Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 28, 2018
Mark 10:46-52 Commentary
Digging into the Text:
Where are we? That’s always a good question to ask concerning a Gospel passage, and it’s particularly appropriate for this episode. The healing of Bar Timaeus comes as the climax to the entire first half of Mark, and at the completion of Jesus final trek to Jerusalem. The very next event is Jesus “Triumphal Entry” into the city.
For most of that trip Jesus has been emphasizing what it means to be his disciple. Peter didn’t get it with his refusal to accept that Jesus must die on the cross. The rich young man didn’t get it with his turning sadly away because the cost of discipleship was too high. The Zebedee boys, James and John didn’t get it with their desire to be at his right and left when Jesus comes into his Kingdom.
But here in Jericho, just as Jesus enters the final step of his journey to Jerusalem, here’s someone who gets it. The significance of this man’s commitment comes through with the fact that he has a name. Jesus has performed a number of miracles up to this point in the gospel–a deaf-mute, a blind man, a lame man, as well as the demon-possessed, but none of them has a name. Not even the rich young man has a name, but a blind beggar does. Mark makes sure to mention it even though he has to explain it to his Gentile audience: son of Timaeus.
Perhaps it’s because this man has become known in the early church, maybe he’s even become a leader. But for Mark, the significance of Bar Timaeus is surely that he demonstrates the characteristics of a real disciple. The Twelve are denying Jesus’ mission and vying for power. The rich young man makes a fatal choice to keep his money rather than follow Jesus call to give it all away and follow him. Bar Timaeus joyfully follows the Lord into Jerusalem. Now here is a real disciple.
Begging was ubiquitous in Jesus’ day, as it is increasingly in our own. You might say it was the social service model for Israel and the whole ancient world. People who could not make a living because of some disability had to lower themselves by begging for money from passersby. It actually worked quite well, in that it brought together their need for a living and the need for law-abiding Jews to give alms.
Suddenly enveloped by a crowd of people excited about this visitor to the city, Bar Timaeus senses that this is his moment, his opportunity. He begins yelling at the top of his lungs to get Jesus’ attention. Every word of his cry is important: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Jesus, Jeshua. Here we are in Jericho, the first city that fell (literally) under the control of the Israelites under the earlier Jeshua, coming out of the wilderness. Jesus is recalling the journey of Israel to the promised land.
Son of David. This is another way of saying “Messiah.” The Messiah is the promised Son of David who will sit on the throne of David forever (II Samuel 7). This is the only time in which Jesus is addressed by this title in Mark’s gospel, and it comes from the lips of this blind beggar. One other interesting note is to recall that when David conquered Jerusalem the blind and lame had get out because they are the ones whom “David hates.” (II Samuel 5: 6-10)
Have mercy on me. The word in Greek is “eleison,” the word that has become so deeply embedded in the liturgy of the church, kyrie eleison.
These words, in a slightly different form, have special significance in the Orthodox tradition as the “Jesus Prayer.” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the essential way in which we approach the Savior in our neediness, blindness, and sin. We acknowledge who he is and who we are. He is the Lord, the Savior, and we are beggars. He is the all-powerful Messiah, and we need mercy.
It’s especially interesting to contrast Bar Timaeus’ approach to Jesus with that of the Zebedee boys just a few verses earlier. While they ask Jesus for a special place in his royal cabinet, Bar-Timaeus simply begs for mercy.
Everyone tells Bar Timaeus to shut up. It’s unseemly to hear the cries of a beggar when a dignitary has come to town. Like many cities and towns in our own day, the homeless are rounded up and kept away when the community leaders want to leave a good impression on important guests.
There is tremendous social pressure to stifle the cries of human pain and neediness. When people sink deeply into grief, they often hear the message, “Get over it!” When the poor and homeless make their presence known society wants to make them invisible. When victims cry out for justice, they are often told to just take it and move on. When people commit crimes and seek mercy to rebuild their lives, society wants to lock them up and throw away the key.
“Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.'” Jesus’ ears are especially tuned to hear the kyrie eleison whenever and wherever it may be voiced. We are all beggars. We have no claim on Jesus other than that we are in deep and desperate need for his mercy. It is the key that unlocks the heart of the Lord, and it is the key to entering the house of the Father.
It is amazing to me how often, deep down, I resist this simple truth. I want to get Jesus’s attention when he notices how good, how important, how devoted I am. Like James and John, we want a place of admiration and influence. Why is it so hard to utter these simple words? Yet, my need for mercy is the only claim that I have on Jesus.
Often, in Jesus’s encounters with the sick and needy, there’s a kind of lethargy to their response. They are so used to a life of need, that it’s hard for them to really think that something can be done for them. Bar Timaeus is different. Mark paints a picture of eagerness and energy. He “throws off his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” He knew this was his only real hope.
