Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

153. Blind Bartimaeus (Matt. 20 :29-34; Mark 10 :46-52; Luke 18:35-43)*

There are certain difficulties in harmonizing the synoptic records about this miracle. Luke says: "as Jesus was come nigh to Jericho." In Matthew and Mark, he was leaving Jericho when he healed Bartimaeus.

Various explanations have been offered. The one which makes "drew nigh" as equivalent to "when he was in the vicinity of Jericho" has the weakness of ignoring the most usual and most obvious meaning of the Greek word (a glance at the concordance demonstrates this).

Another suggestion is that at that time there were two separate cities of Jericho—the old, rather squalid Jewish city, and the fine new town lately built by the Herods. Thus Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as leaving the former, whilst Luke has in mind the approach to the latter. This is possible, though there seem to be doubts whether Old Jericho was inhabited at all at this time.

The solution proposed by Bullinger is to take the three records as describing entirely different incidents: "it will be readily seen that there were three separate miracles on the Lord's visit to Jericho." This stretches the long arm of coincidence just a bit too far. That three healings so marvellously similar in detail should happen at almost the same place at nearly the same time is not impossible, but is a trifle improbable. And it becomes all the more unlikely when the same commentator proceeds to apply the same method over and over again, duplicating and triplicating one gospel incident after another.

A better solution

A much more likely solution is on these lines: The blind man appealed to Jesus as he entered the city (Lk.) but had no response. Later when Jesus was leaving Jericho (Mt.), Bartimaeus had already planted himself by the Jerusalem gate, this time accompanied by a fellow sufferer (Mt.); together they pleaded to be healed, and had the reward of their faith. This simple suggestion explains also how Matthew's mention of two blind men is no contradiction of Mark and Luke.

A careful examination of some of the Greek verbs provides a certain amount of supporting evidence for this view. In Luke 18:36 the multitude is "passing through"—not passing through Jericho, for there had been an overnight stay. It must be: passing through the city gate. In Matthew he is "leaving" (in the New Testament this word usually has the idea of departure)

It has to be assumed, of course, that Luke, having begun the story of the blind man in connection with the Lord's approach to Jericho, goes on to complete it, even at the expense of getting the rest of the story chronologically dislocated by putting the conclusion of it before the encounter with Zaccheus. This is no serious difficulty. Matthew does exactly the same thing with the cursing of the fig tree (21:18-22, and parallels), and with the anointing of Jesus at Bethany (26 :6-13; cp. Jn.12 :l-8). Very probably, another example is Luke's placing of the argument amongst the disciples in the upper room(22:24;cp.Jn.l3:4ff).

This Bartimaeus may have been a Gentile. Certainly Timaeus has a strong Greek flavour about it. But another suggestion, not too well supported, is that the name links with an Aramaic word for "blind." The prefix "bar" is the Gentile equivalent of the Hebrew ben.

His first appeal

Passover time was a good season for all mendicants. They did well out of the piety of the many pilgrims passing through to Jerusalem. The unusual crowd and noise set beggar Bartimaeus wondering whatever was afoot. Mention of the name Jesus (in response to his repeated enquiries: Lk.), immediately told him everything, for by this time every soul in Palestine had heard of the man of Nazareth. Perhaps he knew of the close association of the name Nazareth (Branch-town) with the great Messianic prophecies about "the Branch out of the stem of Jesse" (Is. 11 :1 etc.), for immediately he began a fusillade of entreaties, shouting out at the top of his voice: "Jesus, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me." He had heard enough stories about the power and the compassion of Jesus to feel confident that this heir to David's throne both could and would come to his aid. His words were a great confession of faith, the more so that they came from a Gentile.

Alas, there was no response out of the darkness which enfolded him. The crowd, and Jesus with it, moved on, and he was left in a depressing, faith-testing loneliness.

