Grace Presbyterian Church
October 24, 2021, Pentecost 22B
Finally, Someone Gets It!
What is the thing that most convinces you, in the course of your getting through the day, that people just don’t get it?
I’m not talking about anything particularly lofty or deep. I’m not talking about the muck and grime of political discourse. I’m talking about the average, the mundane, the kind of thing that happens in the midst of the basic and unremarkable that leaves you scratching your head and wondering why people just don’t get it?
For me, I think it’s traffic. Take one morning this week, as I’m making my way to the office. The speed limit on this particular stretch of road is 45 mph. This road is a divided four-lane street, which (you would think) improves traffic flow and allows for those moving at that speed limit not to be obscured by slower traffic. You would think this, and yet somehow there are enough slow-moving vehicles (semis, large loaded cargo trucks, trailers, the works) scattered across both of the westbound lanes of traffic (almost as if deliberately placed for maximum obstructiveness) that you are lucky if you can get anywhere near 35 mph. Your dream of getting into the office a little early goes up in vehicular exhaust fumes, and your brain ends up scrambled and disjointed as you try to get to work. Perhaps most of all, you are left to wonder why it is that so many people, when it comes to traffic and the basics of getting around in a safe yet efficient manner, just don’t get it.
The gospel of Mark gives us a lot of examples of Jesus’s disciples demonstrating that they just don’t get it. Chapters 8-10 in particular bring this point about the disciples home with extra force, as they falter again and again in the face of Jesus’s repeated insistence on his coming suffering and death. Even the rare occasion of one of them seeming to “get it,” Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah back in chapter 8, is immediately followed by Peter’s demonstration that he really doesn’t get it. As we noted in last week’s reading, Jesus isn’t going to give up on them, since at that point he is literally in the process of giving his whole life, his very being, his soul for them. Still, you have to figure that it got frustrating.
We (along with Jesus) finally get a break from this relentless downer streak in today’s reading, when at long last we encounter a person who, in ways that are rare in this gospel, gets it. And it’s a person you might least expect to do so, to boot.
This passage begins curiously, with the terse statement that “they came to Jericho” followed immediately by the declaration that “as he (Jesus) and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…”. What happened in Jericho? Is this like that popular line that got its start in TV commercials, the one about how “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? What happened in Jericho that suddenly there is this large crowd traveling along with Jesus and the disciples? What do they think is going to happen, so that they choose to drop whatever they’re doing and follow Jesus? What do they want from Jesus? Do they get it any better than the disciples do?
Whatever the case may be, this newly enhanced crowd is making its way out of Jericho and comes within the range of a common fixture, one we ourselves can see often enough: a beggar on the side of the road. Mark gives us his name, Bartimaeus, and also helpfully translates the Aramaic name to tell us that he is “son of Timaeus.” We also learn that Bartimaeus is blind.
Somehow, in the hubbub of the crowd, Bartimaeus picks out the fact that this person passing by is the one called “Jesus of Nazareth.” At this he springs into action. Notice that in his calling out, he doesn’t cry out to “Jesus of Nazareth,” but to “Jesus, Son of David.” Now that sounds like a common enough reference to us Christians two thousand years later, but this is the first time that term is used in the whole gospel of Mark. The second time it comes up is in the next verse. The only other time it appears is a couple of chapters from now, when Jesus is in dispute with some of the religious scribes and authorities. And as far as Mark is concerned, that’s it. It’s not a typical name, and that tells us right away something about Bartimaeus.
In a way that almost nobody in this gospel has shown so far, Bartimaeus gets it.
To call Jesus “Son of David” is to tap into some of the deepest, longest-held prophetic teaching of Judaism at this time. It reaches back, obviously, to one of the most revered figures in Hebrew scripture. It ties Jesus not only into a royal line, but also into one of the most treasured promises of that scripture, the promise of a deliverer, a redeemer, who would come to save his people Israel. A Messiah, in other words.
