Bartimaeus: mercy

This coming Sunday is the 30th Sunday in lectionary cycle B. The gospel is the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man, who cries out to Jesus for pity: On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”  And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.” Though Bartimaeus was blind, he understood a great deal about Jesus. 

There is a division of opinion about the expression “Son of David.” Some scholars hold that it is a generally accepted, polite moniker for a Jew. Others hold that it is a title with Messianic overtones as indicated in documents from the Qumran community. Others take it more literally because in Judaism there was a tradition that Solomon, as David’s son, was specially enabled by God to heal (Josephus Antiquities 8.41–47). There is something compelling, in the shadow of the City of David, to suspect that the Markan Messianic “secret” is becoming unveiled.

Many among the 1st century Jews held that the Messiah would be a military, conquering figure like King David who warred against the Jebusites to capture Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:6-10). But this is not the “Son of David” to whom Bartimaeus cries out. He cries out to the One who brings mercy not wrath and will enter, not as conquering hero, but humbly on a donkey. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, his previous hesitation to allow people to name him as the Messiah seems to be gone.

In other healing scenes, the one healed is told to “go” and not say anything about the miracle. This phenomenon is described as the Marcan “messianic secret.” There are many speculations as to why Jesus does not want word of his mighty deeds known far and wide. The one in which I hold to be more likely is the one in which Jesus does not want people’s perception of his Glory to be seen in the miracles and mighty deeds, but wants them to see the Glory fully revealed on the cross when they can see that God’s love for them has no limits. Now that they are close to the time of the cross, Jesus will not tell Bartimaeus to remain silent. Any attempt to silence the blind man falls to the crowd.

The crowd had probably become quite hardened to seeing beggars along the roadside, and especially at the city gates, crying for alms. Now that a person of importance was coming, they did not want this distraction or delay. Undeterred, Bartimaeus resolutely continued his calling until he succeeded in drawing Jesus’ attention to himself.

Bartimaeus says “huie Dauid Iēsou eleēson me.”- Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me. Liturgically we pray Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy…), the last vestige of Greek in the western, Latin Rite. So it is odd the NAB translates eleēson has “pity” in its version; “mercy” or “compassion” would have also been good choices. Merriam-Webster carries this two definitions for modern English:

  • Pity – the feeling of sorrow caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.
  • Compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
  • Mercy – kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation

Under these definitions, Bartimaeus is not asking for “pity;” he is asking for “compassion” and merciful action on Jesus’ part.

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