‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ (Mark 10:48)
There is a book that changed my life for good and it is called The Way of a Pilgrim. Not to be confused with the English The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the book I am referring to comes from the Orthodox tradition and narrates the journey of an anonymous Russian pilgrim on a quest to understand what it means to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1Thess 5:17). On this journey the pilgrim is led by a spiritual guide (today we would say a spiritual director) to explore a type of prayer and discipline which finds its origin in the gospel – in fact, our reading from Mark contains a version of this prayer in the persistent request of blind Bartimaeus, ‘Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me’. In the book the pilgrim is encouraged by his spiritual director to recite these words a few times a day to begin with, eventually leading us to a few thousand times a day, until his very breaths and heartbeats become an echo of the prayer, until his entire self becomes a single petition to God saying, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’.
This type of prayer is often called the Jesus Prayer and it can assume several forms, each of different lengths; the longer of these is ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ and the shorter is perhaps simply ‘Jesus, mercy!’ The Jesus Prayer has two elements at its heart; an invocation of the most holy name of Jesus, and a petition for mercy, mirroring the way Bartimaeus asked insistently for mercy from the side of the road. So let us look at these two elements.
In our reading Bartimaeus does not say ‘Jesus, Lord’ or ‘Son of God’, but he says ‘Son of David’, and with these crucial words he acknowledges Jesus to be the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of Israel’s ancient prophecies, and the one who ushered the reign of God among his people. So there is an irony here, though Bartimaeus is blind he has more insight than most of Jesus followers; though he is wrongly relegated to the margins he seems to understand Jesus better than his disciples. In the first part of the Jesus Prayer we are invited to imitate Bartimaeus in his understanding of Jesus and to acknowledge Our Lord’s for who he really is – literally, our “Saviour”, and our God who comes to be with us.
Bartimaeus asks for mercy. Thought our reading says “pity”, a more correct translation is “mercy”. Mercy is a central characteristic of God, one of his primary attributes. God is described as merciful in many occasions in the Bible, and in the King James Version his enduring loving kindness towards his people is described as his mercy. So what is “mercy”? and why should we ask for it insistently as Bartimaeus did? In wider society giving to charity, shortening a prisoner’s sentence, and sparing someone for the death penalty can all be described as acts of mercy in one way or another. As a result of this, we often think of mercy as something done out of condescending pity towards someone inferior or undeserving; and because of this mercy can be the cause resentment in those who are touched by it or do not agree with it. However, God’s mercy, true mercy, is different; it is simply the effect of God’s goodness towards us; so if we are affected by his goodness in any way, it is through the working of his mercy – the mercy of having new life and salvation in Jesus, the mercy of having the Church community around us, the mercy of experiencing love in others… all these are small examples of God’s mercy towards us, but its ultimate aim is to restore us completely in a loving relationship with God, and because of this we should ask for mercy as insistently as we can.
I recommend to you the Jesus Prayer. There are prayer ropes you could use to keep your hand occupied as you repeat the words of blind Bartimaeus, but if you persevere in its practice, the prayer will eventually begin to well up in you even when you are doing other things. In the midst of a busy working day, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ As you see an accident by the side of the road, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on them!’ As you get stuck in a difficult argument ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!’ I recommend to you the Jesus Prayer and by repeating these simple words you’ll bring the mercy of God wherever you are.
‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’