A year before this a Canaanite woman, equally convinced that Jesus was the Messianic Son of David, had clamoured for his healing aid on behalf of her stricken daughter. Yet for long enough her importunities both to Master one disciples had gone unheeded. Not to be gainsaid, she had persisted in thrusting her desperate need before him, and all at once faith had its reward. It is hardly likely that this blind beggar had heard the story. Yet his reaction to present discouragement was just the same

Soon he heard-who in that busy populous place didn't?—that Jesus was to stay over the sabbath at the sumptuous home of Zaccheus. needed no extraordinary powers of deduction to conclude thai at some time in the morning after the sabbath Jesus and his party would be passing through the Jerusalem gate en route for the holy city.

A second attempt

Accordingly, soon after dawn that day Bartimaeus posted himself there. It was, in any case, the most lucrative pitch he could hope to have for his begging. On this occasion he was joined by another poor fellow, afflicted as he was. Over the weekend the robust faith of Bartimaeus had infected this blind friend also. Now with ears alert for the crowd of Galilean pilgrims, with Jesus in their midst, they waited.

Matthew's fondness for reporting two blind men where Mark and Luke have only one is not to be written off as due to a penchant for exaggeration. If he says two blind men, then there were two. This is just one of Matthew's devices for preparing his Jewish readers for the accession of the Gentiles into the ranks of Christ's ecclesia (8:28; 9:27; 21 :2; 15:38).

By and by expectations were realised. It needed only quick enquiry of a passer-by, and they knew that Jesus and his men were approaching. Thereupon their clamant importunity began. Two lusty voices kept up a ceaseless cry: "Lord, have mercy on us, thou son of David." There is too much similarity here to Mt.9 :27 to be written off as coincidence. Then had they heard of the earlier miracle and were now attempting deliberate imitation?

Again, that cry: "Son of David" invites comparison with the account of David's conquest of Jerusalem (2 Sam.5 :8). There the blind and the lame, who vexed David's soul by their self-confident taunts, brought a ban on all blind and all lame from entering the temple ("the House"). But now there was a blind Gentile who believed that the Son of David would make Jerusalem his capital. So for him there was only blessing.

Some who were at the head of the throng (Lk.) were annoyed at their loud shouts. Perhaps Jesus was teaching as he went, and so the interruption was resented. Or perhaps they were indignant at what they considered a crude use of a Messianic title in addressing Jesus. If Bartimaeus was known or seen to be a Gentile, their annoyance would be the more evident, In any case, some of them had probably noticed the way in which Jesus had ignored the cries of Bartimaeus when he entered Jericho on the sabbath eve. Then why could not this beggar learn that Jesus had no time for a dog of a Gentile such as he? So, roughly, the two noisy fellows were told to shut up.

But they knew that this was the greatest opportunity which would ever present itself in all their pathetic wretched stricken existence, and they re-doubled their efforts. The crowd was now abreast of them, and still no sign of response to their pleading. A few seconds more, and they could tell from the receding sound of feet that again Jesus had apparently passed by without any notice being taken of them in their misery.

Their cries continued, more urgent than ever, but now there was a note of piteous disappointment in their voices at the prospect of being left for ever in their darkness and poverty.

Importunity succeeds

All this time, and on the earlier occasion also, Jesus had known of the clamant need of these men of faith. And all the time that he had seemingly ignored with stony indifference the cries they sent after him, he had been torn between deep compassion for their wretchedness and a solemn responsibility to give his efforts to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

But now that note of bitter disappointment in their voices was too much for him (Mr.). He stopped and bade those, who a minute before had been scolding them, to bring them to him (Lk.). But they didn't need to. For someone called out: 'Cheer up! Bestir yourself; he's calling for you' (Mk.).

Bartimaeus needed no further exhortation, He was on his feet in a moment, simultaneously shrugging off his outer garment and flinging it from him (s.w. Heb.10 :35; cp. Mt.3 :44,46; Phil.3 :7), so that he might move more freely. Thus he expressed his conviction that by and by he would be able to see to retrieve it. There was no waiting for someone to take him by the hand. Without a second's hesitation he began walking towards the voice of Jesus.

