The most broken and most valued

Try this: Take that book you’ve been meaning to read—the one you haven’t yet begun—and open it to the tenth chapter.  Start reading there.  Chapter ten.  And don’t skip back to the beginning of the book.  See what sense you can make out of what the author is trying to convey.  It doesn’t matter what the book is.  It could be a novel, a biography, or a Shakespeare play.  If you begin reading in the middle, you’re bound to misunderstand the meaning.

I suggest this exercise because of this Sunday’s Gospel passage in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Too often, the only scripture reading we do is in church on Sunday, and we therefore only hear the Bible in little chunks, as if each stands alone.  Our more Protestant brothers and sisters sometimes have it even worse, with preachers who will take a single verse of text and contend that it can be understood out of its context.   Whenever that happens, beware.  And perhaps nowhere in scripture is this danger more acute than in this Sunday’s Gospel passage: Mark 10:46-52.

Jesus and the disciples are leaving Jericho.  As they hit the road, a blind man shouts to Jesus.  Jesus heals him, and both the man and Jesus continue on the Way.  Standing alone, it’s not unlike any of the other healing stories in the Gospel.  The blind man could just as easily have been the leper, the man with the withered hand, or the hemorrhaging woman.  But St. Mark is a brilliant writer, and this story is not as simple as it seems.

Scholars refer to chapters 8, 9, and 10 of Mark’s Gospel as the hinge on which the whole story turns.  And these chapters are bookended by two stories in which blind men are healed.  The two stories are intimately related, but we miss that fact when we read them separately.  The first story, in chapter 8, has Jesus at Bethsaida.  There, a nameless blind beggar is brought to Jesus.  The blind man himself doesn’t ask for anything—he’s entirely passive—but his friends ask Jesus to touch him.  Jesus does and then asks, “Can you see anything?”  To which the beggar replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.”

In other words, this beggar is just beginning to see, but his sight is still fuzzy.  It’s unclear, and he’s unsure of the world around him.  Even after he’s healed, he is still confused.  He is not yet ready to follow Jesus, and Jesus sends him home.

Fast forward two chapters, to Mark 10:46.   Here, unlike in the first story, the blind beggar has a name: Bartimaeus.  He can’t see, but he is not confused, and he’s not passive.  He calls out to Jesus by name, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!  Let me see again!”

And to Bartimaeus, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus immediately gains his clear sight, and he follows Jesus.

So in one instance we have a confused, passive, and unnamed blind man whose sight at first returns as a cloudy haze.  In the other instance, we have a man who knows his need, reaches out for Jesus, and gains his vision with crystal clarity.  And we are told that these two connected stories form the crux of Mark’s Gospel.  What do they mean?

The meaning—Mark’s meaning—comes to us slowly, like the first blind man’s sight, when we recognize that these two blind men aren’t like all the other people in need of healing in Mark’s Gospel.  They, though perhaps historical characters in their own right, represent us.  Mark has put them right in the center of his story as a challenge to us.  We are the confused, blind beggar at Bethsaida.  We are the ones who, by chapter 8 in Mark’s Gospel, are just beginning to see, just beginning to understand what Jesus is all about.  Until now in the story, Jesus’ work has been primarily healing people, exorcising demons, and dispensing bits of wisdom.  Until now Jesus has been portrayed as something of a combination between Confucius and a Native American shaman.  With that portrayal we can sort of understand Jesus, but our vision is cloudy.

What, then, changes in the two chapters between the stories of the beggars?  A lot.  After the first beggar sees people that look like trees walking, Jesus climbs the Mount of Transfiguration, where he is transformed into his true nature before the eyes of Peter, James and John.  They see, for the first time, that Jesus is more than a mere holy man.  He’s the Son of God, the one who will bring to completion everything God was up to in the Old Testament.

During this time, Jesus also spars with the rich young ruler and with James and John.  To the rich man, Jesus says (in paraphrase), “You must let go of your attachments.  In your case, you must sell all you own and give the money to the poor.”  To James and John, he says, “To share in my glory, the first must be last.”  And most importantly, Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection not once, not twice, but three times.

All this happens between these stories of the blind men.  It’s an action-packed couple of chapters!  They clarify who Jesus is.  These chapters tell us that Jesus is not a traveling medicine man and dispenser of fortune-cookie sayings, upon whom we are simply to wait passively so that he can make us feel better.  Jesus is the Son of God—God come to be among us—the one we are to pursue, the one for whose Way of redemption we are to give up our lives and our selves.  Jesus is the one we are to follow to the cross, to the grave, both figuratively and, if necessary, literally.  And if we’ll follow, Jesus is the one who will grant us the unimaginable gift of a share in his new life.

So you see, if we’ve been paying attention, then by the time Jesus approaches Blind Bartimaeus in Jericho today, we know who Jesus is.  That vision is clear.  The only fuzzy question that remains is whether we know who we are.

