Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 25, 2015
Mark 10:46-52 Commentary
Comments and Observations
Bartimaeus. Jericho. Just names, right? Well, not really. Sometimes the Bible discloses some of its most vital points in the details we tend to just skip over en route to the “main” story or the “meat” of a given passage.
But in the case of Mark 10, the two names mentioned above may well provide an access point for us preachers on this passage—an access point that may yield rich Gospel proclamation in any sermon on this passage.
Of the three evangelists who report this incident (though see the Textual Note below for some of the controversy on this story), Mark alone tells us the name of the blind man: Bartimaeus. It’s always striking when someone’s name is preserved for us. The vast majority of people whom Jesus healed are anonymous—in fact, basically all of them are unnamed. Yet here we have a name. It must be significant. (Similarly, of all the parables Jesus told, the only character who ever had a name within a parable was the poor man Lazarus—Luke knew what he was doing by giving a desperately poor person a name! The poor are not a faceless category but are real persons. That’s just so typical of Luke to remind us of this vital fact!)
Bartimaeus’ memory is preserved for us—we even learn his father’s name! It’s a reminder to us that the people whom Jesus healed in the course of his ministry were flesh-and-blood human beings, not mere symbols of this or that condition, illness, or disease. The poor and impoverished and disadvantaged were people with real feelings, with a family history, with people who once upon a time loved them and took care of them, whether or not anyone from the family is on the scene any longer. Perhaps it seems like I’m making too much of this, but it’s important for the Church to this day to be reminded that the poor and the disenfranchised to whom we are called to minister are not tropes, not broad and faceless socio-economic categories about whom to talk in the abstract (the way politicians tend to do). These are real people. They bear the image of God.
Actually, although politicians are good at abstractions when it comes to people groups, one can note again during the current presidential campaign in the United States that nothing warms up a candidate’s image more as when he can say something like, “Last week I was talking to an unemployed steel worker in Pennsylvania. His name is Frank. And Frank told me . . . And then I said to Frank . . . And it’s folks like Frank that make me want to be president.” Give the person a name, and it looks like you’re paying attention! There is a reason why in recent years most Presidents who give the State of the Union address to Congress make sure the First Lady has some guests seated with her—these will inevitably be war heroes, survivors of some terrible shooting, or someone in some other situation to which the President will refer in his speech and then, highlight the people present who fit that category.
Politics aside, maybe there is another lesson here in the naming of Bartimaeus that when the poor do speak up, when the poor do cry out to someone reputed to be important and powerful, society’s first inclination is to hush them up. Maybe the good citizens of Jericho saw this man as a social embarrassment, an eyesore, a blow to civic pride. Letting Jesus see him would make them all look bad. Best to hush him up. But the tawdry nature of human pride is on display here, too, in that the moment the man is invited to come over to the VIP in their midst, now suddenly people flock to him, treat him like he suddenly has collateral importance. It’s amazing how quickly we can pivot from avoiding, if not actively dissing, a person to wanting to cozy up to him/her the moment this person can give us a connection to someone famous. Maybe you yourself have never met the President, but if you know someone who knows the President, you talk up your relationship with this person big time (even if it’s someone who in the past you rather disliked).
In any event, there are a lot of social dynamics going on in this story, most of which are instructive for the Church today. But for us, we should not wait until Jesus calls a poor person over and we surely should not, in the meantime, be silencing the voices of the voiceless. The gospels show us that Jesus already has called all this world’s disenfranchised, lowly, marginalized, and invisible people to him. This is the reality in which the Church exists. We don’t have to wait to see if Jesus will notice the little people. He already has. What we are to do in response is rather obvious.
Secondly there is the matter of our being in Jericho. What are we doing in Jericho in this story? When were we last here in any significant way in the Bible? This incident of the healing of a blind man is the only time in the gospels when Jericho is mentioned (Luke adds the additional incident in Jericho with Zacchaeus but that occurs on this same visit in Luke’s narrative). Mark says that as Jesus was departing Jericho, Bartimaeus shouted. Get it: Jesus is outside of Jericho with a large crowd. He is outside of Jericho and someone is shouting.
Sound familiar? Ring any bells? From the Book of Joshua, we all know the story of the Israelites’ seven-day march around the city. Only on the seventh and decisive day, however, do the Israelites lift up their voices in a mighty shout, bringing down the walls of the fortified city. What follows, of course, is a lot of Old Testament-style carnage as every man, woman, child, and animal are put to the sword and the torch. Not nice stuff, that.
