Friday, August 14, 2009

Have mercy!

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

- Mark 10:46-52

The first question I asked myself when I read this passage was why it would be placed where it is. Why is the story of Bartimaeus placed on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus journeys toward his fate? In my study bible, the question is answered at least partially: Bartimaeus, unlike others who have been healed previously, is not told that he should keep silence about the restoration of his sight. Rather, he becomes a follower of Jesus. His good news will be shared. My study bible says that this is an indication that now that Jesus is heading toward open conflict with the leaders at Jerusalem, the veiling of his secret (messianic identity) is no longer necessary. The word written here in Greek for "way" (as in, "he followed him on the way") is hodos. Still commonly used in Greek to refer to a street, it is the same word that will be used to describe the "Way" of early Christian believers.

But there is more to the placement of this passage. The phrase, "Have mercy on me!" is perhaps the most frequently used phrase of prayer. Sometimes we shorten it to "Have mercy!" and there are all sorts of variable ways to phrase this prayer. It is used frequently in liturgy and in all forms of worship as well. So, in this passage we have a structured message for those of us who will follow on the Way after Jesus as Son of Man is no longer with us as in human form in the world. We are given, through this story, specific instructions on prayer and relationship.

In the tradition of the Eastern church is a prayer method titled "The Jesus Prayer." This tradition is also called "Prayer of the Heart." It is becoming popular in the West as well. It's a very simple repetition of this phrase "Lord, have mercy" or a variation of it. It is used as a phrase repeated throughout the day to "remember God" - to focus on any moment and ask the presence of the Lord be with us. It is also used as a focused form of concentrated prayer as one sits in silence, and repeats the phrase to draw attention back to the prayer and let thoughts go - the earliest form of Christian meditation, stemming back to the Desert Fathers, the earliest monastics. I practice this method myself, and I would recommend it to anyone. Newer forms of this prayer are developed all the time and regaining popularity among Western believers; one modern representative type of contemplative prayer is "Centering Prayer." But the simple repetition of this phrase, drawing our attention to the Lord, and asking for his lovingkindness is always available. Many have transformational results in their lives through the repetition of this simple prayer over the years.

My study bible also says that prayer must be specific: Jesus invites Bartimaeus to tell him what he wants Jesus to do for him. So, we remember that prayer is a communication, a dialogue. When I pray, "Lord have mercy" it allows me to focus on whatever I wish to include in that mercy. So, this simple prayer functions to include my concerns and the people I wish to pray for. Bartimaeus also calls Jesus "my teacher." I think this is very significant, because once again it is indicative of those who would choose Jesus' "Way." So, we have three important factors established here for prayer after Jesus is gone: we think of him as "our teacher," the faith, worship and prayer practice we follow is his "Way," and when we pray, we communicate with him and ask for his mercy - lovingkindness and grace, as we practice repentance and seek to turn away from whatever becomes a stumbling block on that Way.

As Jesus walks toward Jerusalem, the ground is being prepared for all those who will follow when he no longer dwells among us in the flesh. We understand what it is to follow in that Way, to pray and to continue to consider him our teacher. We ask for his lovingkindness, we wish to communicate with him. We come to understand his teachings and the depth of our relatedness to him and through him as we continue, hopefully, in the life of prayer and worship. It's important to "keep it simple" when we need to: even the name "Jesus" alone is a form of this prayer. To "remember God" - to take a moment and focus in the midst of all of our lives to say to ourselves a simple word or phrase reminding us of this relatedness, to ask for mercy or love, is all it takes. Remember that love is what we ask for, what we pray will deepen in us, "mercy" is the energy of that love.

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