Seeking True Vision

Binding30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988) is more relevant than ever. We’ve got five more Sundays to celebrate it! This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 10:46-52.

The community now approaches the suburbs of Jerusalem. Mark opens this second story of a blind man as he did the first: “And they came into” (kai erchontai; see 8:22) Jericho. Mark sets a scene for this episode, which was no doubt familiar to anyone who had gone to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. Jericho was the last stop en route to the city of David; the road out of town, representing the final, fifteen-mile leg of the pilgrim’s journey, would have been the standard beat for much of that city’s beggar population. The odds were good that pilgrims would have the mood and means to give alms. There Jesus, the disciples, and a great crowd meet Bartimaeus, the destitute blind man.

This is the last healing in the “blind/deaf” series and the Gospel as a whole. Unlike the Bethsaida episode, this symbolic statement is decisive; it is well known as a paradigmatic story of discipleship. Often ignored, however, are its social and political dimensions. It is Bartimaeus who introduces the title “Jesus, son of David” (10:47), further preparing us for the imminent struggle over the ideology of popular kingship. There is also an implied class contrast between the discipleship of Bartimaeus and the nondiscipleship of the rich man, just as there was between the hemorraghing woman and the synagogue ruler in 5:21ff. These stories exhibit several common characteristics:

  1. The hindering role of the crowd (10:48 w/5:31)
  2. The commendation of faith, in both cases, hepistis sou sesoken se (5:34 w/10:52)
  3. Ritual impurity; the bleeding woman and Bartimaeus, whose name in Hebrew could mean “son of the unclean”

Bartimaeus, like the rich man, encounters Jesus “on the way.” The rich man could not liquidate his fortune, but poor Bartimaeus throws away his garment, his sole element of livelihood (beggars spread out their cloaks to receive alms). The one at the top of the social scale rejected a direct call, but the one on the bottom does not even wait for a call, springing up and “following Jesus on the way” (10:52). The significance of the social, economic, and political fabric of the Bartimaeus story being placed on the eve of the Jerusalem campaign should be clear. The poor join in the final assault on the dominant ideological order, and the rich have walked downcast away. The first have become last, the last first.

…Mark draws a devastating contrast between this beggar’s initiative and the aspirations of the disciples. Upon their approach, Jesus had asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:36). To the beggar’s petition, Jesus responds with exactly the same words. But how different the requests! The disciples wished for status and privilege; the beggar simply for his “vision.” The one Jesus cannot grant, the other he can. It is Bartimaeus who is told to “take courage” (tharsei), as the disciples were told earlier, during their dangerous crossing of the sea (6:50). And it is the beggar who follows. The narrative discourse of hope is now clear in this last discipleship/healing episode. Only if the disciples/reader struggles against the internal demons that render us deaf and mute, only if we renounce our thirst for power–in a word, only if we recognize our blindness and seek true vision–then can the discipleship adventure carry on.

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