The Lectionary readings for Year B hold us in Mark 10 for three weeks before we finally come to the end of the chapter and to perhaps one of the most familiar stories in all of the Gospels, beloved by Sunday schools everywhere. And yet the familiarity and child-like elements of this story belie the complexity of the chapter and of this story’s importance as the keystone for the whole.
Jesus has had a series of encounters with people who want something from him. The religious leaders wanted to bracket him in or out according to his exact interpretation of a disputed point of theology. The rich man sought to add to his store of wealth by acquiring an entitlement to the Kingdom. And two foolish disciples thought to steal a march on the rest of the insiders by claiming positions of power.
Together they represent the traditional sources of power in our world, religious, economic and political.
In between these encounters Jesus is constantly taking time with his followers (10:10-11; 23-26; 27-31; 32-35; 41-45) who simply don’t get it. This is unsurprising really because even in our day people still seek the Kingdom through the exercise of religious, economic and political power. Just watch today’s news.
Instead Jesus tells them greatness comes through service and those who place themselves last will have a prominent place in the Kingdom which is coming. And as a practical example, in the face of those who would wield religious, economic and political power for their own ends, Jesus meets the children and says that the Kingdom is received like a child, vulnerable, powerless and dependent.
Then comes the Bartimaeus story. As an aside, It’s worth contemplating why he alone is given a name, out of all the encounters in this chapter with people from outside the inner circle? In fact, his is one of the very few healings in all four Gospels where the one healed is given a name (Lazarus, of course (John 11:38-44), Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9) and possibly Malchus (see Luke 22:50-51 and Matt 26:51, Mark 14:47, John 18:10).
The story is told very precisely. We note that Bartimaeus is sitting begging on the way out of Jericho. His persistence annoys the crowd, but all he is looking for is mercy, not theological exactitude, nor economic benefit, not even a humble place among the elite. And yet his way to the centre is barred by those who continue to misunderstand what it is to follow Jesus along the way.
But Bartimaeus, (let’s continue to name him), is determined and he finally gets to meet Jesus. The telling of this story contrasts with all the other encounters. There is no cynicism in the man, in contrast to the religious leaders. Bartimaeus throws aside a precious possession, his cloak, in order to follow Jesus, unlike the rich man who couldn’t forego his things. And he approaches at Jesus’ invitation, rather than presume to have a place like James and John mistakenly did, which is perhaps why Jesus pointedly asks him exactly the same question he asked James and John after their bizarre demand (10:35).
Bartimaeus, the poor, blind man, begging on the way out of the city (perhaps unsurprisingly, the way Jesus was travelling) demonstrates by his answer to this question that he understands far more than those hungry for religious, economic and political power.
“I want to see.” (10:51).
Perhaps all consideration of this gospel text should end here.
Bartimaeus receives the same response as the rich man, “Go!” and with it the necessary healing which the previous recipient of the command never availed of.
Mark regularly tells us through this chapter that Jesus is on the move (10:1, 17, 32,46, 52). Only in verse 32 do we get information on his destination, Jerusalem. For those of us who know the ending of the story we know that the direction Jesus is travelling is towards suffering and the cross and Bartimaeus, who is no stranger to suffering, follows Jesus along that road.
We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy thinking and acting as if the Kingdom is inaugurated, protected or extended, by procuring, securing and exercising religious, economic and political power. We pursue the traditional sources of power as a way to avoid suffering and struggle. Jesus couldn’t be any clearer here. To be first, you must chose the lowest position because greatness comes through service, for this is the self-professed example of Jesus himself (10:43-45).
So much of the conflict in our world, and in our faith communities occurs because of the self-interested or fearful execution of power which has the ultimate effect of destroying community. Instead, those who serve others, who seek and know a lowly place in the world, like the mighty Bartimaeus, find an encounter with one who can heal and who can be company on the way. Mutual service creates community.
Creator God who said “Let there be Light”
and who crafted our eyes to see.
Saviour Jesus who healed with a touch
and who gives sight beyond seeing.
Holy Spirit who leads us into understanding
and gives the gift of wisdom
and of a tender heart.
Triune God help us to truly see
That the way to the Kingdom
Comes through service
That the power for transformation
Will come with suffering
And give us grace to know that you
Will accompany us along the way.
This is an extract from my contribution to the lectionary resources on the Spirituality of Conflict website, reading the Gospel texts through the lens of conflict and conflict through the lens of the Gospel texts.