Sermon on Mark 10:46-52 for Pentecost +22, Year B, October 25, 2015
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
I was listening to the Radiolab podcast this past week, and heard a story about a man named John Horgan. John has been doing a survey for years, asking people one question:
“Will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?”
What would you say? The Radiolab hosts observed that that question gets to something really basic about us as people. It really asks, “Do we feel we can change who we are?”
John reports that 80 — 90% , of people say “no.” Most people believe we cannot change; that we are hard-wired for war, because of our greed, our selfishness, our aggression, and our belligerence, and we will never change.
A Personal Change Story
Well, we just read a New Testament Gospel story about a man who changed. He was blind, and after his encounter with Jesus, he changed: he could see.
So if this is a story about changing, one of the questions we have to ask at the start is, “Is this a believable story?” Is there such a thing as personal transformation? Do you feel that it is possible for you? Would it take a miracle?
Now before we go further, let us ask if we are to take this miracle story literally or not? Does it reflect a memory of the historical Jesus, or is it meant metaphorically? Marcus Borg suggests that it may well contain a memory of Jesus, who, after all, was a healer; and there are reports of blind people being healed. You are free to read it literally if you wish.
But Borg suggests, and I fully agree, that the way Mark tells us this story, from its structure to its details, he is writing metaphorically. The many conscious echoes of the Isaiah text we read are one example (Isaiah 35:1-10). Source: Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 56).
Blindness is one of the most common metaphors I can think of. Certainly Jesus used it. Remember when he called the Pharisees “blind guides” (four times in Matt 23)? Blindness means you just cannot see what is right in front of you, staring you in the face.
So I think Mark wants us to ask ourselves the question: what am I blind to? What am I not seeing, or not willing to see? And then, what can be done about it? Can I change? What will happen if I start seeing things I did not use to see?
Following the Jesus Path
So let us look at this story together. It opens with Jesus and his followers on a journey. Mark is telling this story to teach about what it means to follow Jesus, or the Jesus-path. So, they are making their way down from Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem.
They come to Jericho. Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, comes to the first city that Joshua and the Israelites conquered by force, as they took possession of the promised land. Jesus is living in a revolutionary time in which many people want a new Joshua to lead them into battle against the occupying Roman army, to take back their promised land from the pagans.
In a text from just before the time of Jesus, called the Psalms of Solomon, (not written by David’s son, Solomon, but by someone writing in his name – a pseudepigrapha) we read a prayer for God to send the Israelites “their king, the son of David” who later is also called Messiah. They want a military leader, to purge Jerusalem from the unclean Gentiles (Pss. Sol. 17:21 in Joel Marcus Mark 8-16, Anchor Yale Bible, p 1119).
Here, the blind man Bartimaeus yells out to Jesus, calling him the Son of David. Jesus calls Bartimaeus, to come, which he does, then asks him,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
It is the exact same question Jesus had recently asked James and John. They had wanted to sit to the left and right of Jesus’ throne when, as the new Joshua, he conquered the Romans. Bartimaeus merely wants his sight back. Quite a contrast.
The Dishonorable “Son of Honor”
We should notice that people in miracle stories are rarely named. In Mark, Jairus was named. His name means “he will see.” Bartimaeus means, Mark tells us, son of Timaeus. Timaeus, Mark expects his Greek speaking readers to know, means “honor” (from timaō) so this dishonorable blind bigger is ironically named, the son of honor.
Jesus does what no one in the crowd expected him to do; he honors him with special attention. Jesus characteristically reaches out to the dishonorable, the marginalized, the poor, the hurting, the suffering.
Reaching out to the suffering is exactly what it means to be on the Jesus path. On this path, people encounter Jesus. And when we do, our eyes are opened to the reality of suffering all around us. And our eyes are open to the ways in which we can help bring healing. This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God.
But it takes a miracle; the transforming, healing, encounter with Jesus, who calls us, just as he called Bartimaeus. When we respond to that call, our eyes are opened in a brand new way. We see suffering, and we do what Bartimaeus did, leave the old life behind and come and follow the Jesus path to Jerusalem.
What is ahead for Jesus, for Bartimaeus, and for all the others who follow the Jesus path? In Jerusalem, they will confront the power structures at the temple who are defining blind people as dishonorable and unclean. And in the process, there will be suffering. But Jerusalem is the place of both death and resurrection. It is where new life can come, after the trusting acceptance, that suffering is part of life.
Peter Rollins recounts an old Buddhist parable that illustrates this perfectly. It is about a young woman who gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. But after a few weeks, the child dies. The woman is distraught. She wraps the child’s body in a linen cloth, and then wraps that body to her own. She goes in search of someone who can resuscitate the child. No one can; not the faith healers, nor the witch doctors, she talks to the tribal elders, but nobody can help. Finally one of the elders says, “It is rumored that high in the mountains, away from everyone, is a holy man, who is so close to the divine, he can even raise the dead. Perhaps, this is a myth, or maybe he is long-since dead, but there is no one here who can help you.”
So, she packs some provisions and goes up the mountain in search of the holy man. She eventually comes across a hut in the middle of nowhere, beside a crystal clear lake. She knocks on the door. After a few minutes, an old man comes to the door, and she begins to weep. She says, “I don’t know if you are the one they talk about, and I don’t know if you can help, but my child is dead, and I must have her back.”
The old man takes pity on her. He says, “I am the one you are looking for, and I can help, but I need to concoct a potion, and the potion requires ingredients. And one of those ingredients is a handful of mustard seeds taken from the home that has not been touched by the black sun of suffering that has scorched your life.” He tells her to go down into the village, find the mustard seeds, and then return.
So she goes down to the village. She goes house to house, but she cannot find one family that has not been touched by suffering, death, and loss. Yet, as she listens to the stories of other people’s suffering, and shares with them her own story, she gradually comes to terms with the loss of her child, and is able to bury her.
Being the Community on the Path
We are a community of the people on the Jesus-path. The way of life on this path is the opposite of a triumphalist, conquering of enemies, Joshua-style. Rather, our eyes have been opened to suffering in a transforming manner by Jesus. Jesus showed us the path that leads to Jerusalem, to resurrection, to transformation. It is the path that, instead of heading away from suffering, actually notices it, and even accepts it, as Jesus did his own.
We are a community which makes space to tell our stories to each other, and to hear each others’ struggles, failures, griefs and losses, and to tell of our own. And with eyes wide open to suffering, in the hearing and the telling, we are healed.
Having the Courage to See
But this is not a club. With open eyes, we look around, as Jesus did, and notice where suffering is happening. We notice the dishonorable who are being shut-up and shut-out. We see children who need help with school work, some of whom come from families that know great suffering. We see, with compassion, the refugees reaching Europe and we extend a hand to help.
Our eyes are open to the real suffering of people without adequate jobs, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, people suffering from depression or addiction, and we respond in every way we can. We pray, and we act. As Pope Francis has said,
“We pray for the hungry, and then we feed them, because that is how prayer works.”
Can people change? Can the blind see? Yes, we must insist that transformation is possible. Answering the call to follow Jesus, walking his path, as Bartimaeus did, is transformative. It opens our eyes. It fill us with compassionate vision. And we experience healing for our own suffering, and become healers of others, with the courage to see.