Seeing through the metaphors
Week of Sunday 25 October 2015 – Pentecost 22
Gospel: Mark 10:46-52
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Two memories from my holidays, and a startling observation from Mark D. Davis:
Finally able to relax after buffeting winds that on one occasion even blew me off the road, I approached Port Campbell. In the roadside dusk I found a koala with the perfect fur of the healthy young, but obviously dead. He lay bottom up, with his arms at his sides, instantly reminiscent of photos of Aylan Kurdi. I have not been able to remove the image, or the comparison, from my mind. Something is being said to me. Something about our valuing of ourselves over the land— was this child koala any less valuable in God's sight? Something about the slaughter of innocents in the lust for power. Something…
Melbourne is crowded with highways dangerous for unwary visiting cyclists, so I entrusted myself to Google Maps bicycle feature. After miles of separate path, I was directed to a shared path in the door zone of a main road. And then, apparently, directed to ride through a solid building towards a side street! Zooming in, I found a narrow alley, down steps, that led me through a suddenly quiet, paradisiacal, neighbourhood of paths and gardens to the Maribyrnong River bike trail, and on to a safe bike trail out of Melbourne. Images of "the narrow way" and being led by still waters, were inescapable. How do we find this Way?
Mark D. Davis says of Bartimaeus, "The last time someone shouted outside of Jericho, the walls fell down."
The story of Bartimaeus is perhaps the key point in Mark's gospel. It unlocks the gates to Jerusalem. We cannot plumb its richness unless we look at the shape of the whole gospel; these few verses in Mark 10 are not a quick read.
The Gospel of Mark starts like this: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah…" Isaiah is clearly a defining interpreter, for Mark, of the meaning of Jesus. And the beginning is the same Greek word as the beginning in John's gospel. These writers are, in a sense, pointing to a new Torah; the first Torah opens like this: "The beginning: When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void." (bereshit- beginningis as much title as it is part of the narrative.)
When Jesus asks, "Who do people say I am?" (Mark 8:27) the first eight chapters of Mark have been leading the listener/reader to say, "Of course you are the Messiah!" And then we find the central section of the gospel, book-ended (a chiasm) between the stories of two blind men who are healed. In the first healing, the man whose sight was restored "looked intently," and "saw everything clearly." It's a reader-take-note device: look intently as you read or listen to this. (Mark 8:25)
The book-ends of the two blind men who are "made well," by their "trust" (faith) (Mark 10:52) wrap, or hold between them, the means of being made well.
This means is based around learning that the Messiah is not the popularly expected rescuing hero.
When Jesus first announces that he will suffer at the hands of the people, Peter is scandalized. His ideal is the same as ours, worldly success, and he tries to instill it into his master. He turns his own desire into a model that Jesus should imitate. This is how Satan operates, of course. Hence the famous words: "Move behind me Satan, because you are a scandal to me." (The Girard Reader pp199-200, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein.)
The word scandal is important in describing this. Three times he will foretell his death— it is a rhetorical play on the three days in the grave— and each time his disciples will have no idea what he is talking about. This is not a reasonable gospel. The messiah, if we are to understand him aright, is a scandalous, unreasonable figure. His triumph and power lie in his defeat and death: "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." (Mark 8:31) "He said all this quite openly" (op. cit) means it is a central concept in understanding his meaning. Power and glory are redefined: Yes, he is
one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him…. (Daniel 7:13-14 one like a human being is simile for son of man.)
Yet he will be defeated and die.
The scandal increases because three times his disciples are called to "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me," (Mark 8:34) and cannot hear what is being said. The redefinition of power and glory is so complete that "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.: (Mark 8:35) Even to gain the whole world would not be enough: "what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their lives." Indeed, "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35) And "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)
Each time the disciples hear the purpose and role of the Messiah, they do not hear. They do not see. They simply contradict him, (Mark 8) or continue to seek to be first among all. (Mark 9,10) At the end of this middle section, Jesus asks exactly the same question of Bartimaeus and he does of James and John: "What is it you want me to do for you?" (Mark 10:36, 51)
James and John wanted more power. Bartimaeus asks to be able to see again, and this is granted to him. He is made well. If we are still in the power and reputation and success game, we have not seen. We are not well.
