Sermon 10/25/09, Mark 10:46-52
This week, my mother found out that she will need to have surgery on her ankle in January – surgery to fuse together the joints which have collapsed on her through the years. My family and I have been trying to put together a plan for her post-surgery – she’ll be in a cast for three months at least, and her house isn’t particularly friendly for a person who has a hard time with stairs. As we’ve been talking about plans for her recovery, one thing has become clear to me: my mom is in a bit of denial about the extent of injury to her ankle and about the extent of recovery time she will need. (And yes, I did let my mother know I was preaching about her today!) Somehow, my mom has seen her bad ankle as a minor problem that she should be able to get over with a better pair of sneakers. She’s embarrassed when the pain makes her limp. Although she was granted permanent disability from work, it is only just recently that she finally accepted that it would be smart to get a handicapped parking permit. She went to the doctor this week and seriously was expecting him to send her to physical therapy, when it has been clear to her family that her ankle is very far structurally past any non-surgical means of repair.
I’ve been wondering about her reaction. I tease her about it, to be sure. But it’s really not so unusual. I’ve been there. Most of us have, in one way or another. Mostly, we value our independence, and self-reliance. We hate having to ask someone else for help. But why? Since we usually don’t mind helping others, why are we so reluctant to accept help ourselves? I think that needing help makes us feel weak, and we’re certainly taught, from a very early age, to value strength over weakness in all things.
But I think it goes even deeper than that. I think, although we might not always think we do, or put it in just these terms, and regardless of what we think of Charles Darwin and his theories as a whole, we deeply believe in a practical application of the survival of the fittest. We deeply believe that the strong survive. That weak equals worthless. That to be worthy is to be the best. That we have to play to win, always – that losing is never an option. That mindset is pervasive in every area of our world – in school – from academics to sports; in the military and government, where political victories so often outweighs the costs; at work, as we seek promotions and climb the ladder and wind up putting ambition ahead of whatever it is we actually do; in our social circles, where even our closest relationship are layered with unspoken competitions about who has more, whose lives are more ‘together’, who can claim more success.
Of course, the trouble for us comes in that this mindset is in extreme opposition to the mindset, the teachings, the message of Jesus Christ. They just don’t line up, these points of view. We struggle and struggle to reconcile this world view with Jesus’ world view, but they just don’t fit together, and the only way we can make them fit together is by making Jesus about something he wasn’t. Our texts from last week and this week set up the perfect juxtaposition of these views. Remember last week, James and John had requested to sit at the right and left of Jesus in God’s kingdom. Throughout Mark, we see the disciples as the group that is sort-of failing to get it, failing to understand Jesus, no matter how clearly he seems to speak. They just can’t seem to let go of their expectations that Jesus will fit into the role of a typical leader, king, revolutionary, celebrity, or something else equally exciting. They seem to be in it for the rewards, at least a little. Maybe they’ve finally started focusing on rewards in God’s kingdom rather than earthly ones, but they still want a prize for following Jesus so well. And so they ask, with an amazing lack of embarrassment, for the seats at Jesus’ right and left.
Jesus explains that not only was this not possible for him to grant, but their asking missed the mark: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” he said, 44”and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” A completely opposite point of view – not about greatness and places of power, but about service, being “slave of all,” certainly a role of weakness and powerlessness.
Following this scene, we find Jesus and the disciples departing after a stop in
Why this story? It’s a miracle, of course. A healing. Another act of compassion by Jesus. But what’s special about it? What does it mean? Because some details of the passage make it clear that Mark finds this instance of healing of particular importance. First, Mark name this blind man – Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Most of the people Jesus heals in Mark, or in other gospels to an extent, are unnamed. It’s just, a blind man, a hemorrhaging woman, a lame man, a young girl. Bartimaeus has a name, and that let’s us know he’s important. He also stands out because of how he calls out to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David.” That title, “Son of David,” shows that Bartimaeus sees Jesus as the messiah. In Mark, very few, including the disciples, have correctly identified Jesus as such. And finally, when Bartimaeus is healed, it says he follows Jesus on “the way.” That phrasing, “the way,” is the name the early Christians used to describe themselves. They were followers of the way. Bartimaeus is a follower of the way. So this passage shows that though blind, this is a man who sees clearly, who is on the right track. How he behaves, what he does, is probably being held up as an example for us to follow.
So, what does Bartimaeus do? Well, immediately following two of Jesus’ disciples asking for places of honor, we have Bartimaeus, asking for mercy. We have disciples who have argued about greatness, and we have Bartimaeus, a beggar, blind, pleading, humbling himself before an entire crowd of people. We read that Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, and springs up when Jesus calls him over – and almost always when Mark talks about leaving behind a garment in his gospel, the symbolism is about leaving behind and old way to embrace a new way. So Bartimaeus is leaving behind whatever has bound him, and coming to Jesus. And it is to Bartimaeus, the one who asks nothing of Jesus except for mercy, that Jesus speaks these words: “What do you want me to do for you?” When Jesus heals Bartimaeus, it is not his goodness that makes him well, his position or status, not his achievements or successes. It is his faith, Jesus says, that makes him well.
In the end, the message is simple here, as simple as my children’s sermon – but we have such a hard time living it out. If we are already full - no matter what the quality of the stuff is that we’ve filled our lives up with, what can God possibly give to us? The gospels are full of Jesus interacting with people that are on the margins of society – the blind, the sick, the unclean, the shunned by society, those sinning in ways that got them rejected from the community. But I don’t believe Jesus kept company with them because they were any more sinful than the others – the Pharisees, the disciples, the elders. Jesus kept company with them because they were the ones who were ready to admit that they needed help. They were the ones who had enough space in their lives for God to actually move and breathe. They were the ones who knew that they needed mercy more than they needed seats of honor.
If we are so strong that we can do everything ourselves, what need could we have of God? If we are always right, what could we need to learn from the one Bartimaeus called teacher? If we must be first, best, winners in every aspect of life, how will we build a relationship with the Christ who has put himself at the end of the line? Take heart; Jesus is calling you. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us: we pretend we are so strong. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us: sinners. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.