New Vision Begins With Belonging (Job 42:1-6; 2 Cor. 5:16-19; Mk. 10:46-52)
Seeing and not seeing, blindness and vision, are fairly common metaphors in the Bible, not only for physical changes (as in the Gospel story of a blind man who is made to see), but for spiritual changes that happen, as when Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the early church, became Paul the Apostle, its greatest early missionary. The whole story of his blindness and recovery of sight is a metaphor for a complete transformation.
Often, on the day of our quarterly congregational meeting I turn to thoughts of planning, mission, and vision. These are times for “seeing” both where we’ve been and “new seeing” where we want to go. What can we learn about seeing, not seeing, and especially new seeing from our scripture lessons this morning?
Let’s begin with the Old Testament. There’s so much in the Book of Job that troubles so many of us. How could God ever do that to anyone and be a God of love, or as we Christians would say, the God we know in Jesus? In fact, this is more or less the question that the book was written to address. How can we make sense of belief in the love of God when such horrible things happen? Hebrew folk had been through the horrible experience of virtual national extinction at the Babylonian exile. How could God do that? Out of that experience of near-extinction, a creative poet took in hand to write what I’ll call a “What if?” story. What if what happened to Israel happened to a man and his family, and that God did what happened in Job? Centuries later survivors of the Holocaust that also read this book and asked the same question, for it seemed as if this “what if?” had happened, again. In the story, Job stands for God’s people who feel like they’ve been tossed aside and fed to the wolves by God. Our scripture comes at almost the end of the book. In it, Job, after he has been overwhelmed by his friends and their arguments and, latterly, by the Presence of the Almighty, said to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The answer was not in hearing things (or even affirming things) from others, but of direct encounter with God. It’s about direct experience not hearsay. All the doctrine, theology, and argument in the world won’t get you far when your cut off from your community and life makes no sense. What is needed is direct experience of God. An ounce of this direct experience is worth a ton of memorized lists of correct things to believe about God. Of course, that direct experience doesn’t all the hard questions, and there’s plenty of room for a ton of learning in life, but not as a replacement for meeting God. Hearing doesn’t replace sight.
Life begins (again) with the presence of God and belonging there. Paul in 2 Corinthians parallels Job’s words, when he says that, once, he thought Jesus was a man who was rightly put to death for speaking rubbish and doing worse, but he came to a moment when his point of view changed. He went from knowing facts about Jesus to knowing God in the Risen Christ. And even his interpretation of facts changed.
Since we’ve already made a transition into the New Testament, let’s interweave our two readings to see how they join this conversation. On the surface the Gospel story is about a man named Bartimaeus who began as a blind beggar on the side of the roadway and ended up a sighted man following Jesus on the roadway. In this story, as I say, he comes to have restored sight, at his own urgent request direct experience of Jesus. And, we can simply read this story that way. It’s not wrong. But the language Mark uses invites us to look deeper. It’s true that Mark almost never names any but the most major characters in his stories, and, so, he may have known Bartimaeus as an important disciple of Jesus. If so, his fame has not survived in any form but this story (told by all three synoptic Gospels). But, let’s consider that the word for “roadway” or simply “Way” which Mark used to describe where Bartimaeus was when and after he met Jesus is one of the earliest words used to describe what we call Christianity today. I think that the very word “Way” is important as it suggests a path of living, not a system of doctrine (getting back to our ratio of an ounce of experience being worth a ton of hearsay). Mark freights the word with meaning.
Next, although we have often seen the story to be about Jesus’ bringing a medical cure for Bartimaeus’ blindness, the ancient world in which Mark and Jesus lived did not think of healing as we do to be about the fixing of a biological system or part that has failed to function. In our view, so called primitive medicine couldn’t fix very many things but that Jesus could trump all that “secular” medicine with a miracle, thus showing how powerful he and God are. Indeed, that’s been a common approach to Jesus miracles of healing. I would suggest that no ancient person would have taken such a view. For one thing, they knew nothing of our kind of scientific medical skill or art. They looked at illness as anything that alienated persons from their communities. In those days individuals weren’t worth much all by themselves, without their wider circles that gave them value and meaning. Illness could be caused by physical things like blindness, or by spiritual things like demon possession, or even by the inability or unwillingness to grasp new teachings. All required reintegration with the community from which the person who was “ill” (in these terms) was alienated. Healing required belonging. What Bartimaeus lacked was a community of support. And that’s what his vision of Jesus provided. His healing came both in and from that, and it remade Bartimaeus’ world. And, I think, Mark meant this to say that such transition from blindness to new sight tells the story of what happens to disciples when they meet Jesus. Again, freighted language.