Parsing the Old Testament’s holy wars is dicey at best. Few Christians in the Church today can easily stomach the thought of infants being lanced through on Yahweh’s direct orders. It’s a delicate enough question that few of us preachers ever touch it. If you dig that particular hole for yourself in the pulpit, the odds are exceedingly good you’ll never be able to climb back out of it in twenty-five minutes’ time!
I may be going out on a limb here, but is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Mark is showing a gospel reversal of all that Joshua mayhem? After all, here is Jesus—the new Joshua—outside the walls of Jericho. A large throng is with him. And a lone beggar shouts to be heard. When people tell him to shut up, he shouts all the louder. Amazingly, the shouting leads to a crumbling of a different set of walls, this time the social barriers/walls that get erected in all societies between the well-to-do and the down-and-outters like Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus shouts in Jericho, but this time the result of all the shouting is not bloody battle and loss of life but a restoration of shalom. Salvation happens this time. A man is restored and joins Jesus’ larger band of followers.
In the familiar hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal,” there is a line I have always loved. “For not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”
If ever the church needed a reminder of why we make a mistake when we adopt Old Testament, ancient Israel-esque imagery of God’s people engaged in holy wars, culture wars, and other such imagery of a hostile God, the Bible’s sequel to the Battle of Jericho in Mark 10 provides it. It’s surely worth pondering anew!
In any event, in that place previously renowned only for the carnage that happened there, a man with a real name, Bartimaeus, is touched by the power of God and of his Christ and of his Gospel. Hope and joy flood this story. What a privilege it is to proclaim it and to look for all those places even yet today that may be places of squalor and hopelessness but in which even now God’s Spirit is on the move to touch real people with real names with the real power of the Gospel!
Most of us are aware that this story about blind Bartimaeus is one of the more famous incidents of the so-called “Synoptic Problem.” Most of the incidents reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke line up more-or-less well in terms of narrative details. But there are a few cases of the same story occurring in two or three of the Synoptic Gospels but with some degree of noticeable variation. This is one of them.
In Mark 10 Jesus is LEAVING Jericho when he encounters a lone blind beggar whose name is given. However, in Matthew 20 we are told that upon leaving Jericho, Jesus encounters TWO blind men, neither of whom is named. Finally, in Luke 18 Jesus encounters a lone blind beggar (as in Mark, though he remains anonymous in Luke) but this time Jesus encounters and heals the blind man as Jesus is APPROACHING Jericho.
Predictably, this conundrum has elicited various solutions. A most straightforward approach would say that perhaps Matthew, Mark, and Luke took the same incident but editorially shaped it just a little in order to make a point that accorded with their own theological and literary intentions within the scope of that particular gospel account. But those who are uncomfortable with this suggestion and who prefer a more straightforward, diary-like view of the gospels claim that perhaps in Jericho that day Jesus healed THREE blind persons: one on his way into the city and two on his way out. (Or is it really FOUR blind persons seeing as we still can’t quite bring Mark and Matthew together?)
Getting hung up on such questions is not helpful in the course of a sermon (it may be unhelpful ANYwhere!). Instead, let’s approach this incident as Mark reports it in this lection and leave our ponderings about Matthew and Luke to other sermons when we preach this story out of their literary contexts.
Like several New Testament healing stories involving the blind, so also here in Mark 10 we see this blind man named Bartimaeus recover his sight and then immediately start to walk around like a typical sighted-person. However, as neurologists like the late Oliver Sacks point out, if it really happened this way, then this once-blind man was the recipient of a double-miracle: not only had Jesus fixed his optic hardware but Jesus must have installed also the necessary mental software that allowed the man to make sense of the information coming through his eyes.
Although we do not realize it most of the time, the ability to see is one-part a physical phenomenon but also one-part a mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience. That’s why blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out-of-reach even as they may knock over a glass of water that is closer than they thought.
Likewise the once-blind misjudge steps and bump into walls all because they have not yet acquired the knack for interpreting visual data. Some even continue to use their white canes for a while so that they can slowly begin to connect how the world has always felt through the tip of the cane with how it now looks through their eyeballs.
As it turns out, this matter of sight is a bit more complex than we might think.
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