Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to die. The road to Jerusalem led through the town of Jericho, a town most known for Rahab, its most infamous citizen, and its miraculous capture under Joshua, when the army of Israel encircled the city, blew the trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem was a busy one, filled with priests, pilgrims and pedestrians, not to mention robbers and beggars. On the side of the Jericho road that day there was a blind man named Bartimaeus.
We don’t know much about this son of Timaeus that he was a beggar. Matthew tells us that Bartimaeus wasn’t begging alone that on the road out of Jericho, but was with another blind man. Begging was considered honorable and acceptable way to make a living for those who couldn’t work. They didn’t think of it like we do, as panhandling and a nuisance. If you could work and had money, it was your civic and religious to give a beggar something when you passed him by. That was one way they handled social welfare in Israel.
We are reminded that every beggar by the roadside is potentially a disciple. The last of Jesus’ disciples to follow him to his death were a couple of blind beggars on the road to Jericho. Christ came to seek and to save all, including the blind beggars of this world. We usually don’t know their names or take the time to learn them. But think of blind Bartimaeus the next time you see a beggar at the side of the road. He may be looking for Jesus, and you know where to find Him.
The road leading out of Jericho was a good place for a beggar to beg, given all the people traveling to and from Jerusalem. It was particularly good for Bartimaeus. While he was sitting at the side of the road, he heard a big commotion. A great crowd was coming down the road. His sharp ears could pick out the voices. He heard the name Jesus. Jesus – the healer and teacher from Nazareth. Bartimaeus heard about Jesus. How Jesus healed the sick, and cast out demons, and raised the dead. He’d heard about Jesus’ compassion, His love for the lost, His call to discipleship. Bartimaeus believed that Jesus could help him. As the crowd drew closer, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus was a believer. He’d never met Jesus, but He believed in Him. His was a simple, childlike faith. He trusted that this Jesus of Nazareth could help him. He prayed. Prayer is the first fruit of faith and this prayer is the first prayer of faith. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.” It is the prayer of the tax collector in the temple, who couldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven on account of his shame. It is the prayer of the desperate Canaanite woman whose daughter was demonized.
Blind Bartimaeus begging at the side of the road is a perfect picture of what faith in Jesus is all about. He cannot see, but he believes. He believes the Word he has heard. His eyes are his ears. Seeing Jesus would not have helped Bartimaeus believe in Jesus. Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing. Seeing is not believing; what we can see we don’t have to believe. Faith is a beggar before God. It offers nothing; it receives everything as a gift. When we look at Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, we see what faith in Christ looks like, and we take our place at his side, praying to Jesus for mercy.
We would do well to learn this humble prayer, to have it always ready on our lips, to take our place with Bartimaeus and to pray it without ceasing. It is a prayer for those times when words fail, when we are unable to pray, when we don’t know how to pray as we ought. This prayer is one stirred up in us by the Holy Spirit. It’s the second most perfect prayer we have next to the Our Father. This is how we are taught to pray in the psalms: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51).
Bartimaeus’ prayer is a confession of faith and a prayer all at the same time. It calls on the name of Jesus, the name that is above every name. The human name of the God Incarnate. It confesses Jesus to be the Son of David, which is the Jewish way of saying the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus the Son of David; Jesus the Christ. God keeps His promises, His promise to David of a greater Savior Son. It is a prayer for mercy to the God of all mercies who delights in showing mercy to those who fear Him.
Now you see why this prayer occurs so often in the Liturgy: Lord, have mercy. Kyrie eleison. In peace, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy. Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. You can pray this simple prayer in the car while driving without even taking your eyes off the road. (Though you will have to put your cell phone down!) Or when you see an accident, you can pray, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.” You can pray this prayer at school (without benefit of passing a law about prayer in school!) or at work, or even while you are working. You can pray it at the doctor’s office or in the dentist’s chair or while waiting in line at the grocery store.
Learn it well and you will be able to pray it long after you’ve forgotten every other prayer. Learn to pray this simple prayer to Jesus, and you will have it on your lips in the hour of your death.
Don’t expect the crowds to be impressed by this simple prayer, especially the religious and sophisticated. This is the prayer of blind beggars, not of Pharisees. The crowd tried to silence this prayer. The people were annoyed by it, the way people often are annoyed and troubled when they encounter unpretentious faith. But faith is stubborn and persistent. Faith won’t let anything get in the way of prayer to Jesus. Faith doesn’t care what people think or what they will say. Faith is not ashamed to pray such a humble prayer, and will not be silenced. Bartimaeus just keeps on praying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
It doesn’t take much thinking to pray, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.” And this is where our religious pride is going to have to die. We think that God is impressed with our many fancy words or because our prayers sound religious. Or because they are chanted or liturgical. Or because we are praying “from the heart,” whatever that means. But the fact remains that no other prayer in the Scriptures draws the attention of Jesus like this little prayer does. It goes directly to his ears. It stops Him in his tracks. It turns Him around. It draws His undivided attention. At the sound of this prayer, Jesus picks Bartimaeus out of the huge crowd. “Call him over to me.”
