Psalm 34:1-8 | Mark 10:46-52
Once again, a story unfolds just as Jesus is about to leave. He and his disciples have been making their way south from the region of Galilee, where most of his ministry has taken place, heading towards Jerusalem and Jesus’ final showdown with the political and religious power of his day.
The route they would almost certainly have travelled was known as the “pilgrim’s way”; following the river system through the heart of Israel, it was a path mostly travelled by those who were making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the road Jesus would have travelled with Mary and Joseph as a child when they attended the Passover festival (you remember the story, when Jesus got left behind because he was too busy asking questions of the priests to realise his party had left town).
Jericho, famous, of course, as the site of Joshua’s great victory over the inhabitants of the land when the people of Israel first moved into what was then Canaan, was a major town or small city, one of the larger centres outside of Jerusalem. It wasn’t on the pilgrim’s way, but a short side trip; a trip Jesus clearly felt worthwhile for the opportunity to share his message with the large population of Jericho.
And though we are told nothing of his time there, by the time he was leaving, it was he, and his disciples, and a large crowd – he had clearly made something of an impact in his time there. Enough, at least, that the blind beggar who sat beside the road had heard about him, and realised that here was at least the possibility of a change.
So he calls to Jesus as he is leaving Jericho – “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And as so often seems to be the case, there are those who think he should just remain quiet, that he is not important enough to bother Jesus, that he should accept his lot; but Jesus doesn’t see it that way. He stops, and he waits for Bartimaeus to come to him, and then he asks him a very strange question.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
There’s this blind man, who spends his life begging beside the road, and he’s called out “have mercy on me”. To Jesus, who is, let’s face it, famous for his healing miracles.
You’d think that Jesus might be able to figure out what Bartimaeus might be after. But he asks. “What is it that you want?”
Many years ago, when I was a PhD student in Oxford, I remember and evening when I’d gone into the town to meet up with some friends. I was early, and as I waited a guy who was obviously living rough approached me and started to tell me his story. It was the classic sob story – he’d been saving up the little cash he got from benefits and occasional casual work to afford the train fare to another town where he had friends, but without an address he couldn’t get a bank account, so had to keep cash, and his savings had been stolen and he was starting again from nothing, and so on… As he told his story I saw the friends I was meeting had arrived, and were sort of lurking, waiting for me to finish.
So, as politely as I could, I interrupted his story, and said something like “look, I don’t have a lot of cash on me, but I can give you a few quid to help out”.
I’ll never forget his reply, as, for the first time in the conversation he looked me straight in the eye and said “I don’t want you to give me money. I just wanted you to hear my story.”
I thought I knew what he wanted. I thought his whole story was at best embellished, at worst entirely created to elicit my sympathy. I figured I could discharge my duty as I saw it by giving him a few pounds from my limited, but honestly, more than adequate, student income.
It never even occurred to me that I might ask the question that Jesus asked Bartimaeus: “what do you want me to do for you?”
I just assumed I knew.
And here’s the thing – Jesus was a better judge of character than I am (file that under “great understatements of our time”). But however obvious it might have been what Bartimaeus wanted – or needed – Jesus refused to assume.
Because what I did for that man on the street, when I concluded that I knew what he wanted, what he needed, was to declare his opinions, his thoughts, irrelevant. To assume that I knew better than he did what was good for him. To declare that our relative statuses – my relative wealth and independence, his relative poverty and dependence – gave me the ability – the right – to make decisions for him.
Whereas Jesus, even though I am certain he knew what Bartimaeus was going to ask, refused to make that assumption. He gave Bartimaeus the respect of asking him, not telling him, what he needed.
Over the years I believe that the Church – especially in it’s missionary endeavours – and the wealthy communities of the western world – especially in their charitable work – have often been guilty, with the best possible intentions, of making the same mistake as I made with that man on the street in Oxford: assuming that our position of wealth – whether it be the spiritual wealth of having become inheritors of the gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, or the more literal financial wealth of being a developed nation, or a wealthy community – gives us the wisdom, the knowledge, the understanding, to know what other people, other communities want or need.
We see it in the history of the stolen generations; where of course many, many Europeans acted with the best of intentions, and of course, there were stories that ended well; but the whole endeavour was poisoned by the European assumption that we, advanced white people, knew what they needed.
And sadly the attitude persists today in programs such as income control, which can be powerfully effective when chosen by the community as part of a solution to their own problems, but are almost universally destructive when imposed by governments of all political stripes who think they know best. Because whatever good might be in them is overwhelmed by the negative of disempowerment, of assuming that we know what “they” want or need.
And of course a great deal of international development has suffered from the same failing; western experts exporting western solutions to “those poor natives”.
Today we’ve taken up a collection for our work with the Vanuatu Literacy project. And one of the reasons that we’ve chosen to support this project, and the work of UnitingWorld in general is their policy, arising from both good modern development practice and from the wisdom of the gospel, of working exclusively through local indigenous partners. Not telling those partners what they need to do – offering support and training, yes, but insisting that the direction and aims of the project arise from the local community; from their needs, their knowledge of their context, their understanding of what will make a difference.
Greeting the blind man not with the “hey, I know what I can do for you!” which immediately places them in the position of disempowered recipient of the benevolence of their patron, but with the question “what is it that you would like me to do for you?” Words which inspired the faith to ask, and in turn, made everything different.