Week of Sunday October 28 - Pentecost 22
Bible: Mark 10:46-52
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Blind MacShultz... It does not quite roll off the tongue. It’s not only the loss of alliteration; our general cultural awareness tells us that Mac and Shultz form a most unlikely combination.
It had not occurred to me that Bar-Timaeus is a similarly unlikely combination; Bar is Aramaic, Timaeus is Greek.
It is even more strange to say Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. That is like saying MacDonald, son of Donald.
Add to this the fact that Mark never names the people whom Jesus heals (Peter’s Mother in Law is the closest he gets to a name) and we are justified in wondering if there ever was a blind man called Bartimaeus.
Was there a blind man whose healing is deeply symbolic of something else; so symbolic, that even his name is constructed to help make the point?
There are, after all, two blind men in Mark. One, unnamed, is at the end of Chapter 8, where Jesus has almost despairingly said to the disciples, “18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” He then heals the first blind man who still cannot see clearly; people look like trees walking. But then, after more attention, and looking intently, (hint) he sees everything clearly. (8:22-26)
This first blind man is brought to Jesus. (8:22) Still blind, but not quite so blind perhaps, Bartimaeus “brings” himself; he is there, on the side of the road crying out, “Jesus, Son of David.” (10:46)
The two stories are ‘bookends’ to an intense period of teaching what it means to be Messiah, and what it means to follow the Messiah on the road. On the road is Mark’s constant code phrase which refers to following Jesus.
Only after this teaching, this looking intently, are the last few miles which begin the final journey up to Jerusalem able to be travelled.
In this week’s story we are in Jericho; Mark carefully emphasises this by needlessly repeating the name. Jericho was the place where the walls came tumbling down shortly after Israel’s entry into the Promised Land. Later, false witnesses will say, 58‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands...”’-- more walls. (14:58)
Image is piled upon image, to help us see clearly that neither this going up to Jerusalem which will destroy the walls, nor this Messiah, despite all their historic resonance, carry the military connotation people expected.
Bartimaeus is identified not only as blind, but as a beggar. He is not blessed of God like the rich young man. He stands as a contrast to him, in every way; unlike the rich young man, he gives up all he has, even his cloak.
The rich young man addressed Jesus as Good Teacher; Bartimaeus calls him Jesus Son of David, a clear reference to the Messiah.
Whereas the young man was deeply shocked, and went away when Jesus called him, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus! (50)
Bartimaeus already sees more clearly than the rich young man, and more clearly than the disciples, as he sits by the way, rather than already being on the way, like the disciples.
Yet although he is not brought to Jesus, unlike the first blind man, Bartimaeus is still called. “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.’” Despite what we work out for ourselves, we still need Jesus to call us; to enable us to see.
Dramatic tension is heaped up in the story; Jesus stood still; there is no casual calling. There is shouting, disapproval, springing up, healing...
As well as reflecting on the rich young man, the story harks back to the two teaching chapters in another way. Jesus asked James and John “What is it you want me to do for you?” almost exactly the same question he asks Bartimaeus. The answer of Bartimaeus is starkly different; “Let me see again.”
Being able to see is far more important than status.
I notice that Mark contrasts the name Jesus of Nazareth with that of Jesus, Son of David. Jesus Son of David is repeated; the people tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, not because he is a beggar disturbing the peace, but because this is a politically dangerous insight, and because Jesus, Son of David is one of the lessons we are to meant see when we look intently (8:25) at the story. Bartimaeus sees Jesus is more than Jesus of Nazareth. It is not by accident that Mark has him shouting out the name.
But why MacShultz?
When I began to look for a meaning in the name Bartimaeus— Mark only gives names for a purpose— I immediately thought of The Timaeus, one of the Dialogues of Plato. I don’t think there is a connection.
Those with a mythicist bent are inclined to point out the role of sight in The Timaeus, but Mark does not make allusions to the philosophers anywhere else. For the same reason I also reject the idea that Bartimaeus is Mark’s re-presentation of the blind sage Tiresias who appears in the Odyssey.
