Along the Road from Jericho
He dreamed of the sound of the Jordan and the smell of soil, laughter along the river banks, the soft push of wind as his uncle handed him a wriggling fish, its scales slick and barbed. Then into his dream came Judah calling: “Wake up! The pilgrims are going to be generous today.”
As his mind stirred, he began to hear the morning sounds of the Jericho streets–animals calling for hay and seed, the creak of doors, carts clattering their parade to market. On his upper lip, he could feel the heat of the sun, beginning its arch across the sky.
Last night he’d bought a skin of wine, a little help for sleep and pain, but now his head ached from what had become the cycle of his days. Judah helped him gather his cloak, both sleeping pad and collection plate, and together they began the journey to the pilgrims highway on the south side of town–his left hand extended and resting on Judah’s right shoulder as they moved through the street.
They said their hellos along the usual route. From sound and smell, he knew the people who might spare a scrap and those who would walk past with the hurried steps of disgust. There were rumors and he’d heard them all as to why he’d lost his sight. All the stories came to the same result–Bartimaeus the beggar living out the results of some sin, his own or his parent’s. He, himself, had often wondered why as a child his sight had faded to a dark nothing. Maybe he had lacked faith.
When they arrived at the road’s edge, he could hear that others had already gathered, calling out their beggar’s songs. He could pick out the shrill notes of Eli, a legless man who’d learned to walk on his hands. Closer by, he heard Moshe, a man blind from birth. Bartimaeus’s was his guide, translating their shared darkness into what it would be like to see the light. Moshe had never known the difference–only that his was a disability that kept him here by the roadside, cursed to make his living from the coins passerbys threw on his cloak.
Along the road, Bartimaeus could hear the early travelers, making their way up the road. As they traveled they sang the Psalms that would guide them toward the temple mount of Zion:
“Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the LORD their God…
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,
and food to those who hunger.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down…” (Ps. 146:4, 6-7)
Bartimaeus had long known these songs, he had heard them sung by pilgrims as they passed from the North toward the festivals held each year in Jerusalem. And though he had often scoffed at such ideals as he warmed himself by the fire at night, he held within his heart a hope that maybe it was true; that a “Son of David” would come and bring God’s healing presence into the world.
There were stories he’d heard of a man from Galilee named Yeshua that many were saying was the Messiah, the Annointed One. He was named for Joshua, the one who had brought their ancestors into the promised land; the man who had surrounded this very city of Jericho with the people of Israel and defeated it through the miraculous power of God.
People were saying that this new Yeshua had healed the deaf, cast out demons, and was bringing those who had been rejected from the community back into its center–leppers and prostitutes and tax collectors were all welcome in his Kingdom. He rejected the purity laws of the Pharisees and called out the Temple authorities for their hypocrisy. There were rumours that he was going to mount a revolt against the Romans and for that very reason the Romans were bringing extra troops to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Maybe the walls of Jericho would topple once again.
Thud, clink, thud–he heard the coins of the pilgrims fall onto his cloak. “The LORD bless you,” he’d say to each one as Judah gathered the coins into their purse. Bartimaeus knew that Judah hardly divided the gains evenly, but he had few options. Judah kept him fed and always made sure Bartimaeus had wine at night, even if it was often sour. They had known each other since childhood, and when Bartimaeus’s father had died and his mother had disappeared, Judah stepped into the role of protector and guide.
Suddenly, down the road, he heard murmurs. There was a large group coming up the way. He could hear distant singing; the clang of tambourines and the blast of rams horns. Down the line of beggars people were saying, “Yeshua, its Yeshua!” Bartimaeus could hear Judah get to his feet to get a look and Bartimaeus sat, keeping the cloak in front of him as he tried to make out the voice of this supposed prophet in the cacophony of the crowd.
Bartimaeus couldn’t distinguish anything from the noise of the streets and yet some hope long buried came bursting forth. He began to call out, “Yeshua, Son of David, have mercy on me! Yeshua, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
“Shut up!” Judah said, sharply into his ear. But still Bartimaeus called out. Moshe and Eli, called down the line, “be quiet old beggar.” But Bartimaeus couldn’t stop, there was something in him that wanted in every part of his body, to be close to the presence he could sense in the midst of the crowd.
The musicians with their instruments passed and then there was a change in the pace of the pilgrims. “Bartimaeus,” he heard voices saying, “he’s calling you.” Bartimaeus got up, tossing his cloak asside as coins spilled into the street. Judah scrambled to pick them up as Bartimaeus walked forward, guided by the crowd toward its center.
Everyone was quiet, wondering if they were about to see one of the miracles for which Yeshuah had become famous. Bartimaeus heard a voice out of the darkness that was somehow familiar and yet strange, loving and yet powerful. “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus heard the man ask. It was a question he had never been asked, the answers were so obvious and yet no one had ever bothered with the question. He had to beg for all he had, no one had ever offered to serve him, to do his will, and yet with the question lingering in his mind his answer was easy. “My rabbouni,” Bartimaeus said, “let me see again.”
“Go,” the voice said, “your faith has made you well.” And in that moment, Bartimaeus had a new kind of awareness–colors and patterns were falling into place around him, light was dancing on the trees and grasses of the roadside and on the rich brown of the face now before him smiling.
“Go” the voice had said, but Bartimaeus understood in that moment that the only way to see the world in all its radiance was not to go, but to follow. This Yeshua had opened the way to a new promised land and Bartimaeus wanted to follow him there. And so as Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, Bartimaues who had been blind and rejected and could now see that he was one of God’s beloved, followed, joining in the dancing throng of all those rejected by the world of the powerful, singing:
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
…the Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
They sang and they sang, all those who were blind and now could see, all those who had been lost and were now found, all those who had sought power and had discovered service, all those who had been deaf to their neighbors and could now hear them. They sang and they followed this teacher who had opened their ears and their eyes to the radiance of God’s truth wherever he might lead them, even into Jerusalem, even to the cross.