Why was blind Bartimaeus begging outside Jericho? He shouldn’t have been, he shouldn’t have needed to. The Lord says in Deuteronomy 15: “there shall not be a beggar among you,” and God laid down laws to make sure of this in ancient Israel. In Leviticus God gave the law that if you are gathering your grain from your field, you may not cut all the way down to the ground and you may not pick up the grain that drops to the ground, you’re to leave it for the poor to pick up. You see this in the book of Ruth, where Ruth, instead of begging, goes to the fields of Boaz and gathers grain behind his reapers, because what they drop or leave behind she gets to take for herself. In Deuteronomy, the people are ordered to take a special tithe in the third year, ten percent of all they produce, and give it to the Levites and the poor and the widow and the orphan. In Deuteronomy again, God commanded his people always to lend to those in need, never to refuse. These were the laws that God set down for them to make sure there would be no beggar, but Bartimaeus is still begging.
It didn’t work. The leaders don’t do their job, the people don’t obey the laws, the poor would rather beg than work, whatever the reason, it didn’t work and it never will. The poor, Jesus says, you will have with you always. There have always been those who dream, if only we have the right laws, if only we have the right system of government, if only we educate the people correctly, if only we implement this or that plan, we can get rid of poverty, we can bring equity, equal results for everyone, no people too rich, no people too poor, no one oppressed. But it remains a dream and when people try to accomplish it by force of law it turns quickly into a nightmare, as Soviet Russia and communist China proved in the twentieth century. God gave perfect laws to His people Israel, and they didn’t keep them. The system failed, the government was imperfect, the covenant was broken, and the poor and the beggar remained, because the people were sinners, all of them. And as long as people are sinners, their countries and their societies will not last. Those who dream of building a heaven on earth always run into the stubborn problem of original sin. It’s like gravity – you can choose to ignore it, decide it doesn’t exist, but it will bring you back to reality soon enough.
We won’t have a perfect society, perfect city, perfect state, perfect country. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice and for prosperity. We should. The mayor and city council of Jericho should have made laws that helped poor Bartimaeus. And our government should make laws to protect the unborn from slaughter, preserve marriage between one man and one woman, laws that reward and encourage hard work, that favor institutions like the Christian church so that we can help the poor among us. We should work for these things. But it won’t lead to a perfect country, there never was such a thing and there never will be. And we Christians may not obsess over these things, may not spend all our time watching Fox News or looking up stories of corruption in the government and staking our hopes on the America of our dreams. This simply isn’t our obsession. Jesus is.
And Jesus is no earthly king. His disciples thought He was. They had this political obsession. It was on the way to Jerusalem that John and James asked whether they could sit one at his right and one at his left in his kingdom. And they weren’t thinking of the kingdom of heaven. They were thinking of Jesus marching into Jerusalem and taking it, restoring the Kingdom to Israel, and then they could be his chief advisers. It was all politics. And the other disciples were angry at James and John only because they wanted the same thing. They thought the Bible promised political stability – and the Bible does say amazing things about the Christ, that He will rule as king, that of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end, and He will sit on the throne of His father David and will reign over the house of Jacob forever. We know these are all prophecies of the resurrection and of the Christian church where Jesus does reign as king, but they took them as prophecies of an earthly kingdom and an earthly Christ. So they dreamed and so they obsessed over politics.
And Jesus tells them to stop. And when He tells them to stop He’s telling us to stop too. Stop it. America is God’s gift to us, but it will fall like every other nation. And if we should work to maintain it among ourselves, to preserve it for our children, and God knows we should, we should work ten times, a hundred times harder, to preserve the Word of God and Christ’s Church among us, because He is our treasure and we care about the kingdoms of this world only insofar as they provide the place where we can worship our Lord Jesus in peace and serve Him in His Kingdom.
So Jesus corrects them and says what all the Scriptures, all the Bible talks about, Him, the Christ, no political Messiah, but the One who is heading now to Jerusalem to suffer many things, who will be a horrible politician and get himself handed over to the Gentiles, and they will mock him and spit on him, treat him shamefully, flog him, kill him, and then the third day he will rise again.
This is the great revelation of God to us. When God speaks He speaks of this. It is His obsession. It is constant in the Old Testament. We don’t have time to give the examples, we’d end up reading the whole Old Testament, but just look at the promise of the Seed of Eve, the Seed of Abraham, the Seed of David, just look at all the sacrifices of the Temple, the blood of lambs spilt to picture the spilling of Christ’s blood, look at how much God’s people suffered and how God delivered them from their suffering, all a picture of what was to come, that the Christ would suffer and rise again.
But this, what should be so clear to them, this is hidden from the apostles’ eyes. Jesus’ closest disciples, they don’t understand. The Holy Spirit stresses it. He repeats it three times. They didn’t understand, the thing was hidden from them, they didn’t understand. This is to tell us how impossible it is for us to understand Christ’s suffering without the Holy Spirit. Left to ourselves we will be blinder than Bartimaeus. We call this the bondage of the will. It is a humbling thing, but it is a lesson we need to learn and relearn. You cannot believe in Jesus as your Lord by your own reason or strength. The fact that you can look at that cross and rejoice that God suffers and dies for you, that you can put your hope of everlasting life in this Man suffering for you, in His body and blood given to you, in being joined to His death and resurrection in your Baptism, this is completely the work of the Spirit, of God working in you, and convincing you of what you would think pure stupidity and nonsense if left in the ignorance of your sinful and blind nature.