Here’s the clincher: Of all the people Jesus heals in the Gospels, all the men, women, and children, the whole panoply, Bartimaeus is the only one given a name: bar-Timaeus, son of Timaeus.[i]  And the Aramaic word from which the name “Timaeus” derives is a shape-shifter.  It means two things, opposites of one another.  On the one hand, it means “honor” or “worth.”  And on the other, it means, “impure,” “abominable,” even “garbage.”[ii]  Bar-Timaeus is, then, at the same time both the “most valuable son” and the “most unworthy, most broken son.”  And Bartimaeus is us.

That’s the last lingering blindness of which Jesus must cure us if we’re to grasp fully the meaning of the Gospel: the blindness to our own identity, the blindness to who we are in relation to Jesus.  Virtually all of us are aware of one half of our identity.  But so many of us are blind to the other half, and to which half we’re blind differs for each of us.

Some of us walk through the world with a vision of ourselves as most worthy people.  Our homes are large; our cars are new; our social standing is high; our families are scrubbed clean.  We move in such gilded circles that the sparkle so blinds us we’d walk straight off a cliff (and many do).  For us, in order to be healed, we must see that we are also “Bartimaeus, the unworthy, the broken.”  We must see that our spit and polish is a thin veneer.  It only masks our weakness and our need for the redeeming, sustaining love of God.

Many others of us walk through the world everyday already so aware of our brokenness that it cripples.  We have been told and we have experienced again and again that we are lacking.  Our lives have been marked by disappointment and loss.  We are already like the beggar at the city gate, blind to hope and joy, and we yearn for the moment when the Son of God walks by.  For us, in order to be healed, we must see that we are also “Bartimaeus, the most cherished, the most valued and loved by God in all the world.”

This clear vision Jesus grants us.  It’s the final piece of the Gospel puzzle we need in order to see who Jesus is and what he’s all about.  Bartimaeus sees clearly.  He knows who Jesus is, and he knows who he himself is.  He sees that Jesus is the Son of God.  He sees that he, Bartimaeus, is a broken man in desperate need of Jesus.  And he sees that in the eyes of God’s Son he is valued and loved above all things and consequently given healing grace in abundance.  Seeing these things gives him the strength to follow the Way of Jesus.  We are Bartimaeus.  What do we see?

[i] The possible exception is Lazarus, but Lazarus is raised from the dead, which is theologically different from the healing stories.

[ii] See both, the blog of the Rev. Gareth Hughes and Philip Yancey’s What Good is God: In Search of a Faith that Matters, pg. 277.

Privilege, flying first class, and the kingdom of God

The first time I flew first-class was fifteen years ago.  I was the director of admissions for a small university, taking one of innumerable flights my job required.  I can’t remember if I was bumped up on points or if it was simply a mistake, but after she acted surly toward the person in front of me in line, the gate attendant looked at my name on her monitor and beamed, “Ah, Mr. Thompson, you’re in first class today.”

I knew that didn’t sound right, but I was afraid of breaking the spell, so I said, “Yes, of course,” and sheepishly took a seat to await boarding.  Back in those days I sometimes flew Southwest Airlines, a carrier we don’t have in this part of the world.  Southwest’s boarding system was then starkly democratic.  Actually, Darwinian is a better term.  It certainly involved survival of the fittest.  When the boarding call came, everyone charged the gate at once, and the quickest and strongest got the choice seats.

But on this trip I was flying American or United, I suppose, and for the first time in my life, when the attendant called for “first class,” I rose from my seat.  I still felt like a pretender about to be found out, but I also glanced just a little smugly at the hoi polloi who’d paid for coach as I sauntered to the jetway.

Upon entering the plane, a solicitous flight attendant showed me to a seat that resembled a Bark-O-Lounger.  She took my carry-on from me and stowed it in the overhead bin herself.  Then she asked if I’d like something to drink.  Dumbly and parochially, I asked, “How much will it cost?”  She must’ve thought I’d made a joke, because she just smiled and said, “You!  What can I get you?”

“Gin and tonic?” I probed tentatively, and she whisked back to her mini-bar to fix my drink.  That’s when it happened.  No sooner had I turned my attention to the massive leg room at my feet than the cattle gate opened, and a herd of coach passengers filled the aisle.  They came, and they kept coming.  My elbow was bumped.  A baby cried.  And then I saw the nice flight attendant across the way with my drink in her hand.  She couldn’t get to me!  The masses were blocking her way.  And I was thirsty.  The situation was unacceptable.  I was parched because the passengers in coach weren’t efficient or considerate or deferential enough.  I was a first class passenger.

My indignation reached a fevered pitch, until an admissions counselor I knew from another college entered the plane.  He spotted me immediately, and over the heads of the people in front of him called out audibly to me, “Thompson!  What are you doing up here?  You don’t belong in first class!”

