Who prays to one who cannot answer prayer? The Jesus Prayer and a Brotherhood tradition.— A sermon for Proper 25
Proper 25b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Today’s Gospel from Mark presents us with a turning point in Jesus’ ministry as he heads from Galilee and makes his journey on to Jerusalem. This passage also includes Mark’s last record of Jesus performing a healing — for Mark chooses not to record that Jesus healed the man whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane.
There are many features to this short Gospel. Consider the fact that Jericho is mentioned twice at the opening of the passage but only to say that Jesus came and went; nothing is said about what happened in-between. This does give us the opportunity, by the repetition of that name, “Jericho,” to remember that “Jesus” in Hebrew is “Joshua” — and who can forget what happened when Joshua fit the battle of Jericho!
Then, in addition to this repeated reference to Jericho, there is the immediate repetition of the blind man’s name, because Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus.” Also note how the blind man cries out twice for Jesus to help him, before the crowd orders him to keep quiet, and again afterwards. I’m tempted to say, “Is there an echo in here; or rather three echoes?”
As soon as the echoes die down, we witness the eagerness with which the man throws off his cloak and springs up; and then Jesus asks what he wants him to do for him — which is another echo, for as Bill reminded us last week, this is the same question Jesus asked the disciples James and John in the immediately preceding passage.
Perhaps most importantly, Mark reports the speed and simplicity of the healing itself — unlike earlier healings involving physical actions and incantations in Aramaic; here the healing takes place with one word, “Go,” and the affirmation that the man’s faith has brought him healing.
All of these points are noteworthy and could be subjects, each of them, for a whole series of sermons; but today I want to focus on the third set of echoes at the beginning of the passage: the words the blind man shouted out when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It is notable how the economical evangelist Mark repeats this phrase twice, along with all of those other repetitions, those other echoes, both before and after the people tell the man to keep quiet. As I’ve said before, when the shortest of the gospels takes the time to say something twice, and does it three or four times in this short passage today, it is Mark’s way of drawing our attention to it. It is almost as if Mark is waving at us, and saying, “Pay attention! This is important!” So let us pay attention.
First, this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel when someone addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” and it serves as a reminder and a preparation for what is about to happen, for the passage that follows immediately is the Palm Sunday account of Jesus’ entry into David’s royal city, there to fulfill the destiny prepared for him from before the foundation of the world. The blind man — think of it for a moment — the blind man is the witness in Mark’s Gospel, that this is the Son of David; he is the only one in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus in this way. He is the one who has recognized that the Son of David has arrived, as long promised.
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But even that is not my focus for reflection this morning. Rather it is on the prayer of the blind man, “Have mercy on me!” This is, naturally, the prayer of any beggar seeking relief, with his hand outstretched,“Have mercy on me. But it is also the natural prayer of anyone at all seeking God’s mercy — seeking what only God can give. To some extent, great or small, rich or poor, all of us are petitioners reaching out to our generous God, asking for God’s mercy. And because we only ask for help from one whom we believe can give it, this petition is in itself the sign of faith; as it is a sign of the man’s faith that Jesus is the one who can heal him; it is a sign of his faith, the faith that Jesus assures him his faith has brought him healing. “Have mercy on me” is the prayer of a faithful heart, for who asks for something from one who cannot give?
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This particular phrase, “Jesus, have mercy on me,” formed the central part of a great prayer from the monastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church: a prayer known simply as “The Jesus Prayer” or “The Prayer of the Heart.” A Russian monk wrote of his experience with this prayer in a short memoir, The Way of a Pilgrim. In it he describes how he wanted to do as Jesus taught and, “to pray always,” or as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, “to pray in the Spirit at all times.” He wanted to fulfill these commandments and so he sought out a wise old monk who told him to pray in this way, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” To keep this prayer always in his mind with every breath he took, the old monk instructed him, with every breath he took, to breathe in as he said the first part in his mind, “Jesus, Son of God,” and then as he breathed out, the second part of the prayer, “have mercy on me, a sinner,” and to follow his breath in his mind’s eye, picturing his breath rising up through his nose, over the arch in back and then down into his heart, and then back up and out as he breathed out. I find it helpful to think of a pulley running up through my head and down into my chest, lowering my breath down into my heart, and then brining it back up again. This is the prayer that the man was taught and this is why the prayer is called “the prayer of the heart.” It is a profoundly meditative form of prayer, and you can see at once how it is based on the prayer of the blind man Bartimaeus, recognizing that Jesus is far more than the Son of David; he is the Son of God.
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But there is more to this prayer, and I want to share it with you this morning; and I think it is about time, as I’ve been part of this parish for thirteen years - it will be thirteen years next month. As you know, I’m part of a religious community called the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. It was founded in 1969 with the help of a very wise woman who was a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. She was the Mother Superior of the convent up in Riverdale, just northwest of here, and our Brother Founder met with her over several years to develop the Rule by which I and over forty other brothers now live. Some years later she visited us, the brothers, when we were on a retreat, and she introduced us to the way her community of sisters had been praying the Jesus Prayer in common — as a group — for many years, perhaps going back to the founding of their community by St Francis de Sales in 1615. I want to share it with you this morning.
It is sung — and I want you to join me in singing; remembering how Saint Augustine said, “Whoever sings prays twice.” The prayer alternates between the leader and the assembly, and all you need do is repeat after me — as you slowly breathe in as I am singing, and I will do the same as you sing out with the breath you have just inhaled. The words begin even more simply than those of the Eastern Orthodox version: just, “Jesus, Son of God, mercy” — and the prayer is repeated and grows with other petitions using the many titles by which our Lord is known, and the various prayers with which we appeal through the course of our lives; but at the heart of it is the prayer of the blind man, Bartimaeus. Let’s begin; you might find it helpful to close your eyes and raise your hands with your palms upward, reaching out as we all do to the mercy of God as we pray... Jesus, Son of God, mercy... +