Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Way to See: Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Sometimes I think I don’t give Mark enough credit. Don’t misunderstand me. I love the gospel of Mark… at times, I think it’s my favorite gospel (that’s usually when I am reading it…). I love its leanness. I love its political edge. I love its lack of a resurrection appearance, only the strange instruction that Jesus is already in Galilee, so we had better get ourselves there. I love the fragments of Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue. Talitha cum. Eloi, eloi, lema sabachtani. I love its earliness: the gospel feels so close to the earthly life of Jesus, it's almost like being a detective on the trail before it's gone cold, as if the vague scent of nard is still in the room.

I love the so-called messianic secret, how Jesus keeps saying, “Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone who I really am.” There is a Leonardo da Vinci painting of John the Baptist, an unusual one, in that he is neither portrayed as already decapitated, nor looking like a wild man in animal skins. In this portrait he looks well, robust, and—really odd for John—he looks cheerful
. He is shown pointing his right finger over his left shoulder as if to say, Not me, him. And to me, that's Jesus in the gospel of Mark. People keep wanting to label him, pin him down, box him up, and he keeps pointing his finger over his shoulder at God, and insisting, Not me, Him.

Now, having said all that, still, sometimes I think I don’t give Mark enough credit. I don’t tend to think he’s being subtly or slyly theological. But he is. I don’t think he has an overarching agenda, except for clean, clear reporting of Jesus’ comings and goings. But he has. Take today’s gospel story, the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Now, any one of us who has heard a certain hymn knows, right out front, that any time someone in the gospel goes from being blind to seeing, in a sense, they also go from being lost to being found. They are coming to faith. The gospels have numerous stories about those who are “blind” to the truth presented in the person of Jesus, and these are usually people who should know perfectly well that Jesus speaks God’s truth… people such as the scribes and Pharisees, who spend every waking moment studying or debating the Torah, or even the disciples, who spend every waking moment at Jesus’ side. These are people who should know. But, typically, they are blind to what is right there in front of them. They cannot see Jesus for who he really is. They don’t get it.

Then, along come unlikely people… really unlikely people… but after a while we realize they are the usual suspects. Sinners. Tax collectors. Women from whom seven demons have been cast out. Heck, women generally! And children. Let’s not forget them. Non-Jews. Syrophoenicians. Samaritans. These folks come along, and despite their lack of the right lineage, or the right education, or the right social status… they can see. They do not suffer from the kind of blindness that afflicts those who should know better. Blind beggars, sitting by the side of the road can see perfectly well who and what Jesus is. These unlikely characters see. They know. They get it.

So, it’s tempting to right away assign symbolic relevance to the story of the healing of Bartimaeus. The blind beggar sitting by the side of the road represents those who are most likely to be able to see the truth about Jesus: the marginalized, the nobodies. We’ve spoken of them before. Beautiful. A perfect story.

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

But lets not be too hasty. Let’s give the story its due. Let’s look at it in context, and not simply as a wonderful little story about coming to faith (though it is still that). This story comes at the end of a section of the gospel known as the “discipleship” section. Beginning with chapter 8, verse 22, we have story after story of Jesus trying to explain to anyone who will listen exactly what it means to follow him on his way. In fact, the section begins with the healing of another blind man… a healing that is unusual in that it takes Jesus two tries to accomplish it. Between the two blind men, we have story after story of the “blindness” of the religious leaders, or the “blindness” of the disciples, who, no matter how many times Jesus spells it out for them, continue to confuse following Jesus with opportunities for power, and status, and getting some kind of prize.

Following Jesus is not about power or status or getting some kind of prize.

If we look at the whole discipleship section of the gospel of Mark, there are several things we can say following Jesus is about. First of all, it is about the business of healing and being healed, and there is a correct order to those. Following Jesus is about recognizing in ourselves the wounds and emptiness and deep need that cannot be filled by ordinary measures, that will not respond to our usual ways of making ourselves feel better, from the cookie to the drink to the impulse buy to the wrong relationship. Following Jesus is about both recognizing our deep need, and identifying the one who can offer real healing. It is about not being too proud to ask for that healing, not being too stubborn to accept it, not being so foolish as to think some other matter takes precedence over it. And then it is about turning around and being in the business of offering that same healing to others, daring to imagine that we, even we can participate in spreading it around. It is daunting.

