October 28-29, 2000, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B
The story of Bartimaeus and the story of James and John asking for places of honor in the coming kingdom really need to be heard together. I guess we should have ended last weeks reading with that phrase that everyone hates to hear right at the most compelling part of a TV show: To be continued
In last weeks Gospel about James and John asking Jesus for places of honor in his kingdom. In that story, when James and John stand before Jesus to ask him for something, he prompts them with, What do you want me to do for you? They ask for places of honor. When Bartimaeus stands in front of Jesus, and Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you, Bartimaeus asks to see.
Many of the characteristics of todays story are obviously symbolic of how we should approach prayer, especially those characteristics that are contrasts between this story and last weeks. And so they dont need a lot of explanation. One of the most obvious is the comparison between the disciples, who have the sight, yet do not really see Jesus, and Bartimaeus, who is blind, but sees that Jesus is the Son of David, a messianic title. There is Bartimaeus perseverance, which ignores the jeers and attempts to quiet him. He throws away his cloak, symbolizing all his earthly possessions, to rush to meet Jesus when he is called. And finally he responds to the gift of his eyesight by following Jesus as a disciple.
But there is one aspect of the story that is not so obvious, and if we miss it, we set ourselves up for disappointment after disappointment in our prayer life. Mark obviously juxtaposes these stories so that the contrast highlights his points. But I think we can easily see a contrast where one does not exist. This contrast is how each request is answered. On first glance, it can seem as if Jesus grants the request of Bartimaeus and denies the request of James and John. But if we go back and really read the passages, that is not what happens at all. When John and James ask for exalted positions Jesus does not deny or grant the wish. He tells them, It is not mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. And when Bartimaeus asks for his sight, Jesus does not deny or grant him his wish. He tells Bartimaeus, Your faith has saved you.
As I have gotten older, I have begun to understand the second most important thing about God, after how much he loves me, and that is how seriously God takes our free will. He will do nothing to compromise it. We often pray for God to intervene in our lives in some miraculous way. But that is not how God works as far as I can tell from both Scripture and from my own experience.
This weeks Metrowest Sunday News had a Rose is Rose cartoon in which little Pasquale has just asked his guardian angel to help him with his homework. The angel is telling him that he would be glad to make sure that all Pasquales synapses are firing at their highest efficiency. When he sees the scowl on Pasquales face, he asks, Did you mean something else when you asked me to help with your homework?
Parents can see the wisdom in the way Pasquales guardian angel is prepared to help him. We are not always so wise at the way that God chooses to help us. We look for God to help us by doing for us, or by magically intervening. The truth is that God has already made sure that we have everything we could possibly need to experience his healing power, or his loving care for us.
We dont have to pray in this certain way to get God to change his mind about answering our prayer. We pray to change our minds so that we may be able to receive the answer that is already given in abundance. Jesus didnt say that James and John could not sit at his right and left; anyone who becomes servant of all will sit in the highest positions in the kingdom. He doesnt say that he will grant Bartimaeus request for sight; he simply observes that Bartimaeus has already prepared himself to receive that gift.
I must confess that I really dont understand the whole frenzy about miracles that occur in special places or by special invocation of this or that saint. Miracles are all around us; that is how God works. I have a friend who is living with cancer. We sometimes look at cancer as if it were something that invades our bodies. A normal healthy human body continuously produces abnormal cells. But in a normal healthy body, the immune system continuously tracks these abnormal cells down and keeps them from running amok. Cancer is sort of a localized cessation of this continuous miracle that happens in our bodies. My friend has a tumor that is invading his vena cava. It is too close to the heart to operate so he was worried if that would be the cause of death, growing to the point where it closed off the blood flow in that important vein. But the doctors told him not to worry. His body would grow new veins to take up the slack; and sure enough, he can see new veins growing right under his skin. God has already given our bodies the mechanisms to fight cancer. He has given us all of creation to help us achieve our one fundamental vocation: to be holy, to be whole.
What it means to be holy will vary from person to person, and from time to time in one person. Our prayer must be to be open to Gods plan for our being holy. We treat God as if he were the video game of all video games, better than a Sony Playstation 2. But we want to control the joystick, moving God here and there, healing this or picking up this.
James and John dont get it; they want to manipulate Jesus into doing their will. Bartimaeus got it; he leaves all control, all ownership behind, as he hurries towards Jesus. Thats where he gets his sight, moving towards the incarnation of Gods abundant gifting of creation. He has emptied himself so completely that Gods ever present gift can fill him.
We can experience that kind of healing today. Not because God suddenly changes
his mind and rewards us, or because we wear God down till he gives in. But when
we leave our cloaks behind, and stand open before Life itself, we will have
prepared ourselves to receive the gift that God has prepared for us, from eternity.