Sermon - 25th October 2015
Healing and Wholeness: 'What do you want me to do for you?'
Scripture - Mark 10:46-52
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
“Go,” Jesus said, “your faith has made you well.”
Speaking as someone who lives with depression and has been on one form of anti-depressant or another for the past 20 years, I really struggle with this statement from Jesus. I know others among us have life-long medical conditions, and the whole concept of healing is a difficult one. Some of us may have had the experience of listening to sermons on the subject of healing, and the result of these may have left us feeling worse instead of better.
I am not saying I do not believe in divine healing, but I do struggle with the issue. Indeed, about 15 years ago, an old friend who had major hearing loss attended the Healing Service at her local Church of England church not too far away from here. The following day, she was surprised to be awoken by sounds outside her house, and from that day, she never needed her hearing-aids again.
In preparing for this sermon, I spent a lot of time reading on the Internet sermons others have written relating to this passage. They fall largely into two types: those which focus on the meaning of the text and steer clear of any mention of divine healing being a reality today; and those which exhort the listener into claiming divine healing, with the proviso that if healing does not occur, then the blame is laid squarely at the feet of the person who does not have enough faith to be healed. That does not sit at all well with me.
Looking now at the passages we have just heard read to us. The same story is also told also in both St Matthew’s and St Luke’s Gospels, although in St Matthew, there are two blind men.
And in all three synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke – this is the last recorded miracle before the Passion narrative begins, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, which we remember on Palm Sunday.
It is unusual in the miracle stories for the person healed to be named, but in this story, the man is named twice: “Bartimaeus” and “Son of Timeaus”. The prefix “Bar” - means “son of”. Some commentators speculate that Mark is making a point: maybe Bartimaeus was later well-known, perhaps as a result of the healing he received.
Bartimaeus is aware of Jesus’ approach and cries out – to the initial disapproval of the crowd – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” The title “Son of David” is one used in the Bible for the Messiah. Bartimaeus recognises Jesus for who He is: the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
But let us look more closely at Bartimaeus’ exclamation: “have mercy on me.” We need to understand what is meant by “mercy”. Mercy is receiving what we do not deserve [repeat]: an example of this would be when a criminal is pardoned. It was a commonly-held belief in the ancient world that disability and illness were as a result of sin or wrong-doing, either of the person or of their ancestors. Bartimaeus is crying out for pardon.
In verse 51, Jesus asks Bartimaeus:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Clearly, Jesus would have seen before him a blind man, and it might have been obvious to the assembled crowd what Jesus should do; however, Jesus not does not force Himself on Bartimaeus. The man asks for the restoration of his sight, which he duly receives. Bartimaeus’ response is to follow Jesus. The Greek word used in the text, translated as “healed” or “made well”, could also be translated as “saved”.
Even at that, looking more closely at the text, I am still not comfortable with Jesus’ reply:
“Go, your faith has made you well.”
I have faith, I have lost count of the number of times I have prayed, and have been prayed for and been anointed to be free of my depression.
Let us look at the historical context: life-expectancy was much shorter in the ancient world, and even the rich and the great were not immune. Historians tell us that Alexander the Great and his lover Hephaestion both died of a cholera-type illness aged just 33, and the Bible tells us that King Herod Agrippa was “eaten alive by worms” in only the fourth year of his reign.
Eye infections and blindness were common-place as a result of the gritty, sandy winds and poor hygiene. Once ill, a person would lose their ability to look after themselves and earn money: becoming a beggar and living on the graces of others was the only choice. This was the fate of Bartimaeus.
In 2015, we no longer maintain that disability and illness are the result of sin. Our medical science has extended our lives significantly, and many illnesses are now curable. Many in the developing world still live in conditions similar to those in the ancient world; however, despite the economic problems in our country, we do live in considerable affluence with access to amazing medicines and procedures.
Let us consider that God brings healing in many ways: surely one of those ways is through the intelligence humankind has to develop medicines and medical procedures. One example: for centuries people have suffered and died painfully from stomach ulcers. I had one myself about 10 years ago. But it was only as recently as 1982 that the cause of most stomach ulcers was discovered – a bacterium called Helicobacter Pylori – which is easily cured with a course of combination antibiotics.
God, through science, can bring healing. Nevertheless, many of us live with life-long conditions. Even if we are not cured, the medicines and treatment we receive do enable us to keep going, even though that can sometimes be horrendously difficult. I know that there have been times in my life when, had I not had the anti-depressants and other support, it is very likely I would not be standing here now.
So how do I reconcile this passage? What does it mean to me? Bartimaeus’ response to his healing is unselfish: he chooses to follow Jesus. He could have disappeared, started to make a living for himself, after enduring years or maybe even a life-time of begging. For me, I know that because of my illness, I have had to be at times dependent on others, and to them, I am immensely grateful beyond what words can express. In many ways, the best aspects of my personality and my strength as an individual were born through the pain of depression.
Having spoken about miracles and medicine, I will reflect on mystery, and to introduce it a short clip from the 1999 Kevin Smith film, “Dogma”.
** [Video: Bethany/God “Dogma”]
Why me? Why did this happen to me? Why do I have this illness? I do not have an answer to these questions, and I doubt that I will ever have one. While we have been looking at St Mark’s Gospel these past few weeks, the set Old Testament readings have been from the book of Job.
For those of you who do not know this book of the Bible, it is a tale of a man called Job. We heard the end of Job’s tale in our first reading today. In the story, Job’s faith is tested: he loses his wealth, property and family, except his wife, and he is cursed with a skin disease; however, he refuses to blame God. He is visited by three friends who offer him counsel. Eventually, God speaks to Job, but instead of explaining, God asks Job about a hundred questions, the gist of which is: God’s ways are not humankind’s ways. God’s ways are higher and beyond our comprehension and understanding. Ultimately, God restores Job: he is made whole again.
Saint Paul also wrote of an affliction, where he prayed for God’s healing, and the healing did not come: you can read about this in 2 Corinthians 12. God’s response to Paul is:
“My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In both of these, there is mystery.
Like Bartimaeus, God does not force our hand. God invites us with the open question: “What do you want me to do for you?”
In faith, we ask; and, in faith, God will respond:
- God will respond through medical science;
- God will respond through divine miracle;
- or God will respond through mystery.