"What do you want for yourself?" Jesus asked, "I will do it." Perhaps he was merely asking for money, as he normally did.

"Rabboni," he answered (Mk.), choosing carefully a title of high honour, "I want my sight back" (NEB) "Yes, Lord," added the other, "let our eyes be opened" (Mt.).

They felt his fingers moving gently across their eyes (Mt.), and heard quiet words of pity break from his lips. Then he said firmly: "Yes, have your sight back" (Lk.). And they did. With their first moment of renewed vision each looked straight into the eyes of Jesus, and they heard that wonderful double entendre which he loved to use: "Your faith has saved you" (Mk.5 34; Lk.750;8:48; 17:19; 18:42).

"And now, away you go," Jesus bade them (Mk.), only to be met by point-blank disobedience. They stayed in the crowd, glorifying God with their ceaseless ejaculations of wonder and thanksgiving, and they followed the Son of David to Jerusalem. No doubt they thought it the road to a throne, but instead they found it the way to a cross.

Witnessing the miracle, and thoroughly assured of its truth, the people in the throng gave voice to enthusiastic praise of God for such a work of lovingkindness. Did they sing Psalm 146?. "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God . . ,The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind . . . The Lord preserveth the strangers . . . The Lord shall reign for ever, even thy God, O Zion. Hallelujah."

Or was Isaiah 35 their theme?: "Be strong, fear not: behold your God, even God with a recompense (= Bartimaeus?); he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped . . . And a highway shall be there . . . The way of holiness... and he shall be with them walking in the way .. . And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads."

Acted parable

In this healing of Bartimaeus there is a remarkable foreshadowing of the gospel to the Gentiles.

The poor man's blindness and begging are to be seen as a picture of the Gentile's need for light, a need only to be met by the help of Jews, the chosen people. Their cry for help, disregarded by Jesus, is the counterpart to the Lord's ministry to his own people—"I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." And as they were a people under the curse of the Law, so also was Jericho a city of curse (Josh.6:26;l Kgs 16:34).

Jesus rested at the home of Zaccheus from Friday afternoon to Sunday, precisely the time that he lay in the tomb a week later. Thus leaving Jericho corresponds to the resurrection of Jesus. After this there was even more intense eagerness on the part of the Gentiles to enjoy the light of the gospel. The rebuke of Bartimaeus by those going before appropriately prefigured the reluctance of the early church to share their spiritual blessings with the Gentile God-fearers. But the compassion of Christ was not to be inhibited—the Gentiles were called to come to him, and this they did with alacrity. The filthy garments of their own unrighteousness were readily cast aside. The greeting "Rabboni" shows a Gentile who has become a Jew-and more than this, one believing in the risen Christ (see Jn.20 :16, the only other occurrence of the word). Nor is it accident that "Have mercy on us" is the Old Testament phrase for the forgiveness of sins. Touched by the finger of power (the Holy Spirit in the early church; see Lk.ll :20), the Gentiles gained a new spiritual sight, and, glorifying God, they gladly followed Christ, knowing themselves to be saved not by their own intrinsic merit but by faith in the Son of David and his Messianic Kingdom.

Notes: Mk. l0:46-52

Jericho was also "the city of palm trees" (Dt. 34:3) — and palm trees are (in almost every mention) a symbol of Gentiles (Study 157).
Son of David. Note the striking occurrences of this Messianic title: Mt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 21:9,15.

Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus. An obvious pleonasm. Why? 49. There is a dramatic emphasis on "call . . . call . . . call."
That I might receive my sight. Not subjunctive, but (in Gk.) a future indicative-a subtle expression of faith in Jesus. The NEB reading is very graphic, but not necessarily correct; e.g. Jn. 9:11,15,18.
It is only Mt. (not Lk.) who mentions here the touch with healing power.

See also: Mk. 1:41;7:33;8:15;9:29; 17:7;20:34;Lk.7:14;22:51. It is Lk. who adds: 'glorified God,” a reaction which was always the result of a miracle: Lk. 2:20; 5:25,26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43; 23:4

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