The Power of Speaking Up: Reformation Sunday and Blind Bartimaeus
Reformation Sunday (October 25th this year) offers us the opportunity to connect layers of church history through the theme of speaking up. Blind Bartimaeus and Martin Luther provide examples of the work God can do in and through those willing to use their voices.
However, at the same time, we must challenge ourselves to try on all the perspectives in these stories. It is easy to personalize them, seeing ourselves as the potential outspoken heroes. Yet, as we apply these stories to today’s context, we cannot overlook the fact that are other roles we may be playing.
In Bartimaeus, we do not have a relatable hero—at least to most people sitting in American sanctuaries. He is not a young entrepreneurial leader who gave up potential wealth to run a non-profit. He’s not a working-class guy who is struggling to make ends meet. He is a blind beggar—the kind of person we pass by on the street while pretending to be engrossed in our phones.
He hears that Jesus is near, but there is an insurmountable crowd between them. So he begins to shout urgently, indiscriminately—“Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!”
If we thought that he might be the lovable, rags-to-riches leading man, the crowd’s reaction tells us otherwise. They turn on him, trying to silence him. Not only does his need not matter, but neither does his voice. They are the judge, prescreening Jesus’ time and attention.
Yet, he continues to cry out. When Jesus calls him forward, he gains instant yet shallow affection from the crowd. They have to be nice to him now that Jesus is looking, but jealousy and anger are no doubt flowing through many veins.
Bartimaeus receives the healing he so desperately desired, but in just a few lines, Mark shows that this is not simply about physical sight. He compares and contrasts this outsider with the disciples—the ultimate insiders. Bartimaeus calls Jesus “Son of David,” which was a clear Messianic title. Peter too had called Jesus the Messiah not that long ago, but what happened following these critical pronouncements? Bartimaeus follows Jesus to Jerusalem, while Peter scolds Jesus for foretelling what would happen there. Jesus asks Bartimaeus a virtually identical question to the one he asked James and John less than twenty verses ago: What do you want me to do for you? The disciples ask for glory, while Bartimaeus responds, “Teacher, I want to see.”
It is true that the disciples have done and will do many great things through honest and authentic faith. It is also true that we don’t know what becomes of Bartimaeus beyond this passage. But the contrast is clear and striking. If nothing else, it shows the complacency that can set in when religion becomes our routine.
Fast-forward around 1500 years to the spark of the Reformation. The weight that the name Martin Luther carries today tempts us to inflate the influence Luther had at the time. He certainly had the privilege of education, and he held the titles of professor and pastor, but he was no celebrity. He first sent his now famous 95 theses to his bishop. Among his concerns was a clear opposition to the selling of indulgences, which his bishop was doing in concert with the Pope to raise money. Luther received no immediate reply, would soon find himself charged with and questioned for heresy, and was eventually excommunicated.
At the same time, his work was translated from the scholarly Latin to the local German, copied via the relatively new printing press, and was distributed widely across Europe within months. This same set of concerns that had drawn the wrath of Church leadership found resonance in the people, leading to a great split in the Church’s family tree.
These stories serve as both inspiration and warning. Certainly, there is hope and encouragement to be found in Bartimaeus and Luther. When we seek to know and follow Christ, may we have the courage to speak out, no matter what the crowd around us says. But may we not be blind to the fact that the crowd that sought to silence Bartimaeus were those literally following Jesus. When we see wrong done in the name of Christ and the Church, may we have the courage to speak out, no matter the consequences. But let us not forget that it was power, misguided pragmatism, and a desire for comfort that deafened the ears of those charged with leading the church.
As we remember and celebrate Reformation Sunday, let us pray for the courage to find our voices and speak out as God leads. But let us also pray for eyes to see and ears to hear when the Spirit-filled voices are calling out to us.
Header image by Flickr user Andrew Butitta. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.