It was all I needed to bring me back to earth.  I realized that in the span of half an hour, given a privilege I had not earned, I’d already begun to believe that I was, after all, somehow different from the people in coach.  In thirty minutes.  And we bristle at Jesus’ saying, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God…”

For twenty-first century Americans (perhaps especially Episcopalians) this is a bothersome passage of scripture.  It makes us defensive.  It causes us to grumble.  It startles us every time we read it.  It seems to lay a guilt trip on us, when we’ve worked so hard for the things we have.  Like us, the specific rich man to whom Jesus is referring is not a bad guy.  He follows the commandments of God; he does not defraud his neighbor; he tends to his aging parents.  This man is someone we would admire, and so we are as surprised as he is when Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”

That passage is found in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  What’s going on in it?  Looking at Mark’s version (Mark 10:17-31), the key to the passage comes later, when the disciples are quizzing Jesus about his exchange with the rich man and his saying about camels and needles.  “Who then can be saved?” they ask in despair.  Jesus’ response is, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”

For mortals it is impossible.  The rich man’s failure is clear in the very way he frames his question to Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, the living Word of God who the Letter to the Hebrews says “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” recognizes that the rich man believes eternal life is something to be earned or achieved.  Jesus has the further piercing insight that the rich man’s error comes not from his attempts to be a good person (which Jesus applauds), but rather from his material life, from the fact that he always travels first class and believes he rightly deserves to.  Jesus and the rich man exist in an era in which, even more than in our own, affluence was subconsciously accepted as perhaps a sign of hard work and certainly a sign of God’s favor.

The wealthy, including the very man in our story, were exalted as being somehow different than the masses.  The wealthy believed it, and on some level the poor believed it, too.  That’s why even the disciples are incredulous that it could be so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.  The affluent, the disciples uncritically assume (and consider the way we, too use this term) are privileged.  It’s a worldview the rich man can’t help but transfer to his own salvation.

In very many ways, the rich man is a good man, but his fatal error—his illness, we might say—is that he holds too tightly to his things and the status that comes with them.  He holds them so tightly and close that they cloud his vision.  His things and his striving for them lead to the subconscious belief that they somehow do make him different, maybe even subtly better, than others.  In a word, for the rich man, his privilege becomes the lens through which he interprets his whole life, including eternal life.  And so long as he, or we for that matter, subconsciously understand eternal life in those terms, we will never enter it.

It does not follow that Jesus is denigrating achievement.  Nor does it mean that Jesus believes we shouldn’t enjoy our material lives.  But then, how?   C.S. Lewis says it best: God “wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could [for instance] design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in that fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad [that he had done it] than he would be if it had been done by another.  [God] wants him…to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents…[God] wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures as glorious and excellent things.”[i]

The prescription for the rich man is, of course, grace: grace to admit that he isn’t privileged, not by God; grace to accept that he doesn’t deserve eternal life any more than anyone else does; he doesn’t earn it; he can’t achieve it.  God has the power and will to offer this grace.  All things are possible for God.  But the subconscious is a stubborn thing.  The only way for the rich man to open himself to grace, the only way to break his fever and shed his worldview, is to loose hold of all those things he believes he has already earned, deserved, and achieved and open himself to God.

To put it bluntly, it’s not God’s grace that is narrow; it is the rich man who is thick, in mind, in soul and in things.  He must let go in order for God’s grace to save him.  If he will, Jesus promises, he’ll receive back his life one hundredfold!  He’ll understand what boundless riches and boundless love really are.  But he doesn’t want to.  He relies too much on his things and the notion that he is privileged and set apart.  He doesn’t believe Jesus.  So he walks away.

It turns out this is not such a bothersome passage after all.  It’s not about guilt and condemnation; it’s about healing.  It’s not about narrow gates; it’s about the wideness of God’s grace.  Whether we’re rich or, as middle class Americans, convinced that we’re just one brilliant decision away from wealth and yes, privilege, we’re invited to believe Jesus when he says that healing, salvation, eternal life will begin when we loose hold of our material lives and our striving and open ourselves to God’s grace.

I’ll never forget one rare snowfall in Arkansas when I was a child.  When I awoke in the morning the ground was a white blanket and snow was still falling in great flakes, and my older brother and I ran into the yard in wonder.  I scooped up a handful of snow and watched the sunlight glisten through it like rays through a prism.  I so wanted my mother to see it.  I grabbed hold of that snow tightly and ran back to the house.  “Look, look!” I cried to my mom, and opened my clenched hand.  There was no sunlight left.  There were no magical flakes.  There was only a small, hard, dead ball of ice.

The snow was, to a child, a gift from God, and it was everywhere.  The world was blanketed in it.  The only thing that could deny me of it—the only thing—was my clinging, as if it were a thing I owned, a thing I deserved, a thing I could possess.

The world is blanketed by grace.  It is wide.  It is everywhere.  It is free to all: rich, middle class, and poor.  But first we must let go.

[i] Lewis, C.S.  The Screwtape Letters, chapter 14.