face of Christ is preceded by God’s seeing us. When we accept by faith the word addressed to us, we become aware that God sees us in Christ. And our lives are never the same.
Bartimaeus’ experience in this lesson is still the pattern of life for those who respond to Jesus’ call today. They hear the word, which gives them the power to leave behind the life they once lived, and become a follower of Jesus. There are many in our community who have yet to hear this word, or, if they have heard it, they have yet to accept it in faith. They have yet to experience the transformation that results.
Let us pray for them. And, as far as it lies in us, let us encourage them to consider the claims of Christ, to consider the gospel as it is proclaimed in the church. Amen.