Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Bartimaeus incident

A sermon for Pentecost 22

This is the second time in Mark that Jesus heals a blind man. Both healings come at pivotal points in the narrative. The first occurs at the midpoint of the gospel, just before the critical incident at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, and then reveals his messianic identity. So the first healing acts as a bridge between the two halves of the gospel. Mark is not a careless writer. He does everything for a reason. “Pay attention!” he is saying.

The first healing happened in Bethsaida. It’s a town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In John’s gospel we learn that Peter, Philip, and Andrew lived there. In Mark’s gospel, it’s the town to which the disciples set sail while Jesus went into the hills to pray. You may remember that a strong wind suddenly blew up and surprised them, that they strained at the oars, and that when Jesus appeared walking on water, they freaked out, and were rebuked for their fear and faithlessness. They never got to Bethsaida.

Eventually, however, they did get to Bethsaida, to witness that first healing of a blind man. But there was a hitch: Jesus’ first touch was only partially successful – the man mistook trees for people – so Jesus had to lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before his vision was fully restored. And then what happened next at Caesarea Philippi? How interesting: Peter answered Jesus’ question correctly – “You are the Messiah” – but he did not “see” clearly the meaning of Messiah, did not “see” the kind of Messiah that Jesus is, not an all-conquering hero but a nonviolent and vulnerable servant. Still, at least some progress had been made since the fiasco on the lake: the vision of the disciples was fuzzy, but they were not altogether sightless, not after Jesus instructed them about his coming suffering and death.

Which brings us to today’s text, the Bartimaeus incident, the second healing of a blind man – and the last healing miracle in the gospel. Not at Bethsaida – via Caesarea Philippi Jesus has moved on toward Jerusalem, and now he is at Jericho, a suburb fifteens miles from the capital. But this healing too happens at a pivotal point in the narrative: it’s the last event before the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. Again, Mark is saying, “Pay attention!” Indeed, pay particular attention: the blind man has a name, and Mark rarely tells us the names of the characters in his gospel. And the name Bartimaeus – in Hebrew it means “son of the unclean”.

Remember the story of the haemorrhaging woman (Mark 7:24ff.)? She too was “unclean”. Clean-unclean, pure-impure, righteous-sinner, us-them – the distinctions mean nothing to Jesus. He healed that woman. And he told her that her faith had made her well. Jesus also heals Bartimaeus. And guess what? He tells him too that his faith has made him well. Do you think that’s coincidental? And the “crowd” – in both stories there are crowds. And in both stories they are a hindrance, indeed a threat. The woman had to force her way through the crowd; the crowd heckles Bartimaeus and tells him to shut up. Crowds. Public opinion. Soon they’ll be waving palm branches and cheering Jesus into Jerusalem – and soon after that they’ll be baying for his blood. Crowds and public opinion: fickle and feckless, weathervanes, not compass needles. Never trust them. Vox populi, vox Dei? Not.

There is yet another story with a connection to the Bartimaeus incident. Remember the rich guy (Mark 10:17ff.)? We heard about him a fortnight ago. He encountered Jesus (the text says) “on the way” (10:17). Mark uses the exact same words here, but while the rich guy turned away, Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way” (10:52). And Bartimaeus is a poor man. The rich man could not part with his possessions, but Bartimaeus throws away his only means of making a living, his cloak – beggars spread out their cloaks, like buskers put out their hats, to receive a coin or a crust from passers-by. And “the way” – we’re not just talking the Jericho Road here: “the way” was the first name Christians used to describe their faith: they were people of “the way”, the way of Jesus, the Via Crucis. And some scholars suggest that the reason the name Bartimaeus was known to Mark is that he became a prominent member in the early church. Rich man–poor man: the first slipped to last, the last jumped the queue. So many connections. Coincidental? Yes, Mark is a clever writer. Mark was a genius.

There’s still more. Back to the disciples. Immediately before the Bartimaeus incident, John and James had approached Jesus, and Jesus had said, “What can I do for you?” When Bartimaeus approaches Jesus, Jesus replies with exactly the same words. But how different the requests! John and James, the so-called “men of thunder”, asked for the big seats next to Jesus in the kingdom of God. But Bartimaeus – Bartimaeus is sick of sitting and simply wants to see. From their request, it is quite clear that the thoughtless Thors didn’t see at all.

The promise of Caesarea Philippi, when the disciples had at least begun to see, albeit myopically – it had come to nothing. The disciples had reverted to thinking of the Messiah in terms of power and privilege, not meekness and servanthood. Jesus did not, could not, grant the request of James and John, but he grants Bartimaeus’ request. Indeed Bartimaeus sees even before he sees, sees deeply who Jesus is even before he sets eyes on the no doubt not-much-to-look-at Galilean who has just healed him. While still blind, he cries out, “Son of David!”, a messianic title, just as Peter had cried out, “You are the Christ!” But, of course, Peter didn’t see who Jesus is with any more insight than James and John, old Dumb and Dumber. And how interesting: unlike all the other people Jesus heals in Mark, Bartimaeus doesn’t go home, doesn’t return to his livelihood, no, he abandons it all and, yep, follows Jesus “on the way”, with Golgotha just around the corner.

Mark – what a great storyteller – simple, plain-speaking, but as skilful as they come, weaving together people, themes, and even phrases to make a pattern – and to make a point. And what is the point? Discipleship – that’s the point – what it means, what it entails. Discipleship means transformation, beginning with a radical perceptual shift. Everything Jesus says and does, his actions and his teaching – they are all an invitation to a different way of seeing – seeing Jesus – and in the light of Jesus seeing the world and your life – what are you going to make of it, what are you going to do with it? Jesus is not interested in inculcating a set of beliefs, or inducing warm feelings or emotional highs. Notwithstanding Bush’s terminological bathos, it is indeed a “vision thing”. It’s about seeing the world as broken, yes, full of stupidity and greed and violence and pain, but a world that God loves and cares for and graces with possibilities of intelligence, generosity, peace, and healing.

And then it’s about action – acting on what you see, by becoming an apprentice of Jesus and doing what he does, as part of a community of apprentices, mutually supportive and encouraging, dedicated to the disciplines of worship and witness that shape Christian character so that we may be a people of truth, mercy, and reconciliation, people who are free, joyful, and bold in the face of what is oppressive, depressing, and scary, regardless of popular opinion and what the world calls sensible, useful, or relevant.

So the Bartimaeus incident leaves us with several pressing questions. Are we willing to buck the crowd and critique the conventional? Are we willing to reach out to folk who don’t fit and welcome them into community? Are we willing to recognise that outsiders may actually have more insight about Jesus than insiders? Are we willing to throw off our cloaks, the things that protect us and behind which we hide, and fearlessly and faithfully follow the Lord wherever he leads? In short, are we willing to be disciples, which means “learners”? And are we willing to go on learning how to be Christian in ever new contexts in ever new ways?

Almost 30 years ago I bought a book. I revisit it so often that the pages are falling out. It’s called What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning. There is, the author suggests, a constellation of obstructions to learning: the need to be right, the fear of being wrong, the security of the known, the pain of un-learning, the work of re-thinking, the disturbance of dissonance, the ubiquity of distraction. A rebuke of a book, yet with an agenda for the church that is both challenging and promising. As a teacher – a Professor of Christian Education – the author had been working at it his entire career. He died in July. His name was John Hull. The thing is: John Hull was blind. But John Hull saw. How about that, Lord: the blind leading the blind out of a ditch rather than into one!

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