Right: A relief sculpture of the healing of Bartimaeus by artist/minister Charles McCollough, done in honor of our ministry at BCM (at right is the rich man and one of Jesus’ disciples).
Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015. This is a longer post because Sunday represents the feast day of “St. Bartimaeus,” whose story has accompanied Ched through his entire ministry (see second half of the post).
In this culminating episode of Mark’s “discipleship catechism,” there is one more polemical role reversal to shock our propriety, and one more blind man healed to give us hope (compare Mk 8:22-26). On the outskirts of Jericho, the final stop before arriving in Jerusalem, we encounter a beggar sitting “beside the Way” (10:46). Bartimaeus will provide a dramatic contrast to the previous two stories of “non-discipleship”—the rich man’s refusal and the disciples’ ambitions—and will symbolize for Mark the “true follower.”
We can now compare the sequence that makes up the final cycle of the catechism:
|Rich Man Refuses to Follow 10:17-31||Disciples are “Blind”
|Poor Man Follows, Blind Man Sees 10:46-52|
|Setting||As he was setting out on the way…||And they were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was ahead of them, and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.||As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus a blind beggar …was sitting by the way.|
|Approach||Direct: …a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him…||Direct: James and John… came forward and said: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus said to them: “What do you want me to do for you?”||Impeded: …he cried out… many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.|
|Entitlement: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”||Upward aspiration: “Grant us to sit at your right and left hand, in your glory.”||Determination for liberation: “Have mercy on me… let me see again!”|
|i) Rebuff: “Why call me good?”
ii) Test: “You know the commands”
iii) Absurd response: “Teacher, all these I’ve observed from my youth.”
iv) Compassion: Looking upon him he loved him…
v) Challenge: “Get up, sell, give… and follow me…
vi) Promise: “…and you will have treasure in heaven.”
|i) Rebuff: “You do not know what you ask.”
ii) Test: Are you able to take my cup & baptism?”
v) Challenge: “…you know that those who rule over the Gentiles lord it over them…but it shall not be so among you!”
vi) Promise: “The cup I drink you will drink…”
|i) Rebuff: from the disciples
ii) Test: Bartimaeus’ persistence
iii) Faithful response: Throwing off his cloak he sprang up and came …
iv) Compassion: Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”
vi) Promise: “Get up, your faith has made you well.”
|Reaction||Abandonment: His countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful.||Competition: And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John…||Discipleship: And immediately he saw again and followed Jesus on the Way.|
|Incredulity of disciples
Community: “There is no one who has released house, family or lands…who will not receive a hundredfold…
…Many that are first will be last…”
|Indignance of disciples
Servanthood: “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant…
Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
Object lesson: The socially “last” becomes “first” in the discipleship community.
Unlike the rich man, Bartimaeus is landless and disabled—the very definition of the “poor” to whom the former was invited to make reparation. Unlike the disciples, the blind beggar dares not approach Jesus directly with his request; indeed his cries are initially silenced. He inquires not after the mysteries of eternal life nor the top posts in a new administration, but after mercy (10:47f). While the rich man walked away from Jesus’ call, unable to redistribute his fraudulent wealth, Bartimaeus casts off what little he has (10:49; his cloak represents the tool of a panhandler’s trade). And his petition is intentionally paralleled with that of the clueless disciples (10:36f = 10:51). Jesus does not answer the rich man’s question because he will not execute justice; and cannot grant the disciples’ request because it is based on delusions of grandiosity. But Jesus can help the beggar because Bartimaeus knows he is blind.
At the beginning of Mark’s discipleship catechism, Peter called Jesus by the “correct” name, but resisted the Way of the cross (8:29ff). At the end, Bartimaeus calls Jesus by the “wrong” name (10:47f; the title “Son of David” will be repudiated in 12:35-37), yet “followed Jesus on the Way” (10:52). The first have become last, and the last first. The moral of Mark’s catechism: Only faith-as-discipleship can “make us well.”
Jesus’ call to discipleship seeks not our cognitive assent, nor churchly habits, nor liturgical magic, nor theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor religious piety, nor any of the other poor substitutes we Christians have conjured through the ages. Discipleship depends upon whether or not we really want to see. To see our weary world as it truly is, without denial and delusion: the tough realities of and inconvenient truths about economic disparity and racial oppression and ecological destruction and war without end. And to see our beautiful world as it truly could and should be, free of despair or distraction: the divine dream of enough for all and beloved community and restored creation and the peaceable kingdom.
I was midwifed into my life’s work in a little experiment in intentional community living and radical discipleship which embraced the name of this obscure biblical character. With a wisdom beyond our years, we wanted to be part of an old, wise story which, as Quakers say, “speaks to our condition.” We understood that our privilege and affluence as First World Christians could not mask our spiritual poverty. Bartimaeus was a goofy name for a community; no one could spell it, and we were constantly getting mail to Barnabas, or Bartholemew, and even once to “Bottom-Ass” (thanks to the Australian accent of one of our members). Nevertheless, we too desired to shed our blindness in order to embrace the journey of discipleship.
For ten years we did extraordinary ministry in the name of the poor man. Up to 25 adults and children lived in four households in a working class African American neighborhood in Berkeley, CA. We practiced intensive urban gardening and animal husbandry (it was cool back then too); maintained a wider local worshipping congregation of some 60 persons; participated in resistance to the arms race and helped shape the early Sanctuary movement; and educated on radical discipleship and church renewal.
When our community disbanded, the clan scattered. But our feeble attempts to live this story bonded most of us permanently. A decade ago I saw a young woman who was born into our community. “There is a part of myself,” she told me, “that only surfaces when I am with Bartimaeus people. And I’ve never found anything like it.” I suppose that’s why we resurrected the name when we formed our Cooperative in 1997.
We live in a time of relentless seduction and distraction by a thousand stupid stories of celebrities or politicians or sports heroes that entertain us to death. But this coming Sunday, I will quietly celebrate almost four decades of trying to live into the Bartimaeus story, and of never growing out of its wisdom and power. The great Baptist radical Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms defined faith as “betting your life on unseen realities.” I guess I’ve bet my life on Bartimaeus; it’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. Because I’m still a blind man following a blind man to discover what it means to follow Jesus.
[Click here for information on Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries.]