Over the last months, as we’ve been hearing from the Gospel of Mark, I’ve pointed out the importance of geography. Jesus began his public ministry in and around the town of Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee. Most of the action in the first half of the gospel takes place in that general region. Jesus did cross the Sea of Galilee a couple of times. Then we saw him travel east, to the Mediterannean coast city of Tyre, and north, to Caesarea Philippi. More recently, Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem. I pointed out that there’s a major section of the gospel, roughly chapters 8-10, where Jesus predicts his crucifixion and resurrection three times. In each case, the disciples do or say something that makes clear they have no idea what Jesus is talking about, and then Jesus follows up with a teaching about what it means to be his disciple.
Mark has taken great care in crafting his gospel. He uses several techniques that may go unnoticed by the casual reader, but closer analysis reveals som fascinating details. I say all this because today’s reading brings this whole section of the gospel to its end. We are at the end of chapter 10, and chapter 11 begins with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It’s no accident that Mark tells the story of Blind Bartimaeus now. It serves as a bookend to another story of the healing of a blind man back in chapter 8, a story which leads into this whole section of the passion predictions and teaching about discipleship.
This earlier story is quite odd because it involves a two stage healing process. A blind man is brought to Jesus; Jesus leads him by the hand out of the village. First Jesus put saliva on the man’s eyes and laid his hands on him. After that, Jesus asked if he could see and the man’s response was “I can see people, but they are like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on him again, and the man’s sight was fully restored. Jesus sent home, instructing him to tell no one.
In the second healing, all is different. One important difference is that this man has a name, the only one of all of those healed in all four gospels to be named. Second, in the first healing, the blind man was brought to Jesus, and it was those who brought him who pleaded with Jesus to heal him. Here, Bartimaeus speaks on his own behalf, calling Jesus “Son of David” a messianic title. Then, when he continues to cry out for help from Jesus while onlookers tell him to shut up, Jesus calls to him. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, runs to Jesus.
Jesus asks him a rather odd question, given that Bartimaeus is a blind beggar. “What do you want me to do for you?”
Mark uses these stories to emphasize everything he has stressed in these chapters of his gospel. In the first story, a blind man slowly comes to see, he needs extraordinary effort from Jesus, and when he’s healed, he goes back home; he doesn’t proclaim the good news. It’s as if nothing had happened. In fact, Jesus orders him to tell no one.
Bartimaeus is just the opposite. He takes the initiative, first crying out to Jesus, then abandoning everything, even his cloak, in order to have an encounter with Jesus. He asks Jesus for help, and when he’s healed, instead of returning to his home and family, he follows Jesus on the way—to Jerusalem.
So, between these two stories of Jesus healing blind men, one who goes back home and one who calls him the Son of David, and follows him on the way, Mark puts much of Jesus’ teachings on discipleship, on what it means to follow Jesus.
There’s something else that’s quite interesting in this story. I pointed out that in the first story, Jesus has to act twice in order to restore the man’s sight. It’s as if he doesn’t quite know what to do. In the second story, the healing is instantaneous and Jesus doesn’t have to do anything. He simply speaks and the man’s sight is restored. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this point because we’ve seen Jesus heal by his words before in the gospel, but I wonder whether Mark is subtly suggesting that in these chapters, as Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and teaches his disciples about following him, he is also coming to a deeper understanding of himself and his mission.
One of the things we struggle with as we read the gospel of Mark and engage with Mark’s understanding of Jesus, is that Mark tends to depict Jesus in very human ways. He has to be convinced to heal a non-Jew; he prays in Gethsemane that he will not have to go through his suffering and death; he despairs that God has abandoned him on the cross. None of this fits with our theological ideas that Jesus, being fully divine, knows everything that is going to happen to him and has known it from the beginning of time.
But Mark was writing long before the theological struggles over the relationship between human and divine in Christ and he had very different interests and concerns. Above all, he was writing to encourage and reassure members of his little community that the destruction of Jerusalem and the threat of Rome could be survived. Mark was writing to reassure disciples of Jesus that following him meant sharing in his suffering. It’s no accident that after he is healed, Blind Bartimaeus follows Jesus, instead of, like all of the others who were healed before him, and even the rich man, turning away, and going home. For Mark, Bartimaeus is an ideal disciple—one who knows who Jesus is (Son of David) and follows him.
And that brings the story to us. Like Bartimaeus, we confess Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God. Like Bartimaeus, we confess with our mouth our faith, but like Bartimaeus, we may not see Jesus. Even more, we are like those who accompanied Jesus from Galilee on his journey to Jerusalem, and struggled with his call to take up our cross and follow him. His words challenge and confuse us. Those hard words we’ve been hearing: “whoever loses my life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it” “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
We struggle with the impossibility of it all. We struggle with the relevance of Jesus’ words to our daily lives and the world of the twenty-first century. In our crazy world, where conservative Christians in America claim persecution for their faith yet are eager to oppress and marginalize those who disagree with them. And ye in other parts of the world, we have the real spectacle of the torture, execution, and displacement of Christians is a horrifying tragedy. In light of all that, our own lives, our own way of following Jesus leads down a road that we can’t quite see.
How is Jesus calling us to follow him, in this city, in this congregation? Where does our path lead? These are hard questions; the answers in some way may be unknowable. What we do know is that when we cry out Lord, have mercy on us, Jesus is there to hear us, to heal us, and to show us the way.