The sermon for Advent Sunday is here – Google seems to be misdirecting searches.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Mark 10:51
The Kampuchea crisis in 1979 marked the beginning of my interest in world development. An advertisement on the back of New Statesman prompted me to send £5 from my student grant to assist the aid effort.
The world was, of course, very simple in the eyes of a teenager in the first year at the London School of Economics. There were the people who were right and the people who were wrong – and being right or wrong depended on whether or not I agreed with them; when you are nineteen, it is very hard to think you might be mistaken.
Solving problems was a simple matter of the right people going in and doing something. What could be more straightforward? Except the straightforward answer is not always the best answer.
There’s a story I heard in Tanzania in 1998 that needs to be told again and again and again because it’s a story that shows how easy it is to be very sincere, very generous, and very wrong.
We arrived in Dar Es Salaam and spent part of the first day at a seminar for development officers from Anglican dioceses. One of them led a Bible study in which we looked at how Jesus responded to problems. During that Bible study he told a story of how solving problems caused problems. It was a story of great sincerity and generosity on the part of good Christian people.
He spent much of his time in very rural villages. He would go and live in the community for a week at a time. There was one particularly problematic village he had been visiting for five years. He would sit and talk with them and asked them what it was that they needed. Finally they agreed, “a school”, they said, “we need a school”.
So they organized themselves. There was a good source of mud for making bricks nearby and a good source for timber. The first classroom was built.
At this point an American Christian aid agency came in and asked the people what they wanted. “A school”, they said, “we have only one classroom”.
So the agency with the best and most sincere intentions built them a very fine school. Five classrooms that were far superior to the classroom the people had built.
“Now what will happen?” said the development officer.
“When the classrooms begin to leak, they will say to the Americans, ‘your classrooms are leaking’. When there is a storm and the classrooms fall down, they will say to the Americans, ‘your school has fallen down.’ They have five new classrooms and five years of my work has been undone.”
The worst of results achieved with the best of intentions! The community ends up further back than where it began, or it becomes a dependant of the agency that constantly has to come back to try to keep things going.
Jesus does things differently. If people are to assume rights and responsibilities for themselves they must have the dignity and the power to do so; sometimes they need to be pushed into realizing they are grown ups able to decide and act for themselves. Bartimaeus has been a man who was powerless, a man without dignity; a man who sat at the roadside despised by passers by who would have seen his blindness as a curse from God.
Jesus could have just said the necessary words and cured the blindness, but Jesus knows the importance of human dignity, Jesus knows the importance of a sense that we are responsible for our own decisions. How can we fully respond to God unless we have a sense that we have the power and the independence to do so? How can we be grown up if we are not prepared to think and to do things for ourselves?
Watch what Jesus does in the story.
‘Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”’
Why does Jesus not just go to where Bartimaeus is sitting? Or if he does not wish to walk over to him, why does he not just say, ‘Tell him he’s healed’?
He gives Bartimaeus the opportunity to do something for himself and he challenges him to let go of his security. ‘Throwing his cloak aside’, Bartimaeus gets up, he acts in response to the call, but there is more to it than that. The cloak has been Bartimaeus’ shelter; it has been his home through all those many days at the roadside; it has been his protection against those who would have done him violence. Bartimaeus lets go of the very thing that was literally his comfort blanket and he goes to meet with Jesus. Bartimaeus is not compelled nor is he carried by anyone, he stands on his own two feet; Jesus meets him as an independent person with his own dignity.
Even then, Jesus does not impose a solution. He does not say, ‘I know what you need, I’m going to do it for you.’ He asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He allows Bartimaeus responsibility for that decision; it is probably the first time in his life that Bartimaeus has made a choice. Of course, the answer is obvious, but what is important is that it’s Bartimaeus’ answer, it’s him deciding for himself. “Rabbi, I want to see.”
Then look at the conclusion of the story, Jesus recognizes that Bartimaeus has been a partner in the process. Jesus doesn’t say, ’I have healed you’, he says to Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has healed you.”
It is through the partnership between them that Bartimaeus’ life is changed. Note the order of things: Jesus calls, Bartimaeus responds; Jesus asks, Bartimaeus responds. Then, when Bartimaeus has been treated as a person of dignity and independence, the change comes: ‘Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road’.
Jesus understood what was needed for human beings to grow, to become independent, to take responsibility for their own lives, to become the people they have the potential to be. It is a lesson that applies as much in our own society and economy as it does in distant corners of Africa.
“What do you want me to do for you?” and each person deserves the dignity to be able to answer.