I’m told that there are preachers in the world who can speak without putting the readings in context. I am not that preacher. This is my third sermon in a row on texts from Mark 10, and I’m aware of how profoundly this gospel reading exists within its context in Mark.
I recognize the risk of boring people to death, and yet I find that we need to look both backwards and forwards in Mark form this text in order to make any sense of it. #sorrynotsorry Two weeks ago we dealt with the story of the rich man who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. He was invited by Jesus to sell all he had and follow Jesus, but he went away sorrowful because “he had many possessions.” Jesus then taught his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”
Last week, we heard about the disciples James and John who asked a favor of Jesus. Jesus responded, “What would you have me do?” The disciples were looking for security and power, Jesus corrected them by teaching that he wasn’t offering security, nor power. Instead, he was offering a radical way off life where the first become last, the last become first, and those who are leaders are servants first.
As soon as today’s reading is over, the Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem begins.
Crowded in the midst of these teachings and misunderstandings, we have this obscure little healing narrative. It is all happening on the way to Jerusalem, which in Mark is the way to death on the cross. It would be easy to overlook this healing narrative, especially since Jesus just healed another blind man in Mark 8, and that was a far more interesting story. It is the one where Jesus’ healing takes two tries. But here it is, our text for the week, and the more I looked at it context, the more brilliant it started to appear.
The rich man couldn’t bear to sell all he had, yet in this story an impoverished beggar throws off his cloak in order to get up faster to get to Jesus. The cloak was not only his only possession, it was likely his home. His cloak was what kept him warm enough to stay alive at night, and it was also a tool. Beggars spread out their cloaks to receive alms. 1 Yet, in his haste to get to Jesus, he discards it. The rich man couldn’t let go when he was asked to, but the poor man throws away everything he has in one single motion simply to meet Jesus.
The disciples James and John had approached Jesus to gain a favor, and tried to trick him by opening with “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus had responded, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Here, Jesus begins the interaction with the blind man who had been begging with almost the same words. “What do you want me to do for you?” While the established disciples had been seeking status, despite Jesus’ teaching; Bartimaeus requests healing. He says he wants to see again. Jesus isn’t about status, but he is about wholeness.
We sometimes miss the nuances in the healing stories in the Bible because our worldview and the worldview of the ancients are so different, including the fact that they didn’t have germ theory yet. Bruce Malina in the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels says, “Anthropologists carefully distinguish between disease (a biomedical malfunction afflicting and organism) and illness (a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost). Illness is not so much a biomedical matter as it is a social one.” 2 Ancient healers, including Jesus, were working on ILLNESS. Malina says, “the healing process is considered directly related to a person’s solidarity with and loyalty to the overall belief system of the culture in general.” 3
So ancient healing was, in effect, a healing of both the individual and the community. The individual who was ill was separated from the community by the illness, and thus the illness impacted the community as well, since they were separated as well. A community is only whole when all of its members are present and connected.
Bartimaeus’s blindness would not be a considered a disease today, nor a reason for him to be outside of community, but I think it was then. This is where the gospel gets a bit confusing. The gospel says that Bartimaeus regained his sight when Jesus spoke. In the act of healing him, Jesus says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” This indicates that the healing of sight was seen as the healing of illness. It also fits with the other healing stories in Mark. The people are to “go,” to leave the live of illness behind and re-enter society. Sometimes they’re even told to go to the priests to be assured of their healing. However, Bartimaeus does not “go.” He does not return to his community. This healing is, sort of, cut off then. It isn’t complete. Instead of returning to the community, Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way.
In essence, this healing story is ALSO the LAST story of Jesus calling his disciples. After this, the story starts to move towards his death. This is a transition point, in function it is the end of his active ministry. Everything changes with the entrance into Jerusalem, and that begins with the verse that follows this story.
The first disciples were called away from their fishing boats. Even at this late point, they’re still very confused about what’s going on. This final disciple though, isn’t told to follow at all. He’s told to “go” not to “come” and he follows anyway. We give the first disciples a lot of credit for following Jesus when he said “come” – do we give enough for the one who followed when he was told “go”?
