Oct. 28, 2018
The Book of Hebrews doesn’t get a ton of play in the lectionary that we (and most other mainline churches) follow. Right now, toward the end of what they call Year B, is high season for Hebrews. We get 7 weeks of Hebrews; that is, if I choose for us to read from it. The thing is, that’s a big IF. And, that’s because Hebrews has a very foreign feel to it. It relates to a religious culture and mindset that no longer resonates with many of us the way other books more easily do.
So, if today’s reading left you scratching your head a bit I wouldn’t blame you. The author is expounding upon a theme that runs throughout the book. As he distinguishes between the levitical priests of old and the priesthood of Christ his greater argument is that something permanent, eternal, and essential to the meaning of existence has happened in Christ. So, as the priests of old offered repeated sacrifices to atone for their own sins along with the sins of God’s people, Christ’s sacrifice (the giving of himself) is a perpetual and perfect offering. Because he lives eternally his offering is eternal, which changes the terms of human interaction with God. Humanity is free now to live by the grace of a savior’s work, no longer in the appeasement business, but as recipients of mercy empowered to be in right relationship with God and to live in a state of grace.
I share all of this with you because I would like to have something of a bible study with you this morning. That’s how the Spirit seemed to move for me as I thought about today’s passages.
Before Mark’s gospel was a gospel for the generations it was good news for a small band of mostly gentile Christians in Rome. Mark, scholars suspect, summarized the preaching of the disciple Peter for these Roman Christians, for whom Bartimaeus (the blind beggar in today’s passage) was likely a significant figure. And, he’s significant because he embodies the Human response that Hebrews tells us that we’ve been invited to make. More directly, he embodies the response that these Markan Christians have also made, often at risk to their own safety.
Here’s was writer Debbie Thomas says about the meaning of Bartimaeus’s encounter with Jesus. “I love that Bartimaeus “throws off his cloak” and follows Jesus “on the way.” A cloak is both a beggar’s covering and his livelihood. I imagine it’s a cloak he wraps around his shoulders every night for warmth and security. A cloak he spreads out on the ground every morning to collect coins from passersby. A cloak he folds again to gather up each day’s meager earnings at nightfall. I am in awe of the trust Bartimaeus has in Jesus by the end of this story — a trust deep enough to enable him to cast aside what’s most familiar and safe, in exchange for “a way” that is new, and full of uncertainty. In shedding his cloak, Bartimaeus sheds his identity. In setting out on “the way,” Bartimaeus becomes a disciple, a traveler, a pilgrim. He commits himself without looking back. He strains forward instead of clinging to history. He is, in the truest sense, born again.”
So, Bartimaeus has a new kind of life, much the way these Markan Christians do, much the way we all do if we are bold enough to receive it and cultivate it. It’s a life that inevitably confronts the greater prevailing culture because it is a life that is contingent upon mercy and grace and the following of a God who is unlike the idols that humanity is prone to following. There’s risk in it because it’s a shedding of control and there’s reward in it because it’s a giving over of control to a God of resurrection and eternal love. So, there’s one question: are we willing to risk what Bartimaeus has risked? Do we have his courage?
Up until this point in the gospel Jesus has been engaged in a ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. But, now with Bartimaeus he transitions to his ministry of death and resurrection. “Son of David” Bartimaeus cries out, which is the first time Christ’s messiahship is announced. He is announced as the heir of King David and the fulfillment the Davidic covenant, the one to govern God’s people forever.
What’s interesting is that it takes a blind man to see this. What the blind man sees those with sight do not. “Be quiet,” they tell him as he calls out. “What you are doing is inappropriate. You are inappropriate. Jesus has bigger things to deal with.” No doubt, the Markan Christians put themselves in the role of Bartimaeus. They were the ones who shed their cloaks. They were the ones looked down upon by the seeing world. They were the ones who lived a truth that the greater world just couldn’t see. But, the passage also serves to keep them in check. It’s a passage about what it takes for the people of God to maintain their vision.
Perhaps you noticed that Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asks James and John in last week’s passage. “What do you want me to do for you?” Of course, James and John want the wrong thing. They want glory. They want an exalted status. What the beggar wants before he’s even asked is mercy.
I’m reminded of the story that Philip Yancey tells in his book “What’s so Amazing About Grace.” I don’t recall with certainty the setting, but I think he had just given a talk somewhere, when someone in the audience approached him wanting more direction. “What do I have to do to be saved?” the person asked. Yancey replied, “You have to ask for help.” It almost seems too easy, unless of course, asking for help is not an acceptable thing for you to do.
Certainly, there was a perceived lack of dignity in the fuss that Bartimaeus was making. A beggar didn’t call out to a respected leader and he definitely didn’t persist after being put in his place. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” Mark tells us. An accomplishment that we may easily overlook in this story is the restoration of sight not to Bartimaeus but to that group of “many.” “Call him here,” Jesus instructs them. Jesus could have overcome their reprimands and called Bartimaeus himself, but also important here is the hearts of his followers. So, he gives them new words, a new way to be in the world. “Call him here,” and so they do, and so they now see a bit differently too.
Once again, as this Markan church works out its identity through the story of Bartimaeus they (we!) are challenged to consider our responses to the undignified cries of the world and of the people around us. It dismays me to think that in many cases the church isn’t a place where such cries are welcome. Is it a safe place in which to cry for help? Is it the kind of place where you can admit need or fault and find help and healing through the response of a people who have learned themselves to rely on grace? (Or, is that the sort of thing reserved for recovery communities? Is that where real healing happens?)
Did you notice at the end of the story that once Bartimaeus is pronounced well Jesus tells him to go on his way? But Bartimaeus doesn’t “go.” Instead, he “follows him on the way.” Bartimaeus, like the Markan Christians, made a choice. He became a “follower of the way,” which is what Christians originally called themselves. We don’t hear again about Bartimaeus, but what we can know is that in his life of discipleship he availed himself to the very real probability that when the world around him cried to God for help he had the opportunity to be part of God’s answer. We know this because like Bartimaeus the church then and now has the same opportunity.