Second of all, following Jesus is about recognizing the deficits in our own faith systems. This is where nearly everyone in the gospel—all those folks who should know better—this is where everyone stumbles, where we all stumble. Everyone thinks they have it figured out. Everyone thinks they have nothing to learn. Everyone except one man—remember him?—his child is possessed with some terrible demon, and he desperately wants the child healed, and he knows it is all riding on his ability to trust Jesus. He cries out this cry of agony, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” And that terrible admission turns out to be precisely the credo Jesus wants from him, wants from all of us. I believe! Help my unbelief! It is humbling.

Third of all, following Jesus means understanding his intentions and the direction he is taking, his way of doing things. It means not blanching when we hear him say something like, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” It means a complete reversal of all we thought we understood about power and glory. Power is in weakness. Glory is in humiliation. It is confusing.

And so the discipleship section of the gospel of Mark comes to a dramatic culmination with this healing of yet another blind man. So much blindness, metaphorically speaking. And please understand, I do not want to minimize the real effects of literal, physical blindness on someone in Jesus’ time. We say “Bartimaeus the blind beggar,” as if there were any other option for a blind man in the ancient near east. To be blind was to reside on that last rung on the bottom of the social ladder, to be unable to work, to be utterly dependent on others for your very life. Nor do I want to presume such devastating consequences for those who are visually impaired in our day and age. Blindness today is not the same as blindness in Jesus’ day. Thank God, and science, and modern educational theory, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And yet, for Jesus’ day, the image of blindness was a powerful one with a specific meaning and set of consequences. Blindness equaled destitution. And so we find Bartimaeus, whose name can be translated, “son of Timaeus,” sitting by the side of the road…which can also be translated “the Way.” The Way is also what the very earliest Christians called their faith. We call it Christianity. They called it “the Way.” We find the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, at the side of the Way. When he is made aware that the very large crowd passing before him is made up of Jesus and his entourage, he begins to cry out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” And the people around him attempt to hush him up, to shut him down, but that only makes the son of Timaeus call out to the son of David with all the more fervor. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Who was this son of Timaeus? He must be significant, because of all the healings in the gospel of Mark, this is the only one in which the person is named. “Timaeus” is the title of a dialogue written by Plato. It happens to be one of the most famous plays to be performed in the ancient, Greek-speaking world—the world Jesus inhabited.

In Timaeus, Plato says that all of us are blind, and only the enlightened philosopher can see. The philosopher is the one who can see [that] this world is fallen, and imperfect… It is what the philosopher truly sees which inspires [her] understanding of the truth.[i]

The son of Timaeus is sitting by the side of the Way, and Jesus and his entourage go by, and he calls out with all his might. And when Jesus says, let him come to me, he not only rises, he not only goes forward, he throws off his cloak. He throws off what is probably his only possession. Remember the wise and wealthy but ultimately sad young man who could not leave it all behind to follow Jesus… and see the contrast. See the joy with which Bartimaeus shrugs off his cloak, and his old life, and his old lack of vision. See how the only thing he asks of Jesus is to be able to see again. See how he knows he is in need of healing. See how he addresses Jesus as “my teacher,” showing us that he knows he does not know everything. See how he is willing to follow Jesus on the Way to the cross.

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

The way to see is to know that we are wounded, and empty and in deep need of healing in all our brokenness. The way to see is to know that we don’t know, that our pre-conceived systems of faith and belief need to be re-fashioned, reformed, even. The way to see is to see the Way: the path Jesus follows. The hard path that is not about power or status or getting some kind of prize, but about service and giving and giving up the things we long to cling to.

Sometimes I don’t think I give Jesus enough credit, we don’t give him enough credit. We think we must approach him fully formed, and fail to realize it is for us to let him re-form us. We think we must be pretty or perfect or perfectly strong, and we don’t trust him with our brokenness, our need for healing. We think we need to know absolutely everything about him, or have our fully-fleshed out faith in place, intact, and we don’t trust him to teach us what we need to know. We think we can pull him along with us on whatever track we’re going, and don’t trust him to lead us on his path. But he wants us. Just as we are, without one plea. Blind beggars every one of us. Beautiful and broken, as we were created. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rev. James Murray, after Tom Long, Midrash lectionary discussion list, October 23, 2003.

1 comment:

Sophia said...

I never made the Timaeus connection before--very nice.