We will have to be very brave…
Last week we talked about how all our ideas about God are mere idols. If that is true then how can we ever know the true God? It’s a problem. We find ourselves the subjects of Isaiah’s prophecy that we have ears that don’t hear and eyes that don’t see. Jesus quoted this very passage in Mark 4.
We should pay careful attention, then, to these two stories of men who had eyes and literally did not see. The story of the man born blind and today’s story about Bartimaeus are bookends that should direct our attention to what’s between them. In between these two stories of blind men being healed Jesus tried to get his disciples to understand, to see, the revolutionary nature of his mission but they remained blinded by ambition, jealousy, and lack of imagination.
Isaiah, again, leads us into the heart of this gospel when he says that the eyes of the blind shall be opened. The unclean Bartimaeus, unlike the insider-disciples, sees clearly that Jesus is the Son of David. His eyes are blind, but he sees quite a lot.
Between blindness and sight, that is between the two stories, we have Jesus teaching his disciples about his mission and the kingdom which is coming. He tells the disciples to be like children, to be servants, to be last, to lose their lives. As 21st century church people we know full-well what all those things mean, it’s part of our lingo, but to the disciples it must have sounded like crazy talk. What could all that possibly mean? Well, it wasn’t what they were thinking and even for us who claim so much insight it’s still not a very encouraging story. It’s basically a trip to the cross.
The first healing takes place in Bethsaida, we meet Bartimaeus in Jericho which is the last stop before Jerusalem. Then the cross. So, there will not be any glory of the type we usually recognise. Death is coming.
When speaking metaphorically, though, we have to look past the death of Jesus and past the little deaths that we are subject to as well, this is the death of a system. Remember that Jesus came to die a sacrificial death because he was responding to a sacrificial system. The quid pro quo of atonement for sacrifice is now a thing of the past.
I like the way Suella Gerber said it:
The disciples…and we…keep trying to figure out how the Kingdom of God works. What are the rules and instructions? What’s the right thing and what’s the wrong thing? But Jesus isn’t interested in the binaries that we human beings get caught in. Jesus doesn’t care about clean and unclean. And he’s also not interested in moving people from the category of “least” into the category of “greatest”, or the “greatest” becoming the “least.” Because we’d still be left with “greatest” and “least.” We’d still have two oppositional categories, it’s just that now there are different people in each.
She goes on to say that it is only in letting go of what we think we see that we can begin to see that Jesus is demolishing the systems that keep us enslaved to the sins of violence, jealousy, and general blindness. There is no first and last, there is only all of us. There is no status, no merit, none above another. It’s mind blowing, isn’t it!
Compare James and John to Bartimaeus. In last week’s reading Jesus asked James and John what they wanted him to do for them, and they indicated that they wanted some glory. “Let one of us sit on your right side and one of us on your left when you come into your kingdom,” they said. When Jesus posed the same question to Bartimaeus, he asked for sight, for vision. We might do well to look at our own prayers. Are we asking for glory or for understanding? Recall that in I Kings when Solomon asked for wisdom, or understanding, it pleased God. Solomon and Bartimaeus are the examples that stand in contrast to James and John.
Yet, there are things we don’t want to see. Turning from the Bible in our right hand to the newspaper in our left hand, we see the headlines that have dominated the news all week about the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the United States resident who was murdered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey. It has been in every newspaper and on every TV news show. People are upset. And this death is a tragedy. It is important. It merits all the attention it has gotten. Yet, we almost never hear about the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who have been murdered in the on-going, and US-backed, war against them. That is hard to see.
I also remember one little four-year-old lad whose lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2015: Aylan Kurdi. The world was transfixed by the image of this innocent boy, someone’s child, who had died trying to escape the horrors of his homeland. And we were right to be moved by it, right to say that it matters, this boy who will never grow to be a man. Yet, we almost never hear of our Rohingya brothers and sisters who live in daily terror either in Myanmar, across the border in a camp, or somewhere in transit or hiding. Nearly one million Rohingya have fled for their lives with only what they can carry, if they even had time to take anything. We don’t see them.
