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What Do You Want Me to Do For You?

Bartimaeus and Actively Listening to People with Disabilities in Churches

In my previous blog-post, “Embodying Equity,” I asserted that disability is a theological, political, and personal issue, and explained several strategies that believers of varied abilities can use to create access and equity within our churches. Let’s go one step further by examining Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 as an example of fulsome, embodied equity.

Last time, I claimed that a vital strategy for equity and inclusion in churches is making the effort to befriend people with disabilities. Jesus really befriends Bartimaeus, in substantive ways, in this text. There are three key steps to the arc of that narrative.

Bartimaeus manifests tenacity and a desire for relationship.

First, Bartimaeus shouts for Jesus’ attention. He’s waiting for Jesus by the roadside as he and his friends leave Jericho, en route to Jerusalem. As he waits, Bartimaeus has a great idea: he decides to shout, at the top of his lungs, so that Jesus will hear him. I have to applaud his audacity. Bartimaeus starts crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (47). Even though the crowd tries to shout him down—and I can hear some of their complaints, like, “The Master’s busy,” or, “Can you be quiet, please?” whenever I reread this passage—they can’t do it. He still shouts, “SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!” (emphasis mine). Bartimaeus’ shouts are unique; they give Jesus a special title that acknowledges his descent from Israelite royalty. Plus, his shouts are significant for our purposes because they symbolize his refusal to simply acquiesce to the ableist social systems that continue to oppress him. In terms of equity for people with disabilities, Bartimaeus is our model, because—as theologians of disability like Kathy Black and Jennie Weiss Block clarify—he manifests tenacity and a desire for relationship.

Bartimaeus isn’t just waiting for things to happen; he’s actively seeking God’s purpose for his life!

Furthermore, Jesus acknowledges Bartimaeus as important. Rather than calling out the blind man, Jesus pays attention, and draws him from the periphery. He asks someone to call Bartimaeus, and the crowd, which was harassing him just a moment ago, asks him to get up and talk to Jesus (49). Inspired by his intense faith in Jesus’ healing power, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak—in his society, an instrument that he needs to beg—and goes over to Jesus. Bartimaeus isn’t just waiting for things to happen; he’s actively seeking God’s purpose for his life! This part of the passage demonstrates Jesus’ social reintegration of Bartimaeus into the community. Jesus restores Bartimaeus to participation in the crowd of followers. He forces the crowd to acknowledge the blind man, and—so acknowledged—Bartimaeus springs into action. Other believers with disabilities can do that same thing. Have you seen that happen? I sure have!

Finally, Jesus asks Bartimaeus the question that all people with disabilities want—indeed, need—to hear within the church. In one of the simple, axiomatic moves for which he’s justly famous, Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (49). Instead of allowing the financial cost of helping Bartimaeus, or the crowd’s potential discomfort, to interfere with the encounter, Jesus meets the blind person where he is, and asks him what he needs. By so doing, Jesus gives him access to the transformative things that God is doing. My colleagues at the Ontario College of Art and Design have called what Jesus does, “Just ask, just listen.”* As Jesus does, one enters into a situation, and asks how one can help the other person without judging or making assumptions. In our churches, we need to ask not just, “Can I pray for you?” Certainly not, “Why don’t you get a job?” Instead, when we see someone struggling or in pain, we can say, “Hi! How can I help?” It’s a simple change in perspective from thinking about finances and furniture first, to coming alongside, and showing compassion for, our companions. 

Bartimaeus provides us with a model of steadfast engagement

Bartimaeus replies, to Jesus, that he wants to see again. Without doing or saying much else, Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ prior visual acuity. “Go; your faith has made you well.” Then, Bartimaeus goes. But goes where, exactly? Let’s go back to the text: he follows Jesus “along the way” into Jerusalem…where the latter will die a painful death. Because Jesus has improved his social standing, and entirely given him back his sight, Bartimaeus does so with joy.

In these ways, Bartimaeus provides us with a model of steadfast engagement that believers of all abilities can both comprehend, and use in their own contexts. This scripture passage shows us the kind of love to which God calls believers of every kind of capacity.

* Our Doors are Open Guide for Accessible Congregations, page 18.

By Workshop of Fernando Gallego - Own work, Public Domain,

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