Proper 25, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
The Gospel according to Mark is the oldest of the four canonical Gospels. The oldest written fragments we have date to around 150 to 175 CE. Mark is also the shortest of the Gospels, and modern scholarship now dates its origin to roughly 65 CE. The reason it’s so short and the reason why we think now that it’s the oldest is that it would have been an oral tradition. This Gospel would not have started out written down on scrolls, but passed from one elder to the next, used to regale people sitting around the fires at night, or gathered in the catacombs where the earliest Christians hid. In fact there are people today who have begun memorizing the entire Gospel and reciting it as story tellers of old would have, and it takes only about an hour and a half to recite Mark. The reason this is so important is that there are so many themes, arcs, and clearly defined sections in the life and ministry of Jesus that offer us reflections on our own lives. But often when we experience scripture portioned out through devices like the Revised Common Lectionary, we lose the ability to appreciate the broader brush.
Today’s reading is actually meant to be an endcap to a particular section of Mark. The healing of Bartimaeus is the last public healing in the ministry of Jesus. From here he will triumphantly enter Jerusalem, and the events that unfold next will lead to Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. This healing of a blind man is the closing of an entire narrative of blindness. It all begins back in the 8th chapter of Mark, verses twenty two to twenty six, where Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida. That’s the one where the first healing doesn’t quite seem to take, and he says the people look like trees, so Jesus gives him a second dose and all is well. Oddly, these verses were skipped over in our journey through Mark during this Season after Pentecost, and honestly I haven’t the slightest idea why. What follows after the healing at Bethsaida are several conversations with the disciples, public acts of ministry, the Transfiguration, and more conversations with the disciples. In all of this, Jesus several times talks with the disciples about what is going to happen. He tells them time and time again how things will end in Jerusalem; he teaches them over and over that you have to be ready to let go of everything in this life, to let go of possessions, wealth, status, and power to follow. Just as Jesus will. Jesus is teaching them that the messiah is not what so many want to imagine…a warlord who comes to rule over the Kingdom of Israel. God is incarnate in the powerless, beaten, victim of Empire. That is the way of Jesus.
And how do the disciples react? They squabble about who gets the seat of honor on the right and left, they try to build a dwelling place for the transfigured Jesus to spend time with Elijah and Moses, Peter actually rebukes Jesus for laying out the events that will take place in Jerusalem. They are, in essence, blind to the truth of the Messiah, to the truth of what the way of Jesus will mean in the time ahead. Between the healings of two blind men are multiple encounters of the disciples blind to the truth Jesus lays before them. It is no accident or small thing that Bartimaeus, the blind beggar along the side of the road knows who Jesus is, has faith in his ability, and calls out to him. It is also no minor matter of story writing that after Jesus has called Bartimaeus over through the crowd that had tried to silence him, Jesus asks him the same question he asked the Sons of Zebedee. “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus says, “Rabbi, Teacher, I want to see.” He doesn’t say please cure my blindness, he asks for sight. After Jesus heals him, he isn’t sent away like so many others Jesus has healed. Jesus doesn’t tell him to go home and tell no one. Bartimaeus is given sight and joins the followers of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. There isn’t a lot of time left in this story of Jesus, as they walk the road to Jerusalem, but now near the end, Jesus allows this man who can truly see to join the followers.
I think there is a stark difference we need to hear in the two answers Jesus has given after asking his petitioners, “What do you want me to do for you?” To the Sons of Zebedee he questions their resolve, knowing that what they are asking for is far more terrible than they understand. Bartimaeus, already sees in a metaphorical sense who Jesus is, and his faith is the vehicle, as Jesus says, through which he is healed.
It offers us much to ponder in terms of what we ask of God, what we desire, and then where we come to kneel on Sundays. Do we foster a faith like that of Bartimaeus, or do we hope and expect for the social recognition of the Sons of Zebedee? But just like last week, when Jesus warns the brothers that what they ask for may be more than they can handle, do we really think we are prepared to see fully when we ask Jesus for sight? When faced with the truths of our faith and tradition, can we actually see it for what it is, or do we turn away to that which is more comfortable and convenient. Jesus tells the rich man to give away everything he owns. The rich man truly sees the depth and importance of this command and leaves grieving for he knows the road ahead is difficult, perhaps even impossible. We live in a world that fails en masse at those basic commands Jesus gives us, the summary of the law, and yet do we stand up and speak out, or do we huddle with the blind masses? Do we unwaveringly live for the Kingdom of God or do we draw nearer the comfort of anonymity and deny Jesus as Peter did?
God loves us, and like any good parent will continue to love us no matter what we do. This is never about our salvation, but about our integrity as followers of Jesus Christ. This last week has seen incredible highs and incredible lows. The martyr Matthew Shephard was finally laid to rest in the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, twenty years after his brutal murder. It was a moment for the Church to put our values center stage for this country to see. And yet, this week has seen terrible lows, attempted bombings and two prominent racially motivated attacks, the last being the slaying of eleven beloved children of God at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday as they prayed. To truly see as Jesus would, the suffering, the evil, the pain, and the joy that this world is capable of is no easy thing to ask for. To place before us the lens of the Kingdom of God and to respond to our world might seem like more than we can endure. But yet, we must be up to the task. We have asked to see, and we have claimed our faith and our Messiah, and now finding our way to maintain integrity to the call of Jesus Christ to take up our cross is our work. Our faith is about more than prayer, about more than mass, about more than being in or out. It is about a life lived unflinching with eyes wide open to a world in desperate need for the Love of the Kingdom of God and the Good News – the Gospel – that was first recited nearly two thousand years ago, by story tellers huddled around fires and Christians subverting the Empire by daring to follow in the way of Christ.