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 http://christhum.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/the-name-fame-and-shame-of-bartimaeus/, the blog of the Rev. Gareth Hughes and Philip Yancey’s What Good is God: In Search of a Faith that Matters, pg. 277.