Do you notice that Jericho is mentioned twice? For what reason? Why is the story set as they are leaving the city? Jericho is a place of entrapment and blockage. It appears unassailable. You cannot see there. The city is "shut up, inside and out." (Joshua 6:1) It is across the Jordan from the Plains of Moab, a last barrier to entering the Promised Land. Crossing the Jordan is not enough on its own; there is more to do.
And (as a colleague reminded me on reading this) Jesus is a Greek translation of Yeshua, aka Joshua, who lead the people past Jericho into the Promised Land.
What shout will bring its walls tumbling down and allow people to be made well, see clearly, and "follow him on the way?"
I said Isaiah is a defining interpreter of the meaning of Jesus for Mark. If we read carefully, we see further reference to Isaiah just before the bookends of the blind men made well.
"Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?" (Mark 8:14-18)
Jesus' question about the disciples' blindness to the "yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod"— that infective unwellness of the ways of power and prestige, is a reference to Isaiah 6 which prepares the way for the motif of being made well from blindness.
Before I quote that reference, consider our reasons for quoting literary sources. We are too often in the habit of quoting to bolster our argument by using the authority of a recognised authority. (Could such a person that we quote be "a great one," (Mark 10:42) or even a yeast infection?) We also quote to avoid plagiarising.
But when Mark quotes scripture, he is saying, "Go back and read this, and read on from the words I have quoted, to look intently and see what I am talking about."
8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 9And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
Consider when Mark is writing to his community. All the scholarly consensus says it is around the time of the hopeless war. Jerusalem is trapped within its own walls, "shut up inside and out because of the [Romans]; no one came out and no one went in." (Joshua 6:1) For those with eyes to see, the future is obvious, but the people are powerless to change the City; the systems— the powers— (cf Ephesians 6) have taken over and are blindly driving the nation to destruction.
Or perhaps the battle is already over, and the city lies waste without inhabitant and the land is utterly desolate…
Now consider our own situation: Climate change threatens our very existence as a species. Millions will die from climate change, (while the Australian government argues for the morality of using more coal.) War in Syria, Palestine, Sudan, Ukraine, Iraq… continues. The death toll is in millions. In Australia the government caves to pressure and brings a raped asylum seeker from the concentration camps for medical treatment, and then secretly flies her out again without treatment, lying about it.
Something makes us powerless to be human and humane. The City has taken over and walled us in. The systems— the powers— are in control. We are without power, unable to stop ourselves, bound by our histories and fears.
Am I overstating this?
For indigenous peoples spirituality is rooted in a very specific ecosystem. And in the Bible you see this with Israel, how their relationship with YHWH was rooted in a specific land and place.
Moreover, in indigenous spirituality when you fall out of step with the land the spiritual equilibrium gets out of whack. Some bad mojo starts to happen. People and land are out of sync. And again, you see this in the life of Israel where famine in the land was punishment for spiritual wickedness.
Ecosystem and spirituality go hand in hand. If the people are spiritually healthy the land is healthy. But if the people are sick the land becomes sick.
The thermometer of our spiritual fever is the quality of our soil and air. (Richard Beck, reflection on conversations with Jonathon McRay)
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament will recognise these themes. Causally, perhaps, this understanding of powers and God's wrath came from the observation that where injustice and war reign, famine follows.
We cannot ignore them as some sort of primitive understanding, or naïve animism. They are, more than ever, our reality.
As I have seen teeming life in even the "spoiled places" around Adelaide, I am more inclined to see the live planet as its own self-regulating system; a system which self-corrects. (See, for example, the Gaia Hypothesis) We are one small part of it, and I wonder if we have even less autonomy than we have imagined. It may not be our destructiveness which makes the planet uninhabitable for us; the planetary system may "correct us out of existence" to allow life to go on. (Andrew Prior: Wondering through Wilderness)
…we leave behind ruined factories, denuded mine sites, bare soil as hard as concrete. We create a wasteland rather than accept our small place in the wilderness, and our calling to live in and with the land.
This is so hugely challenging that we can barely hear it. But if it seems an anthropomorphic Lovelockian metaphor that has departed into fantasy... we should remember that the metaphor that the world is a machine we can exploit is failing badly.
