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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Speaking up (B30O)

"Son of David, have pity on me."

It might be significant that this week's gospel, at the end of chapter 10 of Mark, forms an inclusio with another healing of a blind man, the one that took place in Bethsaida in chapter 8. Between the healings of these two blind men, we hear three predictions of the passion, Peter's "confession" that Jesus is the messiah, which is something about which he and Jesus have a misunderstanding, the story of the rich man who walks away, and the request of the sons of Zebedee we heard about last week, another gospel set-piece about misunderstanding what the "messiah" is going to do. This technique of the inclusio is to call our attention to what has transpired between the two incidents (of healing), and compare and contrast them to what is going on in the healings themselves.

My reading revealed to me that there is a lot of interest just in the name of Bartimaeus, the fact that the author of Mark tells his presumably non-Jewish readers that "bar-Timaeus" means "son of Timaeus." The name "Timaeus" then becomes a source of inquiry. What are the possible Aramaic or Greek roots. Does it mean anything? Some make a point of saying that Bartimaeus is one of the few who are named in Mark's gospel, but that makes me wonder, is calling somebody "son of Timaeus" really a "name," or just a patronymic, like calling Jesus "son of Joseph"? What is interesting to me is that the son of Timaeus calls Jesus "son of David," which is a literary device that I can't ignore, whether "Timaeus" has another meaning or not! And there's the intriguing question, too, as to whether "Timaeus" (a Greek name) might be a reference to the Timaeus Dialogue of Plato, in which Timaeus "takes the design of the eyes and the mechanics of vision as an important case in point" in a discussion about rescuing the intellect from the imperfections of its creation. 

At any rate, this blind son, perhaps "son of honor," perhaps "son of shame," perhaps just of "son of Timaeus," cries out from his accustomed place by the side of the road, "Son of David! Have pity on me!" The Greek verb here, ἐλέησόν, you will recognize as the "eleison" of the liturgy. So "have mercy" might be a more consistent translation for us. There are a couple of important cultural references here. The whole scene, with Jesus, the "son of David," an honorific that declares him king of Israel, coming down the road and the beggar sitting on the side yelling "ἐλέησόν", we may be seeing a parody of imperial Rome. The Emperor and his generals, parading after a military victory, would make a great spectacle of the spoils of war the procession. Crowds of people lining the streets might then cry out to their divine emperor, "Kyrie! Eleison", that is, "Hey! we kept the fires burning and supported you in your victory...let some of the spoils come to us, too! You got it, and we need it! Let all that goodness you have be poured out on us!" And, like Mardi Gras, some of the goodness would be thrown to the crowds from the victors. Jesus is his emperor, and Bartimaeus expects the generosity of the victor to be thrown to him who announces his belief.

Bartimaeus, see, in this story, is calling Jesus his king, his kyrios, the "son of David." Which is a good reason for the people around, whether the disciples or other people along the side of the street, to tell him to shut up, because that kind of talk can get people arrested or beaten or worse. And the son of Timaeus would not shut up, he kept calling out to the son of David, because in his blindness he could see his emperor. The ones telling him to be quiet were now told by Jesus, "Call him." One commentator sees this as a remedy to the "anti-healing" of the attempt to make the blind man also mute! And Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?", which is a little reminiscent, don't you think, of the last pericope we heard, a few verses ago, when the sons of Zebedee said, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask you." But this supplicant will get what he asks for because it is something within Jesus's power to give: sight.

Finally, I love that Jesus tells him to go, and he doesn't go, he "follows (Jesus) on the Way." Which I suppose doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't go, but it sounds like joyful disobedience to me.

Those stories between the healings of these two blind beggars are all about what it means to be "the anointed one" of God (Christ, messiah) and what it doesn't mean. The light that Jesus is, showing the way of God that is the way of service and healing, is not the expected road of deliverance for us who admire the efficiency of brute force. We like the idea of conquering our enemies, taking over the palace, and having not just our daily bread and maybe some for tomorrow, but money in our bank accounts to assure bread and cheese and meat for a long time to come, and insurance to cover the bank accounts, and money in our wallets, and line of credit. We especially want these things if we're a long time in the "have not" category of LBJ's Great Society dialectic. We don't really want to think about waiting, about consensus, about non-violence toward the violent, about overthrowing the strong. You sit by the side of the road and wait for light to come along. You receive the empire of God like a child: you take baby steps, you get gradually loved into walking in the way on your own two feet. You do right, treat others with the care you would like to receive, you believe that God who gave life in the first place will not abandon you in the place of death, and when integrity requires it, against every instinct for survival, you enter that place with forgiveness and a psalm on your lips, trusting that in some unknowable way God will pull you out of it. Alive.

Does that have anything to do with us in the twenty-first century, rich, armed to the teeth and, for some reason, afraid we don't have enough guns and firepower to protect what we have? Various candidates, representing the empire with the guns and money, all have a list of solutions that appeal, they hope, to enough voters to give them power to distribute the guns and money and food and influence to those whom they deem worthy. But even if they could appeal to all  the voters, it seems to me that it's the empire itself that is the problem.

Bartimaeus, called by Jesus, "threw aside his cloak," which may mean that he knows his past is behind him. His cloak may be his old life, may represent the place where, as a beggar, he collected money from almsgivers. In the hands of the gospel writer, he may be, like the folks at the eastern gate of Jerusalem will be in a few verses, throwing down his cloak and singing hosanna to the "son of David" to announce the arrival of the strange messiah, the unexpected Christ, who arrives not on a warhorse but on a donkey. Clearly, something's brewing in Jericho. The empire will respond in its usual way, but the empire will not have the last word. Light will.

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

May God give me strength to speak up, to shout Have mercy on me from the side of the road of empire, and to be able to discern between the messiah and the king. I want to see. I want to be happy, and follow Christ on the way.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell)
Gifts: Open My Eyes
Communion: You Are Mine (Haas)
Sending Forth: Walk in the Reign or Be Thou My Vision