“Rabbi, I want to see.”
– Mark 10:51
Over these last few months, I have really come to appreciate the way in which The Gospel of Mark has been bringing the story of Jesus to life in a new and fresh way. He has been opening my eyes to the universal call of Jesus, the call to follow Him on the Way into the forgiven and forgiving life, and there have certainly been more than a few moments where this has given me pause and pushed me to consider where I am on this journey.
The story of blind Bartimaeus, the passage I have been reflecting on over the course of this past week in preparation of the Triumphal Entry, is no exception. As Mark continues to lead us on the road towards Jerusalem, he offers us a final picture to help us consider what lies ahead- a contrasting picture of sight and blindness, of material poverty set against the riches of faith, And it is through these two pictures that Mark ultimately uses this story to set our sights on the universal call to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross.
Two parts of a single story
Whenever I hear the story of Bartimaeus, there are two things that typically come to mind- the healing and the faith that led to the healing. However, this week has managed to uncover another aspect to this story that I had, up to this point, failed to consider, and that is “the call”. As Catholic theologian Maarten J J Menken argues, it is actually the call that turns out to the be most significant part of this passage:
“This literary form (the call narrative) appears three times in Mark’s Gospel: first in the story of the calling of Simon and his brother Andrew (1:16-18), immediately afterwards in the story of the calling of James and his brother John (1:19-20), and then in the story of the calling of Levi (2:14).”
– M. J. Menken
Menken establishes in this article that the story of Bartimaeus is formed around the phrases, “get up, he is calling you” and “(he) followed him on the way”, both of which reflect familiar characteristics of the call narrative. Also noted is the fact that the beggar “throws off his cloak” and leaves everything behind to follow Jesus, another dominant characteristic of the call narrative.
So why is this important to note? It is in the call to “follow” Jesus (on the Gospel Way) that the healing of Bartimaeus is actually given a greater (and arguably proper) context, and it is from within this context that the themes of faith and healing emerge as a symbol of:
a) the Way in which Jesus is heading (towards Jerusalem, towards the cross), and
b) the life (of faith) that we are now called to embrace as we follow Jesus and participate in the ministry of the cross.
The Healing Symbol- Understanding The Way in Which Jesus is Heading
I think one of the reasons the healing in this story remains so predominant for me is that it would seem that Mark has strategically positioned it alongside a second “healing of a blind man” story. In both cases, the (physical) healing appears to sit at the forefront.
In terms of its literary function, I believe this is most likely intentional. Mark is essentially bookmarking the three foretelling passages that define chapters 8-10 with these two healing stories (the other being the story of the man at Bethsaida in 8:22-26), and by setting these stories both in front and behind these three foretelling passages Mark is able to do two things. First, he opens our eyes (as readers) to the importance of considering the importance of where Jesus is heading (See, we are going up to the Jerusalem… to suffering, death and resurrection 10:33). For his original audience, Mark is slowly supplanting their expectations (of a Royal ascent to the throne) with the unexpectedness of the cross as the way in which this ascent will take place.
Secondly, Mark uses these healing narratives to help paint a picture of our response to this new reality, this unexpected paradigm, by positioning the disciple’s initial resistance against the faith of these two men who regain their sight. By doing this Mark uses the physical healing to uncover a larger spiritual truth- when we take up the call to follow Jesus, we are also embracing the nature of the cross.
The Healing Symbol- Following Jesus into a life of Faith
The final verse of Bartimaeus’ story points us to the subject of faith as the driving force behind Bartimaeus’ healing and response. It says it is his faith that made him well, but this also leaves us as readers potentially asking, what is this faith really all about?