Paul, once more, comes in. He wrote: “If anyone be in Christ, it is a new creation, the old has gone, see the new has come.” His language implies that it’s not just that we are remade in how we see the world, it’s as if, now, we’re seeing a new world and seeing it through Jesus’ eyes. The world itself takes on new meaning. And that really means: “in Christ God was reconciling the world, meaning God is not keeping a list of the world’s slip- ups to use against it.” In other words, God has transcended the whole business of seeing life as punishments and rewards. It’s now all about reconciliation, about two at odds becoming at one, about finding common ground, about belonging in community together. God reconciles the world. This is what happened to Bartimaeus when he was healed and restored. How? Let’s think further about how Mark tells the story.
Bartimaeus heard Jesus coming along and yelled out “Son of David” (which, in Mark’s Gospel, means Messiah) “Have mercy on me.” We think of that statement as equivalent to “take pity on me,” but, in Jesus’ day, “mercy” was a technical term for discharging a particular social obligation. When someone said, “Have mercy,” it meant, “Do what you do!” Jesus was known as a healer. Bartimaeus wanted healing, and rather expected it, actually. Mark is then very ambiguous, “Many,” he wrote, sternly told him to shut up.” Didn’t matter, Bartimaeus was already on the bottom, he couldn’t be worse, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Come on, do it already! Jesus came to a stop. Then Mark wrote, “Jesus said, call him here…they called the blind man (they hadn’t heard that labels disable), saying, ‘Take heart, he’s calling you.’” Mark writes the word “call” three times in a row. These words are the key action in the story that moves Bartimaeus from a place beside the way onto the way. This is not only a story about healing, or primarily a story of healing, but a story of Jesus’ calling Bartimaeus to discipleship, much as he called other disciples elsewhere in his Gospel. Jesus’ call is mediated by others (as it always has been from Mark’s day to ours), but Jesus still calls. These “others” here in the Bible story (and in ours) don’t necessarily have it all down correctly, but Jesus’ call can come through imperfect or, even not very good messengers who say “Come.” Bartimaeus is told, “take courage, he’s calling you.” Bartimaeus responded to Jesus’ call by thrusting aside his old garment, the mark of his beggarly outsider existence (on which he collected his “beggings”) and sprang up to come to Jesus.
Jesus, then, asked Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s exactly the same question that he asked James and John the time they asked him to make them bigshots when Jesus took over (Mark 10:35). They thought that they knew what would make them great, but they gave exactly the wrong answer to Jesus. Bartimaeus, like them, is blind, although in a different way, but gave the right one. Only Jesus can give him the vision he needs. “My rabbi, my great one, my teacher,” he said, ”let me see again.”
The miracle of sight happened to Bartimaeus almost as a sidelight of the story. Nothing is made of it. Jesus didn’t preach Bartimaeus a sermon. He sees. And Jesus simply says, “Go,” which here means “Go from your place beside the way, and take your place with many others on the Way.” There is no clue as to the exact way that way will go, but it will follow Jesus. “Your faith has saved you,” does not mean Bartimaeus responded to a call to walk down the aisle. To be saved meant to find life, and to do that required faith, which meant taking action to follow Jesus. Act your way into right thinking.
On this Sunday of our Quarterly meeting, let me make just one more point. In this story Mark identifies “many” in that group that tried to hush up the awkward outsider in demanding vision from Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke’s versions of this story want to identify this group so that we can know who to blame. I like the ambiguity. There’s another group that responded to Jesus command to call Bartimaeus to him as agents of Jesus’ call to discipleship. Mark only says, “they said, take courage” or “take heart.” Mark only uses “take heart” one other time in his Gospel, of those windblown sailors who saw Jesus walking to them over the water. “Take heart, don’t be frightened, it is I” (Mark 6:50). My point is simple. There are probably always some inclined to say “shut up” and some inclined to say “Take heart.” Let us take care of our words and our deeds that we may be found among the latter group, not the former, as we face a world of outsiders. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world (everybody), and has given us (like those imperfect disciples who said “take heart”) this ministry of reconciliation. Let’s be known for that at First Baptist.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.