OS 30 Jeremiah 31: 7-9, Hebrews 7: 23-28, Mark 10: 46-52
A couple of weeks ago I spoke about begging in our city. Bartimaeus was one such beggar, sitting beside the road using his disability to evoke sympathy in order that he might get enough to survive.
Meeting a person begging on the side of the road can be quite confronting. Jolyon White, our Social Justice enabler, wrote about begging in Friday’s Press. He acknowledged the discomfort that we feel when confronted with someone on the street begging. He rightly observed the social complexity of begging. Jolyon said,” When I am confronted by someone begging, whether I give or not, I feel powerless, uncomfortable or guilty and that is relational.” I can certainly relate to that.
It’s not hard to see why people wanted to shut Bartimaeus up as Jesus came along. He was causing embarrassment. Jolyon observed that when he stopped and talked to people begging he stopped feeling uncomfortable and guilty. Such an approach offers the possibility of a two way relationship whether or not money is given. Marcel Mauss in his book, The Gift observes that a gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction. This insight, I think, explains why so much of our social policy and benefit system fails to address the problems in our society. There needs to be some kind of exchange of gifts. In the case of Bartimaeus he receives his sight, and then he chooses to follow Jesus on the way. This gospel story holds a deep truth about how the church can, if it dares, attend to the poor.
When I was in Rome on Study Leave last time I visited the Community of St Egidio and I was impressed by the work they do among the poor. They describe this as Friendship with the Poor. They say that there is no community no matter how small or weak that cannot help the poor. One of their key priorities is to foster the relationship between rich and poor. I know there are members of this congregation who are engaged in this kind of ministry. St Egidio identifies with those considered the least, considering them as brothers and sisters, with no exclusions and they welcome them to join the community if they wish. They realise, as we must, that those who beg share our common humanity.
In Christian spirituality begging has a broad provenance. In the liturgy we adopt a begging posture when we kneel and plead for forgiveness, and again when we hold out our hands for communion. We may not easily associate that with street begging, but begging it is, and may our pride not let us forget that. We might remember the well known phase defining Christian ministry as one beggar showing another beggar where some food might be found.
There are two kinds of begging. One is a business as usual begging that seeks to maintain an existing lifestyle. The other is begging for something truly is our heart’s desire: something that will be transformative. Bartimaeus was begging to survive, but when Jesus came along he knew there was much more to be had. Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” drew out his heart’s desire. He said, “My teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus knew that regaining his sight would transform his life and get him off the side of the road and on the way.
Reb Mendl studied at the house of learning. “He gathered knowledge with burning eagerness, but after a while a yearning for something more began to glow in him.” He was not satisfied with mere intellectual knowledge. He thought when he studied past masters he should be able to enter into their presence. In particular, when he poured over Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, he wanted to be able to experience him. He wept in anguish when he was not able to do this.
One night Alfasi appeared to him in a dream, saying only, “You are to go to Elimelekh.” Reb Mendl had never heard of this man, but he left immediately to search for him. After much wandering, “weary and in tatters, hungry and freezing,” he managed to reach Reb Elimelekh’s house. “The secretary refused to admit this person who looked like one of the beggars that had lately pestered the Rebbe.” But Reb Mendl forced his way in and found the Rebbe.
“Who sent you?” asked Elimelekh
“Alfasi did,” said Mendl
Reb Elimelekh stared at the stranger for a long moment, then said, “You can stay with me.”
Mendl was not satisfied with the traditional ways of the house of learning. He had a burning desire for the wholeness of life which transformed him into a beggar.
The kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up and came to Jesus.
When we know our heart’s desire, what we really need, what we will shamelessly beg for, what we will not be denied. When we know this, we have regained our sight.