Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

On the road with Bartimaeus

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. 

I've just taken two long days on an unexpected trip to eastern Victoria, which means there is only a short reflection for this week. While driving I kept returning to the question of Jericho. Mark uses geography to make a theological point. Some scholars suggest he invented the Sea of Galilee for this purpose. (Here for a summary and here for detail.) Why then, is Jesus in Jericho? As someone who frequented gentile territory, it is not likely that he felt the need to take the long route around Samaria (and that may be a furphy anyway.) Jericho has a theological purpose.

In the last lectionary cycle, I noted Mark D Davis' comment that "The last time someone shouted outside of Jericho, the walls fell down." It's a great line, but what are the walls that fall?

My thinking was interspersed with the constant reporting on the national apology to victims of institutional child sex abuse  in institutional care in Australia. This has indeed been one of the appalling episodes of our history, paralleling and including (they also were abused) the stealing of aboriginal children from their parents across generations. It has not escaped the notice of many Australians that the politicians who spoke with genuine remorse on the part of the nation during the apology, are the same ones who support the detention of children in Nauru in the most appalling conditions. There, children as young as ten attempt suicide while the government repeatedly forces attempts to gain them proper care into the federal courts.

We humans are characterised by our need for an enemy and a scapegoat. When our scapegoats are revealed to us, and we are finally shamed, we find others— I heard the term "enemy in our midst" in one of the speeches!— who we can blindly drive over the cliffs. So, in the past decade or so, as we began to own our evil towards aboriginal peoples and their children, and as we began finally to address the horror of our treatment of all children in care, we ramped up our detention of... other children. In one interview on the recent apology, a woman who survived the stolen generations— her grandparents were taken from their parents and then had their own children taken— referred to Palm Island and the children's homes as... detention centres. Yet in the midst of all this we have had an aspiring Prime Minister warning against even a single act of compassion. He is us; we have not repudiated him, his party, or the other one.

Jericho is a great national victory. Jericho stood in the way of Israel's entry into the Promised Land, that Eden of human fulfilment we all seek. And the story shows the original sin of humanity which is violence and scapegoating and which is still the way we live.  Joshua – his name means God saves— understands that victory can only be achieved by total destruction of the enemy, although it must be noted, contra Dutton, that even he allowed one act of compassion. (Joshua 6:24-5)

But once in the Promised Land, the scapegoating immediately continues: Joshua 7 is one of the classic scapegoating stories of the Old Testament.  And the memory is preserved through the Old Testament. The curse of Joshua 6:26 is remembered in 1 Kings 16:34

34In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho; he laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua son of Nun.

The Jericho of Jesus' time is founded on violence and scapegoating.

It is tempting to get around this by saying it was ancient Israel projecting its own violence upon God as a way of self-justification. But how, then, can we be sure that we are not doing the same when we strive for purity and holiness? Who is to say that such demands are truly of God rather than stemming from our own desires? At this point, if we are honest, we see we are blind; we cannot tell.

All the teaching of Mark 8:22 until Bartimaeus tells us that blindness can only be healed if we leave Jericho behind. The true Joshua— Jesus is the same name— must go to Jerusalem as the one who will die. We can only be healed of our blindness if we throw off the cloak of our security— our violence— and follow exposed and vulnerable along the way with him. There is no sitting by the way, we have to enter it. Only then will we see. We must become the children of dishonour, blind beggars without the comfortable answers of holiness, who instead follow the road and trust the uncomfortable saviour, if we are to be healed.

I listened to Counterpoint as I was on the last leg of my journey. Speaking about civilisation, Amanda Vanstone and her guest, David Wengrove, noted that

'mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others; these are the kinds of things that actually go into making civilisations.

Civilisation, they agreed, is more than the great ancient monuments we sometimes revere. Indeed, Wengrove noted that these monuments are very often places of blood sacrifice. Which is to say, the places of our not so civilised past. They are the remnants of the system of violence and scapegoating that held things together and enabled power systems of the kind which murdered Jesus. Ironically, Amanda Vanstone (whose program I like) was once Immigration Minister for the Australian government. We are enmeshed in our violence unless we walk the way to Jerusalem.

As a Uniting Church minister, I could scarcely avoid also thinking about the current pushback against same gender marriage by some of my colleagues, who seem blind to the grace which the Assembly has shown their point of view. James Alison points out that in one of John's healing stories,

During this process of increasing violence, there is simultaneously a process by which the blind man (who had never seen Jesus, because he actually received his sight at the pool of Siloam), becomes increasingly aware of who Jesus is: first he is just a man, then a prophet, finally he is a man from God who is superior to Moses (having done a work after all, that has never been known since the world began). At this point he is cast out. Jesus then comes to him, and he is able to recognize his benefactor as Lord and worship him. It is interesting that it is during the process of his exclusion that he comes to perceive with increasing clarity the nature of his benefactor, at the same time as the pharisees become increasingly hardened in their attitude towards Jesus. (This excerpt from The Joy of Being Wrong pp119-125 can be found here.)

Wherever and whenever we use violence and exclusion (aka scapegoating) to "civilise" ourselves; that is, to increase "mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others," all we do is increase our blindness to our violence, and to our God. And then, of course, our violence flourishes. We all live in this space:  A friend asked why we must always be the one to show grace when people seek to exclude LGBTIQ people. The answer is that if we do not; if we do not strive to include, then our excluding will always turn out to be a violence. We will find somewhere along the line that we were blind. Exclusion always privileges my sinful decisions and attitudes from correction while damning you for yours. And often while damning you for things less weighty than my own faults.

During the reflection of my road trip, I remembered hearing of an experiment where people are fitted with goggles which turn the world upside down. After around three days of wearing the goggles some have claimed that the world apparently begins to turn right side up again; the brain compensates and reinterprets the world. I certainly notice this with some riding glasses which distort my depth perception; after a few days on the road things look fine— but a bit odd when I take the glasses off! My metaphor from this is that Jesus, in asking us to walk away from Jericho, is offering to remove the blinders which mean we constantly misinterpret the world— everything from the nature of God, the nature of power, the nature of death. The blinders which mean we— all of us— in our attempts to be holy and good, are part of the problem. We are not being asked to do more, to be more holy. We are being asked to let go of a way of being.

The road to Jerusalem is lifelong and life changing. I suspect it requires constant trips back to Jericho to discard trash and pick up key bits of our being we have left behind to avoid being changed. But until we do this, and only as we do this, are we freed of our violence. Each time we live as though we are still in Jericho, holy though we may desire to be, we simply cloak ourselves with a more impenetrable violence. We will not get past the walls; we will be locked in. And we will not see that this is where we are. (Joshua 6:1)

Andrew Prior
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!

Also on One Man's Web
Seeing through the metaphors (2015)
Going to Jerusalem (2015)
Blind MacShultz (2012)
Let Me See! (2009)

David Howes 28-10-2018
Andrew, great in-sight into the text and context, historically and currently. Thank you for sharing this reflection. I'd go on a road trip with you anytime!
Andrew Prior 28-10-2018
Thankyou David. You'd be welcome!

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