We can’t claim that Bartimaeus gets everything, but he gets that much, and determines to call out to this Son of David. Getting shushed and shamed by the crowd only jacks up his determination that much more. He calls out “Son of David, have mercy on me!” even more loudly.
And Jesus stops.
The crowd, quite likely, grows quiet at this unexpected stop.
Jesus says, “Call him here.”
The crowd, up to now the ones shushing and shaming Bartimaeus, now calls him forward, and Bartimaeus does not hesitate. He throws off his cloak – quite likely his only earthly possession – and springs up from his blind-beggar position and makes his way to Jesus.
Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”
We’ve heard this before, just a few verses earlier in this chapter, when James and John come to him with their request for seats of honor in glory, a request born of their spiritual blindness. That’s what Jesus asks them, and Jesus asks that question again here, to a man pleading from his position of physical blindness.
Bartimaeus keeps it simple. “My teacher, let me see again.” Notice: my teacher. Not the generic “Teacher” more commonly heard throughout this gospel, even from Jesus’s disicples. Myteacher. Again, to a degree not seen so far in this gospel, Bartimaeus gets it. We still don’t fully understand just how much he gets it, not quite yet, but somehow, more than what we’ve seen so far, Bartimaeus gets it.
And Jesus seems to realize this. The last time he restored a blind man’s sight, back in chapter 8, the process was rather involved: spitting in the dirt to make some mud (sounds like an awful lot of spitting), applying that mud to the blind man’s eyes, then repeating the touch when the man reported seeing people looking like trees walking around. Not this time. The striking reply comes: “Go; your faith has made you well.” Then, Bartimaeus could see – no rinse-and-repeat necessary. One moment he couldn’t see, the next he could.
Still, though, that wasn’t the final evidence that this once-blind man understood. That comes in the final phrase; once Bartimaeus had regained his sight, he “followed him on the way.” So far as we are told he didn’t even pick up his cloak. Leaving behind what, again, was probably all he owned, he followed Jesus. If this sounds like an echo of the story of the rich man from earlier in this chapter, the one who left sorrowing at the thought of selling off all he owned, you’re right. Unlike that rich man (so far as we know), Bartimaeus gets it, and not only does he get it, he acts upon that understanding.
For a moment let us step back, outside of this core narrative arc of chapters 8-10 of this gospel, and see where we are in the larger narrative. Were we to keep reading, we would suddenly find ourselves on Palm Sunday; chapter 11 begins with the account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That of course kicks off the final sequence of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the week in Jerusalem coming into increasing first-hand conflict with the religious authorities and culminating in his arrest, mock-trial, and execution. All of that seeming ending is then undone on the third day.
In Mark’s gospel, that account is strikingly brief, you may remember. The women who go to the tomb are surprised by the young man in white, telling them that Jesus has been raised, and has gone ahead to Galilee; their job is to go tell his disciples – “and Peter,” he makes sure to add – to follow him there.
You could almost think that this encounter with Bartimaeus foreshadows that final anti-climactic moment of this gospel. Jesus’s followers, so spiritually sightless and clouded of vision for so long, are suddenly confronted with this new sight. Will they follow? Will they, at last, see? Will they finally get it?
And yes, this is a challenge the church, and we who call ourselves followers of Jesus, face even now. Will we see? Will we see just what Jesus calls us to be and to do? Will we not only see, but follow? Will we put ourselves at risk that way? Will we get it?
There is so much at stake here. The larger Christian church has spent much of the last century discrediting itself in pursuit of power (political or economic), or growth, or influence, or all of the above and more. Not surprisingly, public trust of the church is shriveling. Public signs of religious faith – something as basic as church attendance, for example – have shrunk from mid-century peaks, leaving behind pews that had gotten empty before the pandemic. Will we get it? And will we follow?
For, finally, the one who got it, and what he teaches us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah; #793, O Christ, the Healer; #450, Be Thou My Vision