So we need to give all glory to God. Look at what He has to work with – sinners all of us. Look at the uneducated, clueless, cowardly disciples and see what God made of them, men who spread the Gospel to all nations, who bravely died for the faith, who spoke a divine wisdom that put to shame the intelligentsia of our age – God did all that, that’s what He and He alone can make sinners into. Jesus shows us the cluelessness, the blindness of the apostles, not so that we can copy them, excuse our own lack of knowledge, our own blindness, but so that we can recognize that we have many weaknesses ourselves, many sins, many shortcomings and that it is certainly not because of our great wisdom or our great virtue that we stand here Christians, that we can look at that cross and see reality, see our glory and God’s glory, and pledge to live our life for Him as He gave His life for us. By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless.
Jesus makes an example of this with blind Bartimaeus. Whom does Jesus visit in Jericho? Does he go to the mayor and give him political advice, is that his priority? Does he go to the rich and powerful and highly educated, because maybe they will get what his stupid disciples can’t get? He visits none of them. He goes to the blind man, a despised man, a man people are telling to shut up because he isn’t important enough to talk to Jesus, and Jesus turns His gaze, His attention to him. And He gives to him something far greater than all the wisdom and riches and power of all the world. His sight. This is an allegory. It’s a picture of what Jesus does for us.
He visits the despised, the lowly, the sufferers, who don’t seem worth anything. But we are worth something to Him, everything to Him, because He pays with His life for us. And He gives us something so far greater than political victory, so far better than an earthly kingdom, earthly riches and peace. He gives us the sight to see His Kingdom, bought and won by His own blood, and then to live in it. When John and James ask to sit, one at His right and one at His left when He enters His glory, Jesus tells them they don’t know what they are asking, that this is not for them. It was given instead to two thieves, nameless men who were crucified one on the right and one on the left of Jesus, as Jesus entered into His glory. This is what we are given to see. And it is a beautiful sight.
It is a sight that those obsessed with political victory and earthly comfort cannot see. The disciples ran away from it, denied him and ran away, when they saw it. And we will do the same thing if our goals in life all focus around politics and money and pleasures. It was the law in the Old Testament that the newly inaugurated king had to copy down by hand the first five books of the Bible. Because even the king, whose job it was to rule and practice politics, was to be obsessed with God’s Kingdom, with the promise of the Savior, and not with the affairs of this world. David, the great king of Israel, is known not for his political savvy but for his praises of God’s mercy and his songs of the coming Savior. So you, even if you are engaged day by day with the affairs of this world, and you have to be, you have jobs to do, money to make, children to feed, yet these cannot be your obsession.
It is an ancient practice to give up something, to fast, for Lent. And it is a good practice, if you see something now in your life that pulls you away from looking at Christ and seeing in Him your greatest treasure, to give it up for Lent. We are no better than the disciples. By the grace of God we are what we are. If you rely on alcohol, on food binges, on Netflix, on social media, on Fox News, and you see they are the obsession of your mind, give them up for a time, turn them off for a time, and spend time obsessing over your true treasure, looking to His cross, reading His Word, praying to Him and laying all your cares before Him.
All the Bible, Jesus says, is about this – His suffering and His death and His resurrection. So all your life is about it. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and every word speaks of Christ and His suffering and His death and His resurrection. Look there and see your God’s great love for you, look there and see that though your sins were as scarlet here they are white as snow, they are removed from you as far as the east is from the west, the chastisement that gives you peace with God is on Him. The Kingdom He wins for you is not one that can be taken away by corrupt politicians or insane dictators. It is not a kingdom that gives you constant anxiety and worry as you stress about the future, what could be lost and what could be gained. It is a Kingdom that realigns all your thoughts and dreams and focuses them on pure certainty. It is a Kingdom that sets before you the God-Man Jesus Christ suffering for you, and there you see what you really need. Not all the wealth and glory and good government of this world could give it. You need peace with God your Maker, now, a mind at rest, knowing that God so loves you that He Himself suffers your death and bears your corruption and takes your guilt on Himself, and reconciles you to Himself and makes His Father your Father and gives you to live by His Spirit and feeds you with His own body and blood.
Tongues will pass away, prophecies will fail, knowledge will come to an end, and so will every kingdom of this world. They are not worthy of our obsession. We are children of God. His love in Christ remains forever, ever patient with us, always kind, greater than our highest hopes, the object of our faith, and we see it in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. So Jesus points us to His cross and we thank and praise Him for His kindness, and we pray, On my heart imprint thine image, blessed Jesus King of grace, that life’s riches, cares, and pleasures, have no pow’r thee to efface. This the superscription be, Jesus crucified for me, is my life, my hope’s foundation, and my glory and salvation. In nomine Jesu.