The crowd that tried to silence Bartimaeus, now calls out to him. “Cheer up. Get up. He’s calling to you.” Bartimaeus tosses off his coat and springs up and runs to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you,” Jesus asks him. Now why would Jesus ask that? Doesn’t He already know what Bartimaeus wants and what He is going to do for Him? Jesus taught that the Father knows what we need even before we ask him. Doesn’t Jesus know what’s on our minds and hearts? And yet He asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you”!
Prayer is both general and specific. The prayer to Jesus for mercy opens up all who world of prayer. Jesus wants to hear the specifics of our lives. He wants to hear from us in our own voice what is on our mind and heart. He wants us to verbalize our desires, to say out loud what we want from God. In saying these things out loud, our prayers become concrete and focused. Learn to pray out loud and pray specifically, not for God’s sake but for your own sake. God wants us to pray our druthers, to ask him specifically for what we want from Him.
The apostle Paul teaches, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
St. James teaches, “You do not have because you do not ask.”
St. John writes, “This is the confidence which we have in Christ, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”
Bartimaeus wanted to see; he wanted Jesus to fix His eyes. He believed that Jesus had the power to do that for him. And Jesus says a curious thing to him: “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Your faith has saved you. The word Jesus uses is “saved” not healed. With the Lord healing and salvation are all one package bundled together. The faith that healed Bartimaeus is the faith that saved him. And that faith saved and healed Bartimaeus because it was faith in Jesus.
Now this doesn’t mean that if God doesn’t give you 20/20 vision when you ask for it then you didn’t have enough faith. Faith can’t be quantified. It doesn’t have a volume knob, only an on/off switch. It’s either faith or unbelief. Faith that clings to Jesus is faith that prays to Jesus. And faith receives everything as a gift from God. Sometimes God says “no” to what we ask for because He wants to make room for greater gifts. Sometimes he wants to teach us patience or discipline. Sometimes He knows that what we are asking for will harm us and endanger our salvation. We can’t know the mind of God ahead of time. So we pray, trusting that Jesus will hear our prayers and do the very best for our salvation.
Faith cries out to Jesus for mercy; and faith receives mercy from Jesus. With Jesus blind eyes see. Sinners are forgiven. The dead rise. Jesus came to fix what was broken by Adam’s fall. He came to bring a new creation with His dying and rising – a new creation in which the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap for joy, the leper is cleansed, the dead rise to life. Jesus came to reverse the damage of man’s rebellion.
Like all of Jesus’ miracles, this healing was a costly one. It cost Him his life on the cross. There Jesus won the victory for us all, and He shares that victory with all who cry out to Him in beggar faith. The One who healed the eyes of the blind with a word, hung on a cross in the darkness to bring the light of His life to the world.
“Go your way,” Jesus said. Bartimaeus was free, free to go whichever way he wanted. He could have gone off on his own. He could have resumed a “normal” life, made up for all those years of blindness, taken in all the sights he’d missed. But look at the way Bartimaeus went. With eyes wide open, he followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem and His cross. Faith isn’t content simply with receiving healings and miracles from Jesus. Faith follows Jesus on the road to His cross, to His death, His burial, His resurrection, His glory.
That road from Jericho to Jerusalem leads through Baptism, down the aisle of the church, to the Holy Supper of Jesus. We’ve been put on that road, to receive all the Jesus died and rose to give us, to die with Jesus, to rise with Him, to pray for His mercy and healing.
Today is Reformation Sunday. Reformation Day is actually on October 31st, if you want an alternative to Halloween. This year commemorates the 480th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. 480 years ago an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses for theological debate on the door of the university church in Wittenberg. It is also the 150th anniversary of our fellowship of confessional Lutheran churches now called the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the longest running Lutheran body in America.
Luther wanted to reform abuses in the church. He never wanted to start a new church or a denomination bearing his name. All Luther ever wanted was to recall the church to the faith of the blind beggar named Bartimaeus.
Unfortunately, many Reformation celebrations have become nothing more than an exercise in “Romaphobics,” a chance to get a few cheap shots in on the pope and revel at how we’re “not Roman Catholics,” as if being Lutheran means nothing more than “not being Roman Catholic.” The Reformation is not an occasion for boasting in how we got it right and everyone else in the history of the church got it wrong. It is an occasion for reflection, for repentance, and renewed obedience to the word of Jesus Christ, and for prayer.
And there is no better prayer for this Reformation Day than the humble prayer of the blind beggar Bartimaeus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us.”
In the name of Jesus,