It may seem strange that Jesus asks him a question that would seem obvious. “What is it you want?” One way to understand it is that the man is a beggar, so he might simply be after some money. In that case, Jesus’s question may be more like, “What do you really want?”
Frederick Dale Bruner offers another explanation. He suggests that here, and in other similar situations, Jesus wants more than to be on call for emergency medical requests. He wants a conversation, a relationship. In our human cry for mercy, Jesus asks us to articulate the real need, the real desire. And the answer to that question is not always immediately apparent.
When Jesus asks, “what do you want from me?” our answer may get at the reality of our faith and discipleship. Are we asking Jesus for a little of this and a little of that to make our lives more comfortable, less burdensome? Or are we asking for something only Jesus can give, the healing of our deepest wounds, our most insidious sins? In asking this question, Jesus points us to the real meaning of discipleship. What are you really after?
“My Teacher (rabouni), I want to see again.” Bar Timaeus responds to Jesus desire to enter into a relationship with an address we only find twice in the gospels, here and when a weeping Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus at the tomb. It’s a very personal and even intimate for of address. It’s as though for Bar Timaeus this was the encounter he had been waiting for all his life, you are the one.
The word “again” tells us something about Bar Timaeus as well. At some point he could see, but now he is blind. It could have been as simple as cataracts or as severe as some eye disease. The point is that he once could see but is now blind. He is asking Jesus to reverse that. “Once I was blind, but now I can see,” as the old hymn says.
There is a sense in which he already sees. His insistent cry for Jesus’ help, and his understanding of Jesus as the “Son of David” show that while his eyes may be blind, he had a more important kind of spiritual insight. He asks Jesus to give him back his sight, because he had already seen that Jesus is the only one who can.
This is true for all of us. We cannot receive what we truly want and need from Jesus without insight into who he really is. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he talks about the need for faith in order to be healed. It’s not that we have to pump up our faith by eradicating all doubt that he can do what we ask. It’s that we need to understand who Jesus really is, and then cast ourselves on his mercy. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Jesus says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Bar Timaeus does the opposite. As soon as his sight was restored, he “followed him on the way.” In other words, he became a disciple. He joined that group of disciples on their way to Jerusalem. But, as we saw at the beginning, Mark wants us to see that the blind beggar Bar Timaeus was in some important ways a more genuine disciple than those who Jesus had chosen. He was the one who uttered the words that define our relationship with Christ.
Preaching the Text:
1). Preachers are always wondering how to bring a congregation into a text. What is the point of contact that will touch their hearts and engage their minds? At least two possibilities come to mind.
The first might be to home in on the Bar-Timaeus’ cry for help, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. You might point out that these words are a form of what in Eastern Orthodoxy is called “the Jesus Prayer.” This prayer is advocated as a kind of prayer that would fulfill what Paul meant by “praying constantly (I Thess. 5: 16). But it’s also one of the most standard phrases in the Christian liturgy, “kyrie eleison,” Lord have mercy. Strip everything else away, and this is the fundamental need of weak, sinful mortals before the face of God, Lord have mercy. In our guilt, in our neediness, in our physical and spiritual weakness, we beg for God’s mercy.
The Greek word eleison is related to the Greek word for oil. In the Bible, oil is not just a condiment, but the sign of peace (Psalm 131) , the “oil of gladness,” (Psalm 45:7), the healing balm that James enjoins on elders in their prayers for healing (James 5). “Lord, have mercy is our deep human desire for peace with God, with each other, and within our own body and soul.
Another, more directly biblical approach is to place this story in the context of Mark’s gospel as a whole. It is the the crucial hinge between Jesus work of salvation in the cross and resurrection and the rest of his earthly ministry. Coming where it does, the story of Bar Timaeus displays the nature of true discipleship, especially in contrast with the rich young man who turns away because of his wealth, and the twelve, who are locked in a war of one-up-man-ship. And it is all comes down to the cry for mercy of a poor blind beggar everyone is telling to shut up.
2). In the crowd’s attempt to silence Bar Timaeus, we can see a pattern that we often see in the world around us. Whatever you may think of the #MeToo movement, it is a response to the many ways in which the abuse of women has been silenced over the years. The same is true of many others in society whose real needs and fervent demands for justice are silenced by the those who hear it as whining or merely getting attention.
3). “Ordinary Grace,” a novel by William Kent Kreuger could serve as a wonderful preparation for preaching on this text. In it he tells the story of a minister’s family in small town Minnesota ripped apart by fear, injustice, and grief. The minister at the heart of the story, Pastor Drum, is a living portrait of what mercy looks like in the midst of human misery and suffering, and how the crowds around try to shut down mercy in favor of rejection or revenge. But through all his suffering and loss, through all his caring for his needy and hypocritical congregation, he keeps up a continuing conversation with God, a constant Kyrie Eleison.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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