Revering the land redefines what is good; for holidays; for farming; for earning a living; for housing; for all of society. If we cannot live with the land and its seasons we will be living on a land that will reject us. There is no point in looking for peace and justice that does not live well in the land. It will be a "peace" built on unsustainable foundations.
I prefer the metaphoric language of "the land rejecting us," because the utilitarian language of "us destroying the environment" still need not— usually does not— understood the need for reverence. It still places us above the land as the controllers, and forgets we are only adam; dust. (Andrew Prior: The Land and the Peoples of the Land)
Powerless before our self-destructive collective insanity, we can only cry with Isaiah 6, "How long, O Lord?" How can we see? Where is the narrow gate which will lead us off this broad road to destruction? (Matt 7:13) What shout will bring down the walls which surround us? What will let us see clearly, free us from our demons, and allow the land to be healed?
What will open our eyes to the Way of mercy and compassion? With Sharon Blezzard, we cry
What prevents me from casting aside the cloak of my perceived security to truly stand empty and dependent before Jesus? How come it is so difficult to put aside all pretext and pretension and simply follow the One who loves me?
In a stunning apposition of images, Suzanne Guthrie notes
Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and follows Jesus “on the way” to the passion in Jerusalem. (Mark 10:46-52)
A young man slips out of his garment and runs away naked as a soldier grabs at him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Mark 14:51)
A young man dressed in white (baptismal clothes?) witnesses to the resurrection of Christ at the sepulcher. (Mark16:5)
[Gordon] Lathrop writes, “These latter two figures have been linked in recent exegesis of Mark, and the single ‘young man’ has been seen as a type of the newly baptized, of those who are immersed in the death of Jesus in order to be clothed in his life and made witnesses of the resurrection.”
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (Mark 10:47, and again in the following verse, 48.) We are truly beggars, and blind.
There is one last metaphor to add as we leave Jericho.
Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus is a redundancy. It's like saying MacDonald son of Donald; MacDonald already means "son of Donald." It's a rhetorical device crying, "Look intently: there is meaning here!"
I've abandoned the idea that the key meaning of Bartimaeus is son of honour. I'm more inclined to the surprising opposite: son of dishonour! (This article outlines the reasoning and the textual background. There seem to be wordplays which pertain to this in the Greek text.
As Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, the crowd, (a great source of scandal in Girardian thinking), and the blind followers and energisers of the systems and powers which oppress us, rebukes him. Rebuke is like saying (in terms of an homonym or aural pun) epi-timaeus.
One of the joys of relying on Lexicons is that you get two possible meanings for ἐπιτιμάω: “To show honor” or “To rebuke.” I’m tacking toward the latter, given how this verb is used in Mark. However, the connection between the name Timaeus and Bartimaeus and the root of this verb (ἐπι-τιμάω) is intriguing. (Mark D. Davis)
This child of dishonour, dishonoured/rebuked by all around, complicit in the ways of the world, is still able to cry out to the Son of David. Jack Spong says Bartimaeus is a disguised Peter the Apostle, but he is also me. (I reference this here.) I deny. I don't see. I dishonour the Messiah by contradicting his words; I am scandalised by him. Bartimaeus is the word of salvation both for Peter and for me. He is the witness, and the promise, that we can throw off the cloak; and that the walls can be brought down.
All of Mark, so far, has been to prepare us for the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. It brings us to the scandal of Jesus' death, the inconceivable redefinition of power and glory which I mentioned much earlier. And in our own Jerusalems which are under siege— if we are not already devastated by that which life has pile upon us, Mark confronts us with the inevitable fall of our City, and our own lives. We are reading Bartimaeus ten weeks out from Christmas celebrations, thinking about Advent studies, perhaps— we do a certain violence to Mark with the arc of the traditional Church Year. While we look forward to Christmas, Mark is pointing to disaster:
Look intently, he says, and you will be made well of your blindness.
Look intently, and you will see in this failing and disastrous world the long awaited Son of David.
Look intently, and you will be able to throw off the blinding, crippling cloak of security, that last attempt at refuge,
and be healed of your dishonour,
and be able to follow on the Way.
You will be able to trust.
This is all promise, all challenge.
There are no reasonable guarantees.
On the way out of Jericho we must all pass through Jerusalem.
And in doing that, says Mark, we will be made well.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!