As a whole, this story is a fantastic example of Mark’s earlier point about “the first being last and the last being first.” The first disciples are still struggling to understand, the last disciple is the one yelling “Jesus, son of David” – and he is the FIRST person in Mark to make that claim about Jesus. To call Jesus son of David was to claim him as Messiah.
I struggle though, to make sense of the healing that didn’t restore community. Maybe I’m not supposed to worry about it because it restored the kindom community around Jesus instead of the community of Jericho? I’m not sure.
I’m also worried about the rest of the beggars in Jericho. You see, as Ched Myers says in Binding the Strong Man, “Jericho was the last stop en route to the city of David; the road out of town, representing the final, fifteen-mile leg of the pilgrim’s journey, would have been the standard beat for much of that city’s beggar population. The odds were good that the pilgrims would have the mood and means to give alms.”4 Which is to say that Bartimaeus was likely not was the only beggar on the route – nor even in the vicinity when this healing was happening. The setting means there were a lot of beggars, and Bartimaeus was just one of them.
Why was he chosen? Why did Jesus call for him? Was Bartimaeus the only one crying out? Was he the only one crying out “Jesus, son of David”? If so, was this the first time he’d used a line like that, or did he try some variation of it every day? If it was the first time, what had he heard about Jesus leading him to believe he was the “son of David?” Or, was he the one who needed it the most? Was he the one the crowd spent the most energy silencing (and if so, why)? Was he the squeaking wheel – and that got Jesus’ attention? Or was everyone crying out too?
It is hard for me to hear a story of Jesus picking one suffering person out of a crowd and healing only that one. While it is an unexpected grace for that one person, if Jesus could heal, why did he stop with one?
My struggles with the Bartimaeus story also extend to the Job narrative. Our reading today is well into the book of Job, so I’m going to do a quick plot summary to catch us all up. Job was a wealthy man with a great life, and then it all came crashing down – his herd died, his tents collapsed, his children died, and he got sick all at once. He felt like this was a punishment from God, and an unjust one, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. His friends tried to tell him to repent, and he refused because he hadn’t done anything wrong. He asked God to explain God’s self. 38 chapters into this drama, in the passage we read this morning, God finally does.
It isn’t the answer Job was looking for – Job wanted to ask questions of God and make God answer them! Instead Job got questioned by God. Experientially, that sounds like God. The answer responds to the person’s need, but not their wants! God’s response could be heard as “who are you, and what do you think you know?” It could be heard in other ways too, “there is a whole creation here, it isn’t all about you”, or “things are more complicated than you can see” or “there is a lot of wonder, even in the midst of the horrors.” God’s answer is complicated, and I think our own moods impact what we hear it in.
But, I think the key piece of the story is that God ANSWERS. Job isn’t left to his suffering alone, and God cares. Yet, I have known people whose life experiences feel like Job. They’re at rock bottom and they’ve lost everything, and most of them don’t have an experience of noticing that God is listening or responding when they are at the bottom. Thanks be, some do! But most don’t.
Sure, Job is a story expressing a lot of theological questions. But it is also a narrative telling us that God cares, and God responds. Yet, people don’t always sense that in their own lives. It can feel like the problem of Bartimaeus, YAY for his healing, what about everyone else. YAY for Job’s answer, where is mine?
Or maybe I’m unfair. When, bad things happen to people and I don’t think those are punishments from God. I think they are things that happened, and God is with us to help us through it. So, then, why am I worried about GOOD things happening to people? Yes, some people get healed, and others don’t! There are reasons to be grateful for healings, and for spiritual insights, and for experiences of the Divine.
Maybe, it needs to be said that things aren’t always fair, including the distribution of blessings. I would like them to be fair! But I can hear God suggesting I gird up my loins and get over it. Sometimes blessings come and the last become first. But only sometimes. In any case, in this story, Jesus is still heading to Jerusalem, Bartimaeus follows Jesus to Jerusalem, Job’s life goes on. Our faith doesn’t let us be dependent on miracles, they may or may not come. But they are not indications of God’s love. God’s love is there all the time, equally distributed, fair, accessible, transformational. We can depend on God’s love, and let God’s blessings be bonuses. I think that’s all we can do. May God help us. Amen
1 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998 and 2008) page 282.
2 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p. 368.
3 Malina, 369.
4 Myers, 281.
Preached October 28, 2018 by Rev. Sara E. Baron