While few men have written more or had more written about them than Martin Luther; there is surprisingly little written about the last days of his life. One of the only noteworthy items from his last days comes from a scrap of paper his friends found in his coat pocket. In this note Luther had written two short phrases, the first in Latin, the second in German: “Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Bettler.” “This is true. We are all beggars.”  What had this man – whom God had chosen as his special instrument to reform the Church; this German monk – through whom God had brought the mighty church of Rome to its knees; this pastor – to whom God had granted extraordinary gifts to translate, interpret, communicate and rightly divide the Word of truth – what had he concluded after a lifetime full of accomplishment? That he – and we all – are nothing more than beggars before a holy and gracious God; who can do nothing but cry to Jesus, who must do nothing but receive his gifts, who joyfully follow him.
It was just days before Holy Week; just days before Jesus would march into Jerusalem to shouts of “hosanna” and march out to cries of “crucify him!” Mark picks up his account as Jesus was passing through Jericho – a city about 15 miles from Jerusalem. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. Partially due to poor hygiene and unsanitary conditions, partly due to a superstitious rejection of sound medical advice , blindness was a terribly common thing in Jesus’ day. Blindness is a horrible affliction in any age, but it was especially so in 1st century Israel. There were no guide dogs, no talking traffic lights, no braille, no specialized schools or homes or services. Because no one would hire them for work – they were almost inevitably left to beg for their daily bread. To add insult to injury, the blind also lived under the social stigma that their blindness was God’s punishment for some sin that either they or their ancestors had committed. (John 9:1-2) These were the conditions under which Bartimaeus lived. He may have been blind, but he was under no illusion: he knew he was completely dependent on the mercy of others for his very existence.
But as blind as Bartimaeus was, there was one thing that, by God’s grace, he could see more clearly than many who had 20/20 vision. He was unable to work, unable to get to the temple by himself to present any sacrifices – but his ears worked just fine and he used them. And what he had heard was people talking about a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had traveled throughout Israel preaching a message of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness for sinners (a message that the Jewish teachers had all but lost) and performing miracles of healing that had never been seen before. And while many people saw nothing more than a man, the son of Joseph and Mary – Bartimaeus saw the promised Messiah, the Son God had promised to King David 1000 years earlier, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth and rescue his people from the misery of sin. (2 Samuel 7:11-16) Because Bartimaeus believed that this was the one man in the universe who could help him, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
One can learn a lot from a blind beggar. First, while our world is convinced that seeing is believing, Bartimaeus turns this on its head: believing is seeing! Just think – at least some of those in that crowd in Jericho probably saw Jesus’ miracles with their own eyes – and we know for certain that many of the Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus did – but they still did not believe that he was the Son of God, the promised Savior. Faith does not come from seeing, faith comes from hearing the message (Romans 10:17) – still today. In the absolution, I cannot show you your rap sheet that has been cleansed of all sin by Jesus’ precious blood– you can only hear and trust Jesus’ promise in John 20: if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23) In Baptism, to our eyes nothing more dramatic happens than someone gets wet. But Peter declares that the impossible happens in that washing: baptism now saves you. (1 Peter 3:21) The bread and wine you will receive look like normal bread and wine but don’t believe your eyes, believe Jesus’ words: this is my body…this is my blood…which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26, 28) Many are waiting and demanding to see proof before they believe in Jesus, and they will be waiting all the way until Judgment Day – and the only thing they will see is Jesus’ wrath at their unbelief. Let us learn from Bartimaeus: hearing is believing and believing is seeing.
Second, whether we care to admit it or not, we are all like Bartimaeus, we are all beggars before God. As we have been studying in Bible class, Scripture is crystal clear in teaching that we are all completely helpless to save ourselves. (Romans 3:28; Galatians 3:10) We are conceived and born without true fear or faith in God; dead in sin, blind to the Gospel, enemies of God. Left to ourselves we cannot even obey the least of God’s commands, much less obey all of them to the perfect standard God demands. We are miserable beggars before God who can do nothing but cry for mercy. Which is why it’s no coincidence that one of the first things we do each week is sing or say the words of the Kyrie: “Lord have mercy.”  These words not only remind us that we are beggars; they remind us who is serving who in the “worship service” – we don’t come here to serve, but to be served by Jesus!
Bartimaeus believed he needed Jesus to serve him, and so he ignored the crowd’s attempts to silence him and shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” You would think Jesus would have better things to do, people to see, preparations to make as he walked the lonely road to the cross than be bothered with a miserable, blind beggar, wouldn’t you? In times of suffering and times of weakness we often think that Jesus has better things to do than concern himself with us and our problems. We might think that we shouldn’t bother him – that he must be too busy taking care of the great, big, important problems and people in the world. And we would be wrong. There is no problem too big and no believer too small for Jesus – because he came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10) Jesus came to hear and help beggars – beggars like Bartimaeus…beggars like you and me.
