An editor for Readers Digest Condensed Books, a modern Christian, and a Rabbi, walk into the Governor Hindmarsh to enjoy the dramatisation of The Gospel of Mark. (There’s some evidence this gospel was written for performance.)
As the drama moves into the story of Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, (Mark 10:46-52) the editor mentally pulls out his blue pencil and crosses out Mark’s unnecessary repetition of the name Jericho. And then remembers that Bartimaeus means son of Timaeus and removes that repetition. And then thinks, “He already healed a blind man a couple of chapters back. Maybe we can drop the whole story.”
Our Christian gloomily sips his beer and worries about all the miracle stories in Mark. What’s a modern man got left to believe in along with his craft beer?
The Rabbi is hearing Mark for the first time. When she hears that “they came to Jericho,” and that “a large crowd were leaving Jericho” with Jesus, she thinks, “Jericho, Jericho. What happened in Jericho? The walls fell down in Jericho. Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in. (Joshua 6:1) Jesus is leaving it behind. Walls have fallen down as he leaves for Jerusalem. Which walls? Jericho blocks the way into the Promised Land; what has he broken down?”
The editor has no imagination. The Christian, like far too many of us, thinks that truth lies only in the veracity of facts. He has lost his tradition. But the Rabbi is thinking symbolically. She understands that the truth in this story of her people’s entry into the Promised Land lies not so much in the literal details— our amputated understanding of truth, but that it lies in the literary details.
Bartimaeus is not the story of a literal blind man who sat on a real road outside a city which Jesus really visited. Not first of all. I say to folk in church, “If thinking it’s all literally true floats your boat, go for it! But if you think that’s what the story is about, your hopes of seeing the meaning within it will sink. And the more you insist on the literal, the more waterlogged you will become.”
Bartimaeus is the last story in a series which were designed to completely upend and redefine people’s understandings about the long awaited Messiah of Israel. (Not to mention the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus seriously questioned claims that he was Messiah!) These stories radically challenge common ideas of success, and status, and the meaning of life. They claim to be healing our blindness about where life is to be found.
When we read the story of Bartimaeus symbolically we find it calls us to throw off our security— Bartimaeus was a blind beggar, and leaving behind his cloak was to leave everything— and to follow Jesus into Jerusalem. How are we blind beggars? How would such a trust in Jesus— the word faith essentially means trust— make us well? Jesus said such trust made Bartimaeus well and was the source of his blindness being healed.
Our Rabbi will remember, and probably before us, that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. She may have read the Wikipedia article on Mark before coming out this evening. So she’ll know that Mark was calling people to follow Jesus to Jerusalem at a time when the destruction of Jerusalem was a foregone conclusion, or may already have happened.
Because she’s a Rabbi, she will have recognised the reference to Isaiah 6 just before the healing of blind men of Mark begins, in Mark 814-21. (And likely found its context offensive!) Here it is in Isaiah:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
Like any good Rabbi, she’ll know what follows these verses. Too often, we Christians neglect to look them up:
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
She will see the connection to the Romans’ laying waste of Jerusalem. And because she thinks in symbols, she will wonder why Mark sets the bringing down of the walls of Jericho alongside the destruction of Jerusalem as gospel, as good news!
I’ve stereotyped the Rabbi as much as I have stereotyped the editor and the thoroughly modern Christian, although I hope you can see I admire her. Can you also see that unless we begin to understand and read what we call Old Testament, and learn it as our story, we will not understand Mark, or the other gospels, for they were written by people for whom the Tanakh was Scripture? This Testament of God provides the literary and symbolic underpinning of our gospels.
The question of why Mark sets the bringing down of the walls of Jericho alongside the destruction of Jerusalem as gospel, as good news, is not the Rabbi’s question. God will speak to her, and question her, through the symbols and traditions of her people. The gospels are our stories. They ask this question of us.
As stories of truth they are existential. They speak to me, as much as they lay down any general principles. So I quote loosely from this week’s newssheet at Pilgrim, using the personal pronoun. This is my question. What does the story of Bartimaeus ask of you?
All of Mark, to this point, has been to prepare me for the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It brings me to the scandal of Jesus’ death, that inconceivable redefinition of what power and glory mean. These things are to be turned upside-down compared to the way of the world of Jericho: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” said Jesus. (Mark 9:35)
To see, and be made well, like beggar Bartimaeus, who sprang up and left behind his only security, his cloak, I must follow Jesus into Jerusalem. But Jerusalem, too, is a symbolic city in the drama of Mark: it is the symbol of all Israel’s hopes for fulfilment in its life with God.
And we know that Jerusalem had become for many, a city of destruction, and a symbol of death. What is my Jerusalem?
In the call to follow Jesus alongside Bartimaeus, Mark is confronting me with the inevitable fall of my City; the Jerusalem of my life, the great walled and protective city I have constructed even as I have tried to follow Jesus. He is calling me to face my death, and the death of all my pretentions, for this death is a foregone conclusion, just like the destruction of historical Jerusalem.
Here I am being confronted by the great mystery of life: I am being called to go beyond the Jerichos; the ways I seek to build artificial security, and where I deny and hide from my mortality with affluence and comfort. I must go on to Jerusalem, putting my trust in Jesus. It is in trusting Jesus for this journey, says Mark, this week, that I will be “made well.” (Mark 10:52)
But there is no “religious insurance policy” here. Indeed, the last few chapters of Mark have emphasised death and loss: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” he says in Mark 8:35. I’m not being given religion as some kind of security blanket, and if I use it like that, I am still blind.
Somewhere in the upending of my human desires for power, and significance, and glory; somewhere in the decision to pay the cost of serving; somewhere in holding my life lightly, and in letting go of my desperate “amygdaline” need to survive at all costs; somewhere in walking toward death— all this is terrifying— Mark claims I will find freedom and true humanity and life. It is what our story calls resurrection.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information , but that Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
To read more, you can follow Andrew’s First Impressions, and articles written for Pilgrim on this part of Mark. They lead to this blog post.
Will you forget who I am? – Mark 8:27-38
What is greatness? – Mark 9:30-37
Servanthood – Where our humanity flourishes – Mark 9:30-37
Between Love and Hell – Mark 9:38-50
The Children and Divorce – Mark 10:2-16
In his arms!
Seeing through the metaphors – Mark 10:46-82