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Mark begins his story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem in a surprising place, not in Jerusalem, but in Jericho with the story of Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus. This story completes a chapter in Mark concerning what it means to “see,” and highlights “the clash of values between Jesus who teaches what God wills for people and his disciples who exemplify what people want for themselves” (1).
Jesus prepares them for what is ahead through three predictions of his death followed by three teachings at the core of the rule of God:
- “Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but whoever will lose their lives . . .will save them (8:35)
- “If anyone wants to be great among you, that person is to be least of all . . . (9:35)
- “For the son of man came not be served but to serve . . . (10:43-45)
Commentator David Rhoads thinks of Mark’s writings not just as the story of Jesus’ preparation for his passion, but as the church’s plan for mission. So if, in an overly simplistic way we think of Mark as a kind of Boy Scout Handbook, “be prepared,” it is also about what we are to be prepared for. And since Mark is equipping a congregation that has real concerns about being arrested, detained and in some cases executed by the Emperor Nero, this is quite a task.
In these texts Mark lays out the choices — the choice between acquisition (saving one’s life), on the one hand, and relinquishment (losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel) on the other (2). People who choose the handbook of this world are driven by fear and seek to acquire wealth, status and power. People who follow Jesus way are empowered by their faith to relinquish life, status and power as signs of God’s self-giving love for the world. So the church – we – are to choose between securing our lives for ourselves, or, to risk our lives for the sake of others and for the gospel in faith that our lives are secure in the hands of our Creator.
And though the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, the discussion as they travel to Jerusalem reveals that they are profoundly unready for what is to come. In this pivotal moment we encounter blind Bartimaeus who Mark holds up as a model for discipleship: “As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”
At first, we feel encouraged when we hear this validation of Jesus’ heritage “Jesus, Son of David.” The man who cannot see correctly identifies Jesus. This is thrilling to us even now. We gain our bearings, weren’t we just singing “once in Royal David’s City stood a lowly cattle shed.” This is the chosen one of God. The plan is unfolding just as we had expected. We do not have to be afraid! Here is the leader whom God has been preparing since the beginning of time to stand against the powers and principalities. Hosanna!
But this is not how Mark’s story will unfold. Mark will shift the framework of our understanding in a surprising way. A little known scholar, Ted Trost, believes that Mark is telling the story of two sons. Jesus, Son of David. And Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Mark’s identification of Bartimaeus is curious. In this, the shortest and most economical of the gospels, Mark says his name twice. Bar-timaeus already means son of Timaeus. Why say it again? Why go to so much trouble to point out the blind man’s paternity? This scholar thinks that it is because not only are we to pay attention to the two sons, but also to the two fathers (3).
Both Jesus and David entered Jerusalem in order to dedicate it to God. So how did David do it? For this we turn to the passage that Susan read for us from 2 Samuel 5:8. According to the writer of 2 Samuel, the Jebusites offered up the lame and the blind of the city as a kind of human shield to ward off David’s invading army. The Jebusites reasoned that David and his men would not risk polluting themselves through coming into contact with unclean people. But David slaughtered the lame and the blind, for as it is recorded, such people were “hated by David’s soul.” Indeed we learn that David banished these unclean ones from his house forever.
Now Bartimaeus’ cry to “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” is chilling. But in contrast to David’s entry into the city, Mark records that Jesus stopped and said, “call him here.” And they called the blind man saying “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Mark records that Jesus restored the sight of the man whose name, Bar-Timaeus’ means literally “Son of the Unclean.” The very one who would have been slaughtered by David is now accepted into Jesus’ company and follows him “on the way” to Jerusalem and the cross. Into the heart of royal David’s City, into the temple established by David’s son, Solomon, Jesus introduces a new son, Bartimaeus, Son of the Unclean.
Jesus himself will finally embody defilement, made unclean by a cursed death on a tree according to the book of Deuteronomy. This is not the battle plan that anyone could have foreseen, or a lineage anyone would search their genealogy to establish. This is not the reassuring continuity of the royal house but the very re-knitting of humanity by the hand of God.
This new kingdom shatters everything that came before it and gospels say so. Mary’s womb was the place of life that would be uniquely new, the colt was one “that had never been ridden.” And Jesus would be laid in a tomb “where no one had ever been laid.” God is doing a new thing.
And so Mark lays out the plan for a church that must be prepared. Who will have the faith, hope and love that will empower them to follow Jesus’ way? Mark’s words point to the ones who must be recruited for the mission: Bartimaeus, the Gerasene Demoniac, the Syrophoenician woman. These are ones who may be relied upon to receive the blessings of the kingdom and share the gospel with joy. They will push the mission forward even to the ends of the earth. And if we glimpse it, we also will find our faith and courage in the example of Jesus and his followers who did not waver in the face of relinquishment of his life.
Abused, betrayed, like the lame and blind of the Jebusites, Jesus was led to the slaughter. Those who are able to “hear” and “see” what God is doing, correctly identify him as the One who is faithful to the end. They are drawn to him and they too will be led to the slaughter by empires to come. And by his stripes, and by their stripes we are healed and have this indestructible faith. Bartimaeus, the woman with the flow of blood, the paralytics frozen on their mats, the man with the withered hand, like the blind gathered at the watercourse in Jerusalem are under no illusions about the outcome of the way of fear, it’s death. They are not in any respect blind when it comes to “seeing” where hope lies or what faith will require and they follow with joy because there is nothing standing between them and the one who restores them to life – not the loss of wealth or status or power. Having received everything from his hand, they are ready to respond.
Two paths, the two choices made plain: the way of acquisition and fear or the way of relinquishment, faith and joy? Are we as prepared as they to trust that our lives are already secured in God such that we are entirely free to follow the One who loves us so completely. May we like them not fail to spring up and move our feet when we hear the words: “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” Amen.
1) Rhoads, David. Reading Mark Engaging the Gospel, p. 45.
2) Ibid. pp. 47-57.
3) Trost, Theodore. No Other Foundation, 1991. p. 20.
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