Bartimaeus didn’t waste any time. Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. That cloak was quite possibly Bartimaeus’ only earthly possession. It was the roof over his head and the mattress under his back, it was his shade tree and his pantry. And yet, at Jesus’ invitation, he threw it all aside to run to Jesus who he believed could give him everything he needed and more. He would let nothing keep him from Jesus. Is there anything hindering you? We, too, have a standing invitation from Jesus: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:30) Is pride getting in the way? “I can handle this myself.” Is it embarrassment? “I shouldn’t have to beg for help.” Is an unhealthy trust in worldly distractions or remedies keeping you from Jesus? Is it doubt or unbelief? “Jesus couldn’t possibly help me in this situation.” Or maybe, is it guilt or shame? “Jesus knows what I’ve said, done, thought, why in the world would he help a miserable sinner like me?” Whatever it is, remember this: coming to Jesus for help is not about you, your worthiness or unworthiness; it’s all about him – his mercy, his power, his promises, his love. Remember: we are all beggars with nothing to offer, and everything to ask – and Jesus welcomes beggars.
Here’s the proof: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Think about the guts it took to make that request. Bartimaeus wasn’t asking for a ride, for beer money, for food – he was asking for an impossible miracle. But he was convinced that this was God’s Son standing before him – the Son of David God had promised who would come specifically to open eyes that are blind and…release…those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:7) Jesus’ answered Bartimaeus’ bold and impossible request. “Go…your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight. Jesus gave Bartimaeus an impossible gift: his sight.
Why? A more literal translation would be: “your faith has saved you.” Now understand, Jesus is not saying – like “faith-healers” today – that Bartimaeus’ great faith is what caused his healing. If that were true, why didn’t Bartimaeus simply “believe” himself healed sooner, why did he wait for Jesus to walk down the road? (“Faith healing” is a dangerous false teaching that turns faith into a work and grace into something we earn from God!) No, Bartimaeus’ faith healed/saved him because it led him to the only one who could heal him. Bartimaeus’ faith was nothing more (and nothing less) than a beggar’s open hand (organon leptikon – “receiving organ”) that would receive the gift Jesus would graciously give. Bartimaeus’ faith only saved him because, to put it bluntly: he begged the right person. Saving, healing, justifying faith doesn’t “do” anything; saving faith simply receives what Jesus freely gives.
And Bartimaeus’ faith didn’t stop there, he followed Jesus along the road. It’s still just days before Holy Week. Jesus’ road is still leading to Jerusalem, to the hornet’s nest of Jesus’ enemies who wanted him dead – which Bartimaeus was certainly aware of. Jesus’ road led directly to the cross. It led to suffering and pain and persecution – not only for Jesus but for all who were bold enough to follow him and confess his name. But Bartimaeus did it – because even though he would no longer have to beg for his daily bread – he still needed Jesus to suffer and die for his sins; he was still a spiritual beggar, he still needed what only Jesus could give him.
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that so many people forget. Many people in every age behave like nine of the ten lepers in Luke 17 who, once they get what they want from Jesus, walk away from him and go their own way. Let us never forget that after we have come to Jesus in our time of need, after he has answered our cry for mercy, after he has assured us that our sins are forgiven and heaven is ours – that we are still, and will always be beggars. We never graduate beyond begging Jesus to provide everything from clothing and food to forgiveness and salvation. From the day we were brought to the font as helpless infants to the day we breathe our last – we remain beggars who must rely fully on Jesus’ mercy. The good news is that Jesus’ invitation to receive his gifts still stands! Even though we won’t see him walking by on the street, he does promise to meet us right here, where his Word is proclaimed and his Sacrament is distributed. This is why we come to church: this is where beggars like us come to receive the gifts Jesus freely gives – and receiving those gifts gratefully and faithfully is how we joyfully follow Jesus.
Luther was right. “We are all beggars.” Beggars who can do nothing but cry for mercy; must do nothing but receive what he wants to give; and beggars who joyfully want to follow Jesus to eternal life. Thank God that Jesus has time and mercy in abundance for beggars like us. Amen.
 Kittleson, James A. Luther The Reformer Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1986. (296-297) – LW 54:474
 “Mothers, in fact, allow [flies] to cling in half-dozens round the eyes of their babies, to ward off the ‘evil eye’…” (Wenzel, 556)
 CW p. 15