We all have certain distinguishing identities, labels that make it easier for the world to make sense of who we are and how we fit into it. A mother. A student. A businessman. Our life takes on the trappings of these identities. A style of clothing, the things we carry, what we use to get from here to there. These items begin to shape us. They hold places for us. Our things hold us in our places.
Certain items become so synonymous with a particular identity that when we see someone who wears that specific hat and carries that specific bag and rides that specific vehicle, we barely need to think about who they are- our brain uses those social signals to place them into context almost automatically. In fact, it can become such a reflex to place the label that we forget to actually see the person. And I think we mostly prefer it that way. It makes us all less naked. More presentable. Proper. Our things tell others where we and where they belong so that we don’t have to. I heard someone say once that walking around with a clipboard could get them almost anywhere. It feels more comfortable to wander around with stuff in our hands by which people can define us than to walk around empty-handed. Walking around empty-handed might leave us to be defined by our need rather than defined by our stuff. And we all know which is the least desirable of those two options.
Scanning through the book of Mark recently, something caught my eye in a new way. Bartimaeus is a man who boldly pursued mercy from Jesus. We are told he is a blind beggar. His life is marked by the trappings of that identity. When Jesus comes by, He is sitting by the side of a busy road, cloak draped around himself.
It was the cloak that stood out to me. Skimming through the gospels, I had just recently read Jesus’ instructions to the disciples he sends out. He tells them not to take two cloaks. The commentary in my Bible suggests that this may be because an outer cloak would have been a covering that a traveler took to shelter himself from the elements. Jesus’ admonition to leave this behind was perhaps an insinuation that He would provide shelter to them as necessary as they traveled.
When I thought of Bartimaeus cloak, I thought of all that it would have meant to a blind beggar in that particular social context.
Like a second skin he’d hold it tightly to himself to stay dry or warm. Use it for shelter or shade. A barrier upon which to sit on the dusty, rocky ground. A place where passersby might throw their coins. And more than something that covered him physically, I imagine that cloak sometimes covered him emotionally, serving as a shield under which he could find anonymity from those seeking to shame or pity (Then, blindness would have been understood as an external sign of sin). Or maybe some days his cloak was like an old t-shirt that one can’t quite bring oneself to throw out, a source of comfort and familiarity. An adult version of a safety blanket.
As people walked down that road, the shape of a cloak draped around the hunch of a man seated on the side probably signaled them to reach into their pockets and purses for change. He was known by that cloak and so were his needs.
I wonder what purpose that cloak was serving that day that Jesus passed Bartimaeus? We are told the first words that flew from his heart when he heard He was approaching were (in Mark 10:46-52), “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 “Be quiet!” many of the people yelled at him.
But he only shouted louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 When Jesus heard him, he stopped and said, “Tell him to come here.”
At Jesus’ invitation, Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak, jumped up, and came.
Not only is he enthusiastic to drop that cloak, he almost aggressively sheds the only thing that he carries. Here’s this object that’s served as a source of shelter, a marker of his identity, something in which he found comfort or covering for his shame, and he literally leaves it in the dust when Jesus invites him to come.
The invitation from Jesus was a simple one, containing no promises. Jesus didn’t say, “Come and I will give you sight.” But somehow Bartimaeus knew he could trust Jesus and his invitation. He believed that whatever Jesus had in store for him must be good. His instantaneous abandonment of that which he had clung to was an act of faith. So there he stands before Jesus and sure enough:
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked.
“My rabbi,” the blind man said, “I want to see!”
That beggar and I are so different. He’s free in many ways I’m most trapped. I’m not sure I would have so boldly called out the first time, willing to be defined in that crowd by my need. And what about that second time? That even louder shout for mercy? And then coming to Jesus totally empty-handed?
I’ve been the type that hears “Be quiet” from the crowd and it echoes the self-shushing from my own shame and doubts. I’ve been the type that, when I finally do dare to come, has that cloak balled up tightly in my fists, clutched against my chest between me and Jesus, just in case.
I’ve been the type who might not dare ask for the true desire of my heart because what if? What if I’m not good enough? What if He’s not? What if I’m not lovable enough? What if He doesn’t?
And I’ve been the type that, even if He did, would keep that old, grimy cloak tucked away in a closet somewhere, “just in case.” You never know, I might have to go back to my old place on the side of the road if this doesn’t go just the way I hope it will. I’ve been the type that trusts in the healing to be the way I’m delivered, but doesn’t trust in Jesus if healing isn’t His way of delivering me.
Other words for “cloak” include mantle, habit, shroud. I have them too. A mantle of shame. Old habits I cling to because I trust my way more than Jesus’ way. The shroud with which I cover things in my life I have given up for dead rather than risk disappointed hope. I don’t throw my old garments away because in this place and in this time where I live it seems more proper to have a never-ending supply of cloaks. It feels more comfortable to come wrapped neatly and covered completely than to arrive just me, empty-handed. But this beggar, he doesn’t give any of that a thought. He hears who is coming down the road and he knows Who is better than anything else to which he could cling. Bartimaeus does what we all should do: He throws his cloak far from him and goes to Jesus.
52 And Jesus said to him, “Go, for your faith has healed you.” Instantly the man could see,
But verse 52 doesn’t stop there and neither does Bartimaeus. He just keeps on walking with Jesus. Just like all the other disciples, without a second cloak and without a second thought, we’re told
he followed Jesus down the road.
Dear reader, I’m asking myself and I’m asking you today: Where’s your cloak?