Let’s take a quiet moment and study the image on the cover of the bulletin this week. What do you notice? What does it make you wonder about? The young man is clearly very poor; his tattered sweater, crumpled shoes, and shredded pants suggest a hard life of constant exposure to the elements. Yet with his face turned up, his mouth slightly ajar, his back reclined against the wall, one shoe on, and one shoe off, he looks at ease to me: relaxed, undefensive, maybe even asleep. His expression and posture is one of trust.
Bartimaeus, the blind man, in today’s Gospel story, would have been among the poorest of the poor in his society. In those days, people with disabilities couldn’t work. They were destined to be beggars. The blind, as well as the deaf, the lame, and the sick, were considered sinners, and therefore ritually unclean. They were exiled from the rest of society. We see Bartimaeus’ social isolation when he calls out to Jesus for mercy, and “many” urge him to be quiet. For me, the real miracle of this text isn’t that Bartimaeus regains his sight. The miracle is that the community learns to see him in a new way, to honor his full humanity and welcome him as one who belongs, and, in fact, to realize that he is a model of faith and trust for us all to emulate. The transformation begins when Jesus stops and stands still in order to listen to the voice that others are actively marginalizing, the voice crying for mercy. Jesus does not speak to Bartimaeus directly at first. He demands that the crowd be his messenger. “Call him here.” Jesus orders those who had only a moment ago been shushing the blind man. He insists that they have a central role to play in Bartimaeus’ healing, that they are just as much in need of healing as he is.
Bartimaeus springs up and comes to Jesus, throwing off his cloak. His cloak would have kept him warm while sleeping on the ground at night. And it was his sole means of making a living. He would have spread it out in front of himself to do his begging, to signal his need to those passing by. Bartimaeus threw off his one possession of value, his only source of security.
But he also left behind a life of poverty, pain and loneliness. Jesus not only called Bartimaeus to leave his beggar’s cloak behind, he also called the community around the blind man to leave behind their dependence on his begging, their deeply held belief that there is not enough for all, that some among them must suffer exclusion and poverty. Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, was so great, that it empowered him to take up a new life, as a follower of Jesus, a life of belonging to a counter-cultural community in which the last will be first and the first will be last.
Bartimeaus’ faith, his initiative, and his vision stands in contrast with the inertia of the rich man (who comes to Jesus a few chapters before). Jesus told the rich man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” The man was shocked and went away sad—because he had many possessions. In those days, wealth was culturally understood to be a sign of divine favor. Jesus argued, instead, that wealth has the potential to separate us from God, and to keep us from setting out on the path of discipleship. Wealth offers security and control. Discipleship means trusting God to provide for us as we embark on a risky path. Wealth can, to some extent, shield us from pain. Discipleship asks us to be vulnerable, open to our own pain and the pain of the world. Wealth is something we own, and must tend, safeguard, and defend. Discipleship is rooted in the recognition that nothing truly belongs to us, that everything we have is a gift from God, that we are only stewards, caretakers, of such a profound gift.
Wealth can be a barrier to a life of faith and trust, but it does not need to be. It can become a resource for discipleship, a tool for creating a society of enough—enough to eat, enough safety enough love, enough meaning. As hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis flee war and the Islamic state, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel boldly declared, in September, that her country’s borders are open, that refugees are welcome to settle in this prosperous nation, that they can share in its wealth, and add to its wealth. Even amid much recent criticism, she’s standing her ground. Here at home, the city of Minneapolis is considering an ordinance that would require employers to provide paid sick time to all employees. People of color disproportionally lack access to this benefit. At a press conference held this week by ISAIAH, faith leaders asked the Minneapolis city council to move ahead despite the opposition of organized business. “We decry these [racial] disparities and we talk and we gather data,” Pastor Laurie Eaton (of Our Savior’s Lutheran) said. “But when concrete policy actions are proposed to truly improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people suddenly those options are unrealistic, naïve, ill conceived and too costly for business. My friends this is exactly what systemic racism looks like: reasonable people who say, ‘Our hands are tied … because it’s just too costly to change our system.’… Minneapolis, we are better than that.”
Giving and sharing our money, our possessions, our security, power and comfort, is a spiritual practice that can free us to trust in God, and can shape us into people committed to justice. For me, and my family, financial giving is a way of acknowledging that nothing truly belongs to us. It’s all a gift to be used for the common good. It’s a chance to participate in an ancient vision of discipleship that says when we trust God and share what we have, there can be enough for us all. The church is a community in which, from the age of little Ingrid to the days in which we take our last breaths, we learn this vision of enough, practice living it out, and gain the courage and the concrete tools to carry it out into the world. That’s why our family sets aside a portion of our income for First Church, and my spouse Jen’s congregation, University Lutheran Church of Hope, each month. In 2016, we will be pledging $450 a month to each church, which represents about 9.3% of our income. We also set aside about 5% of our income to share beyond the church—for other organizations and causes that do important work the church can’t do. I’m grateful for all of you who so generously and faithfully offer a portion of your resources, both through the church and beyond the church, to participate in God’s vision of enough. Whatever you are able to share, know that God will bless your gift to be an expression of justice and hope.
Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, his willingness to leave behind his one valuable possession, and spring up to follow Jesus toward enough for all, made him well, and made his community well. May we too, know the healing power of following in the way of Jesus.