This week the remains of Matthew Shepherd were laid to rest in our National Cathedral. He died twenty years ago yet most of us remember it like it was yesterday. It was only one life, but it broke our hearts. And, again, we were right to say that this matters, this is big. His death deserved all the attention it got. But, again, what about the others? Why do we pay attention to one and fail to see the many others?
Stalin once said that the death of one person is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic. He was right. It’s hard to see. We are blind.
Psychologists have a term for this. It’s called collapse of compassion. One life resonates. Many lives are too much to comprehend. So we close our eyes.
You may be with me so far. This is the news, after all. It’s our common language. But, what if I ask you about the things in your own life that you’ve refused to see? What feels like it would just be too much to look at squarely? What are the things that you mentally steer clear of?
Are there any unclean beggars in your community, in your church? Is it embarrassing when they call out over and over to the “royalty” in their world? Is it easier to tell them to be quiet, not to make a fuss? Do you pretend not to see?
When we read this story it is tempting to imagine that we are Bartimaeus and that Jesus calls for us. In our mind’s eye we may reverently respond and be graced with supernatural insight and become devoted disciples. Except that it doesn’t really hold water. Most of us are more likely to be in the crowd telling Bartimaeus to pipe down, not to make a fuss.
A more realistic reading shows us that Bartimaeus was probably not very clean. He surely didn’t get that name for nothing, after all. The robe he cast aside may have been the only thing he owned, and casting it aside may well have left him naked. He was not respectable. He will certainly not be elected to the vestry or serve on any boards. He is the part of us that we want to keep quiet, the part that sees clearly even when it is more convenient not to.
The answer to these questions that the disciples had about being last, losing their lives, being children… the answer is in getting in touch with your inner-Bartimaeus. Throw off whatever covers your shame and dare to stand naked before Jesus. The sight you gain will not make you greater or lesser, it will not make you better or worse, nor will you gain any insight about what is right or wrong, or how things “ought to be.” You will just be naked and healed.
The sacrificial system that sees honour and shame, insiders and outsiders, has been over come. It is a failed system, still in death throes, but fully failed nevertheless.
I think we will all have to be very brave to do this.
I struggle with it.
But, join me in looking as hard as you can for the new system of love where we are all naked and vulnerable and healed.
Linda McMillan is in Burayada, Saudi Arabia where the desert winds are blowing sand and cold.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Isaiah 6:9ff… en the LORD told me to go and speak this message to the people: “You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never see.” The LORD also said, (CEV)
You can think of Isaiah as a starting point for Mark. There are a lot of verses that tie back to Isaiah and the gospel even states this connection right up front in the fist verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah…”
When there are two passages that bookend important material we call that an inclusio.
Isaiah 35:5… Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, ,land the ears of the deaf unstopped…
In Hebrew, timaeus means unclean. Thus, Bartimaeus was the son of uncleanliness. It is interesting that the son of uncleanliness was the first one to call Jesus the Son of David.
Mark 1:1… The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah…
I have excerpted from a sermon by Suella Gerber. You can read the whole sermon here. I usually think of “My Girardian Phase” as being over but more and more I go back to those things.
I want to be clear that I am not making any statement about the events surrounding the death of Jamal Khashoggi. I have no political interest. My only interest is the stability of the region and the on-going ability of people like me to come here and enjoy the warmth and hospitality of the Arab people who are my colleagues and who have become my friends.
The New York Times recently ran an article about why we are so moved by the death of Jamal Khashoggi but not other tragedies which involve more people. You can read it here.
You can read about the identifiable victim effect and psychic numbing here. Remember we are not psychologists. At least, I am not. Some of you may be, but most of us are not. Still, we can use these terms to help us get a handle on how we handle the day’s news even without full understanding. If you feel like you really need to understand these terms then go see a pro.