As N.T. Wright suggests in his book The Day The Revolution Began, the Jesus of history must first be understood from within the Jewish context that He emerges from, a part of a Messianic expectation, a King who would overthrow the pagan oppressors. It is from within this expectation that we gain context for the hopeful idea of a Royal Ascent, the reestablishing of David’s throne. In the story of Bartimaeus, we find Mark including reference to the title “son of David” (vs. 47), a title that conjures up thoughts of this Jewish expectation, a part of this waiting and looking for a new Kingdom to be established by God’s hand and through an anointed ruler. This would be a kingdom that could then look forward to the resurrection of all God’s people and the re-establishment of God’s created order in the end of days. It is important to recognize as well that this expectation is being born out of prevailing oppression and repression- these were a broken people looking for healing, a divided kingdom looking for unity, the presence of God being once again established in their midst through the rebuilding of a city and a temple.
But here we arrive at the conundrum that the Gospel signified for this broken people. The cross upends these expectations. As N.T. Wright fleshes out, they had a paradigm through which to understand the notion of a King. They would even have had context for the idea of sacrifice (the sacrificial system). However, the idea that the King himself would suffer and die and raise again, in a single resurrection “in the middle of history” rather than a collective resurrection at the end of time as Wright puts it, would have arrived without paradigm, without prior context.
And so, as Jesus says look, the Son of Man will be delivered over and condemned to death and after three days he will rise, His words would have arrived well out of view of their sight lines, well out of line of the direction in which they were looking. Yet this is the direction that Jesus is now asking them to follow, and it is a direction that, most certainly, would have felt uncertain and unclear and confused.
The cross is an idea that requires faith, faith in what Jesus is doing, faith even in the truth of our own blindness. Recognizing that God’s ways are not our own is where faith begins, and it is this kind of faith that empowers Bartimaeus to not only seek out Jesus (it would seem with fear and trembling… have mercy on me is his request), but to throw off his cloak and embrace Jesus’ outpouring of mercy in the midst and his own oppressive circumstance.
Here is the truth- this kind of faith is a risky business. It demands sacrifice, and it even demands response far before the full healing occurs. As Christians today, we are likewise called to believe in what God is doing in our midst before we see the fulfillment of His promise for a New Jerusalem completed.
But for as risky as it is, faith is also where we find healing in the here and now. This is where the healing image finds its power, and this is where we can begin to see that the healing of the blind man is about much more than simply physical healing. This is a healing that imagines a new kingdom being established at the foot of the cross, in the muddle and the mess of a broken world. This is a healing that imagines the universal reach of God’s love in the midst of this brokenness and resistance. It is a healing that gains us a vision of God’s restoration purposes, even as we remain under bondage to the effects of sin- which is the death and decay of God’s great created order, the blinding of God’s intended vision. It is a healing that now finds life in death, hope in hopelessness.
Even further, and this is the great image of the Bartimaeus’ reponse, is that this is a healing that strips us bear and clothes us anew with the call to participate now in the forgiven and forgiving life that the cross strives to imagine on our behalf. And the more we participate in this, the greater our vision can grow for what God is doing now and in the age to come.
The Healing Symbol- The Forgiven and Forgiving Life
When I consider Bartimaeus as a call narrative, two things happen. First, I am able to recognize in the life of the outcast beggar (defined by the rebuke of the many) the truth that the Gospel of Jesus has a universal reach. This man would have been the last in line to receive the kingdom of God, and Jesus offers him the freedom to “take heart and get up” and join them on the Way. The great truth here is that at the cross I not only align myself with Jesus, I also align myself with the beggar. And far from leaving me an outcast, struggling on the sidelines as a spectator, this is where I find and am able to share in the invitation to “take heart and get up” along with Bartimaeus. This is where Jesus heals my own blindness and leads me towards a new way of seeing, a truth that, if I look back to Mark chapter 1, leads me all the way to the very definition of repentance- a turning to “see” in a new direction, an opportunity to live into a different kind of life than the one I am leaving behind- the forgiven and forgiving life.
It is interesting to me that when Bartimaeus recovers his sight, Jesus tells him go “your” way. And it says that Bartimaeus then follows him on “the” way. I find this significant, because when we encounter and follow Jesus, we are effectively embracing the Way of Jesus as our own. The cross now becomes our shared reality, and the company that we travel with becomes our shared community, our family.
