“Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise…”
How do I catch onto that stream of mercy that flows by the golden shore?
In today’s scripture, a man who was blind from birth confronted Jesus with the same question.
He had been to all of the healers around. He had exhausted his co-payment and exceeded his limit of coverage. Health care reform was still being debated while his condition worsened. The doctor bills piled up and when added to his other debt, he lost his home. He was now out on the street, ignored by almost everyone. Even his name made him an outcast, Bartimeaus, son of the unclean.
As a poor person who was also an outcast because of his disability, he had been on the receiving end of the magnified strictness of the righteous. You see, it’s easier to ignore someone if you dehumanize them first. He was unclean. That’s not just a comment on his appearance or his aversion to soap. Unclean was a religious term which mean that because of some action or sin, you are ritually impure. You’re cut off from the assembly. You’re not able to partake in the fullness of the community. You’re an outsider, an outcast. And the only way to make yourself clean again it to get a priest to declare you clean. A priest is the only one who can restore you to the community. And to make matters worse, if you touched someone, you made them unclean, too. So imagine this blind beggar with his hand out and all of the people keeping their distance, lest they get infected with his cooties. He was not worth the time of the religious leaders. We don’t throw pearls before swine after all.
But in his desperation, he made a ruckus. Maybe this person of God might give him what he really needed. He called out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Have mercy on me. If there is a wideness in God’s mercy, have it on me. Now, just like any other day, many told him to shut up. He was disturbing the peace. He was making a spectacle out of this nice friendly procession. Would that religion were that easy, no bumps along the road—just triumph to triumph.
Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a book about watching 24 continuous hours of TBN. Talk about voluntary redemptive suffering. She said that the programs repeated the same themes of victory and triumph throughout the day and night. It seemed so devoid of reality, unless your reality is sitting on bad furniture surrounded by tacky decoration and celebrating a spirituality that says if you just pray the right way, and give them money, you will be blessed and all of your problems will go away. Ordinary folks watch this for hours and give their life savings to promote such programming. But what happens when there is a real crisis in your life? Will any of those preachers bring you a bowl of soup? The voices of descent are silenced or dismissed in this type of theology.
The more they tried to silence him, the louder Bartimaeus yelled, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Pain and injustice can be like that. All we have left are our cries. Now, there were probably lots of people yelling, but none of them used “Son of David”. In fact, no one in the Bible called him Son of David except for the supposedly blind beggar Bartimaeus. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
People tried to quiet him, but like the rocks and stones on Palm Sunday, there was no stopping Bartimaues.
Bartimaeus, the blind, unclean, outcast declared who Jesus was. Son of David is a synonym for Messiah. It is a royal declaration. It’s a title even the disciples didn’t give Jesus. The disciples weren’t too thrilled with the implications of the whole Messiah thing. Jesus told them that it meant he was likely going to die, because that’s what happens to people who upset the apple-cart like he does. And not only that, but if they were to truly follow him, then they might well be killed too. The disciples spend a good bit of the Gospel of Mark trying to get Jesus to do the safe thing, not make so many waves, not make it worse for them, and certainly not upsetting the wrong people. Bartimaeus was yet another example of Jesus going too far. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” I may be blind, but I know who you are. I know what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about mercy. “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
The Hebrew word for mercy is hesed. It’s also translated as steadfast love. It’s a special word reserved for showing God’s loving attitude toward us. Psalm 136 says over and over again, that God’s hesed, God’s “steadfast love,” God’s “mercy” endures forever. When the prophet Micah declared what we are to do as followers of God, he said, “do justice, love hesed (mercy) and walk humbly with God.”
“Son of David, have mercy on me,” bellows Bartimaeus, the blind one who sees something about us. He exposes our own blinders—our own propensity to both long for mercy and refrain from granting it.
The fifth beatitude says “Blessed are the merciful for they receive mercy.” We need to give it if we want to receive it. We say it every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors. Grant us mercy as we grant mercy.
You see, Bartimaeus knew the stories. In the 16th chapter of Exodus the people of Israel were starving as they were making their way to the promised land from their recent liberation for Egyptian slavery. God heard their stomachs growling and told them to expect food in the morning, for I, YHWH have mercy on my people. You know what happens, in the evenings, quails came and covered the camp giving them sufficient meat. In the morning, when the dew went up off the ground, a fine flake-like stuff was left on the ground kind of like frost. They made this into bread and called it manna. God promised to have mercy on them and they had food in the wilderness. Moses gave only one command: “don’t save any of it.” But the people didn’t trust God enough and the saved up manna was full of worms the next morning. They needed to trust that God would have mercy upon them every day and unless they used their mercy they would lose their mercy from God. An ancient use it or lose it, or is it receive it and believe it?
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Mercy is not just pity or compassion or even sympathy. Mercy is something you do. St. Augustine said, “Two works of mercy set a (person) free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.
Jesus stopped and asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you.” Not what do you want me to say to you to make you feel better, not what word shall I preach to you, what proof-text can I bestow upon you, what pious prayer can I say over you. Jesus asks what he can do for him. Bartimaeus wants to see again. And just like he said to the Syro-Phoenician woman and the woman with the flow of blood, Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus saw clearly. He knew Jesus was the messiah and Jesus knew that his request was not so that he could gain status. “Your faith has made you well.” Not quite like the Wizard of Oz, who might have said, “You were not blind at all”, Jesus granted his wish because he saw the truth and had the courage to say it.
It was the “have mercy on me” that got him, more than the “Son of David” thing. Mercy tapped his God-stream, not unlike Mary telling Jesus that they were out of wine at the wedding at Cana. There’s something that he must do if he is living into his God-self.
When Bartimeaus said, “Son of David, Have mercy on me.” He was saying, I know who you are. Grant me mercy hesed—abundant mercy, steadfast love.
You know, our desire to do things to impress God, to show our righteousness, to make believe that we have it all together—none of that really helps when we’re in the dark night of the soul. When we feel like we can’t go on, when everything around us is crazy-making. We stumble in the dark and don’t know where to turn or how to turn.
That’s when we need to say along with Bartimaeus, “Have mercy on me. I can’t handle this alone. I can’t live the lie of self-sufficiency any longer. Have mercy on me.” When we cry out like that, then we tap into our need and God meets us there in that scary place. And eventually, if we humbly cry out enough, God helps us see even more clearly. Maybe we just need to cry out every once in a while, “Have mercy on me.”
It is of little help to sing of the streams of mercy without also being a part of that stream. We can’t only wait for God to simply and magically grant mercy. Of course we receive that in our prayers, in our meditations. But real mercy multiplies when the people inspired by God start granting mercy.
Now, inspired by God’s mercy, we do grant mercy in some of the things we do here at UBC. We serve meals at Loaves and Fishes. We deliver meals to shut in and elderly people at our Meals on Wheels program. We even have been known to offer sanctuary to people and groups in need to the resources loaned to us by God in this beautiful space.
Think about the mercy that you give to each other day in and day out. Be ye merciful as I am merciful. Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Jesus’ posture with Bartimaeus reminds us that none of us are unworthy of mercy from God. It would seem that we ought to expect similar mercy from followers of God.
We don’t grant mercy to get mercy. We grant mercy because we need mercy. Mercy is how we know God—I mean really know God. “I want to see again. I want to see for the first time. Son of David, have mercy on me—even me.”