Is Bartimaeus a multilingual pun? It’s always gratifying to have an idea and then find someone agrees; in this case Burton Mack! (A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins Fortress p191 You can find a reference to it here. A non-mythicist treatment is here)
One translation of Bartimaeus would be son of the unclean, or son of poverty stemming from the Aramaic name Bar-temayah. This is a frequent interpretation, as any internet search on the name will show.
If that were the point, why would Mark emphasise his translation of that name into Greek? In Greek, timaeus means honoured, or worthy.
In the pun, Bartimaeus starts out in poverty, almost certainly unclean in the eyes of the law, and becomes a son of the honoured one. Will we remain like James and John, or the rich young man, or will we answer the call, and allow ourselves to be made worthy?
In all of this there is something for those of us who preach to remember. What might we be saying to those who are physically blind when we reflect on this story? How would I preach this if a friend in the front pew were blind?
But what about the real person under all this symbolic development? What if I am visually impaired, partially or fully blind? I cannot be reduced to a symbolic prop. What must it be like with all these words about blindness and songs about recovering sight when you know you are blind and will never see? There are many ways of being ignored, treated as someone who does not matter, or made into a stereotype. Is it possible to truly belong as a person with a disability in a community? Bill Loader
I remember a Papuan woman who visibly flinched when I talked about the “blackness of sin” in a sermon; one of those moments you always regret. Bill goes on to say
Despite the inevitable exaggerations it is likely that Jesus did perform healings. It is too difficult otherwise to explain the strength of the tradition. Its relevance is another question - very relevant for the fortunate ones healed, very significant as a symbol of recovery and renewal, notable as fulfilment of biblical images of hope. But where the focus falls on the achievements, the cry from the roadside must be heard: me, too! Why do you prattle on about all these wonders when you know well that I shall be like this for the rest of my life? How can you be so insensitive, unrealistic?
Honest caring which does not over-promise or load me with guilt at promises unfulfilled is what I want from the side of the road. I, too, am someone of worth. Of course, I want change where that can be done, but I don’t want to be the stuff of your miracles and potential propaganda. I am not odd, stupid, a "case", a need - I’m a person, not a discounted person or a person to be discounted.
I think I would need to speak with a physically blind person before preaching on this text. And I am left wondering how many other conversations I should have had before preaching.
There is one more allusion to see.
Jack Spong has an essay titled: Examining the Meaning of the Resurrection: Who Stood in the Centre of the Easter Breakthrough? He is asking who it was who first understood what Jesus signified. His suggestion is Peter.
He says (working from all the Gospels)
When we search the entire New Testament, Peter emerges at the center of the Jesus experience, yet there is clearly ambivalence in the biblical portrait of Peter....
He suggests that Mark’s story of Jesus healing the blind man from Bethsaida...
is not a miracle story at all, but rather a parable about the conversion of Peter (Mk. 8:22-30). Recall three things about this story. First, it comes immediately prior to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is indeed the Christ. Following that confession Jesus first applauds Peter for his insight and then rebukes him for not understanding his own words. Second, Peter hails from Bethsaida. Third, the curing of this man’s blindness does not come all at once, but rather it comes in stages, just as Peter’s understanding of Jesus seems to have done. At first we are told that the blind man from Bethsaida sees "trees walking" and only later when Jesus has laid his hands on him a second time and has looked at him "intently" was his real sight ultimately created and he was enabled "to see."
Again the names are important. Caesaria Philippi is the Philippi of Caesar; Herod’s seat, and where the Messiah is announced in opposition to the political powers. Bethsaida (John’s Gospel tells us this is Peter’s home) means House of Fishers.
And we are all Peter. We are all ambivalent. And, in a sense, we are all at “the centre of the Jesus experience,” as Spong put it. It is we who are being called. We will all waver with Peter. The question is whether we will finally spring up with Bartimaeus, and see again.
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