Menken goes on to argue in his article that the crowd serves a purpose in this narrative. Words originally spoken by Jesus are now set in the mouths of the crowd, something that is juxtaposed against other narratives where the one saying “Take heart. Get up” is the healer himself. This becomes a powerful picture in Mark of the way in which we come to share in the Way of Jesus, to become participants in the life that Jesus models on the cross for us, a life that is built on the idea of the forgiven and forgiving life as the only means by which we can build a shared faith, faith in what Jesus has done and is doing in our midst through the reality of the cross.
Faith, Forgiveness and the Prayer of the Rabbi
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
– Mark 11:22-26
If faith is the kind of confidence that Bartimaeus exhibits in his response to Jesus, the kind that can command mountains to move at will, what is clear from this passage in Mark 11 is that it is actually Bartimaeus cry (prayer) that remains the most significant part of this picture of faith.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
As I said earlier, faith is a risky business, and here in chapter 11, these further words of Jesus go on to explain why faith is so risky.
It is on the cross that Jesus sheds light on the most difficult part of living as a family, in community with God and others- the forgiven and the forgiving life. It would seem that moving mountains might be the most difficult part of this passage, but where Jesus ultimately lands is on forgiveness. And not simply in terms of moral restitution- as N.T. Wright would point out, that would be thinking in far too narrow of terms- but forgiveness as a way of a life, forgiveness as a way of embracing a Gospel that has universal reach. Faith by nature sets us in the midst of a shared community. It reminds us that this life of faith is not only internal, it is external, not simply personal but social. In other words, faith is a family affair, and we all know family can be incredibly messy.
As I said earlier, when Bartimaeus declares Jesus to be the “son of David”, he is speaking in terms of community, a community that reaches all the way back through the history of God’s chosen people. It is a community that God raised up to be His witness for the sake of the world, and it is out of this tradition that Jesus arrives to call all of us to become a witness for the sake of the world. When Bartimaeus speaks as an outcast, he is speaking to the hope that Jesus will be able to provide him the means to enter back into this community. And this is the true concern of all the healing stories in Mark, not the physical restoration, but rather the need to belong, the ability to re-enter the family of God.
Interestingly, this phrase by Bartimaeus is the only place where this title for Jesus appears in the Gospel of Mark, something that Jesus goes on to address in 12:35-37:
“While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
“The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”
The large crowd listened to him with delight.”
Here Jesus uses this designation- Son of David, to set our sights even higher, towards the Son of God. The true delight of this statement is that this becomes the means by which Bartimaeus is able to not just see, but belong once again. This is the authority by which Jesus builds His kingdom through the lives of the last and the least, the means by which He enacts God’s intention of this expected Royal Ascent. Jesus is indeed taking the throne, but when our eyes are opened, we are able to see that the New Jerusalem is being built on a hill, on a cross, and through the notion of the family of God, the raising up of a community for the sake of the world.
In the healing of our sight we are given the means for understanding the cross that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem. In the healing of our sight we are given the means for understanding what it means to take up this cross ourselves and to live into the coming Kingdom of God that the Resurrection of Jesus now upholds. And it is in the healing of our sight that we are able to consider that the suffering, the death and the resurrection all point us in a single direction- a shared community with God and others, a community that can only function through the forgiven and forgiving life that Jesus is modelling for us on the Way to Jerusalem.
This is why the final prayer of the blind man is so powerful.
“Rabbi, let me recover my sight.”
It is a prayer that all of us, I think, would do well to adapt into our daily life and routine. How often do I resist the cross along with the disciples? Every day if I am being honest.
So Lord, let me recover my sight this Easter season for what the Cross means for my own life. Let me recover my sight for what this Resurrection faith means for the world. And let me recover my sight for how I can participate in this risky business of faith, and become a greater witness of the forgiven and forgiving life.
The Day The Revolution Began by N.T. Wright