What About the Cloak?
“But throwing off his cloak, he leapt to his feet and went toward Jesus” (Mark 10:50, my translation). In a gospel account so often in a terrible hurry, the story of Bartimaeus slows down to examine the minutest details of the incident. Why does the Markan composer go to the trouble of describing what Barty does with his cloak? Neither Matthew nor Luke thinks the detail is important enough to take along in their revisions of the Markan account.
What’s the deal with the cloak?
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sits along the road leading out of Jericho and up towards Jerusalem. It’s useful to remember that this is at most two weeks before Passover. So, the road is likely clogged with festival pilgrims coming from all directions to be in the Holy City for the high holiday. Business for beggars was probably pretty good, especially since some of the pilgrims wanted to do their almsgiving to the poor as part of their spiritual discipline.
Bartimaeus learns that Jesus is coming past his spot. So, he starts crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The second part of the phrase was his usual shtick, we can suspect. But the first part, the “Son of David” part, is not. We’ll come back to that later. Jesus’ entourage likely believes that Bartimaeus wants to hit up Jesus (and his followers) for some money. So, they tell him to shut up.
Barty, however, is an experienced beggar and is not put off by a little verbal feedback. Instead, he turns up the volume and keeps up the yelling. Jesus notices and tells the crowd to call the man over. “Get up!” they tell him “He’s summoning you.” They don’t have to tell Barty twice. His eyes may not be much good, but his legs work just fine.
We come now to the “casting cloaks” part of the scene. Barty tosses away his “himation,” his outer garment. This isn’t his “chiton,” the tunic he wore next to his skin. Nor is it the “sindona,” the linen undergarment that some people wore and that was often the garment in which one was buried. This, by the way, is the garment which the anonymous young man left behind in Mark 14 when he fled naked from possible arrest for being with Jesus (but that is certainly another story).
Barty’s cloak was his outer garment. It was his shelter against the rain and his shade from the sun. It was his house by night and his office by day. He spread it out to collect the coins tossed his way. It was, in a real sense, all he had in the world. Why did he toss it off without a second thought?
“The cloak was the bedroll of such a helpless beggar,” Hurtado writes, and his throwing it away suggests that he believed that he would need it no more, that he would be healed” (page 178). If this is the case, then tossing the cloak aside (including whatever it contained) is Barty’s first act of the “faith” that will “save him” (see verse 52).
N. T. Wright invites us to sit with this text and meditate on the imagery of it – to put ourselves into the narrative and imagine how we might respond. “Sit by the roadside and listen to the crowd,” Wright invites us. “Examine your own feelings when you discover it’s Jesus coming by. Call out to him, and when he summons you, put everything aside and go to him. And when he asks you what you want him to do, go for it. Don’t look back at the small, selfish comforts of victimhood,” Wright urges, “Ask for freedom, for salvation. And when you get it, be prepared to follow Jesus wherever he goes next” (Kindle Location 2609).
Here is a first approximation of the reality of following Jesus. Relinquishing other sources of safety, security, and certainty is a function of the trust we have in Jesus to save us. We will have more to say about that matter in the next post.
The story of Bartimaeus clarifies for us the scene with the rich man and deepens the tragic nature of that encounter. Luis Menendez-Antuna writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “this passage provides a contrast to the failed discipleship encounter of Jesus and the wealthy man. Such contrast I see pictured in the narrative detail that informs us that Bartimaeus leaves behind the only valued item he owns.”
Culpeper discusses the references to “himatia” (cloaks, garments) in the Markan composition. Jesus says that old cloth can’t take a new patch. Jesus’ own cloak mediates healing power. His garments are transfigured along with the rest of him in Mark 9. And his clothing travels with him to the cross, where it is divided among the executioners. There are more links in this chain of references, but that brings us up to our text.
Jesus calls to Bartimaeus, and he tosses his cloak aside like an unwanted rag. It may not have been much to you or me, but it was everything Barty had – including, I suspect, that day’s receipts. Away flew the fabric. Coins scattered into the crowd. Unlike the rich man who couldn’t afford to part with his stuff, Barty lost it all to gain his sight, and his life.
“The garment, therefore,” writes Culpeper, “represents that which the disciple leaves behind to follow Jesus” (page 132). He notes similar disciple behavior elsewhere in the Markan composition. Simon and Andrew leave their nets. James and John leave their father. Peter notes that the Twelve have left behind everything to follow Jesus. There will be more relinquishing and releasing yet to come in the Markan composition.
“The garment then reiterates on another level Bartimaeus’ radical break with his past,” Culpeper continues. “Discipleship mandates that one’s former way of life can neither be patched up nor retrieved at will…For Mark,” he concludes, “the garment seems to be a narrative device which represents the old order Bartimaeus leaves behind” (page 132).
Menendez-Antuna echoes this assessment. “The cloak here is not only an aesthetic garment. For individuals living below poverty levels, the cloak is a piece that provides warmth in hostile weather conditions, a valuable piece that would allow them to sleep at night or to throw it in front of them to collect money. The garment,” he continues, “is also a sign of status and power. Although the pericope portrays Bartimaeus as belonging to the lowest echelons of social strata, the garment represents the little power he owns.”
Bartimaeus flings off his cloak and jumps toward Jesus. The actual moment when his sight is restored – that moment is barely mentioned in the story. What we might take to be the most important part of the scene, the healing, is regarded as almost extraneous to the event. We get a verse about the cloak and nothing about seeing again. I find that both shocking and interesting. We will examine this further in a post downstream.
Without so much as a backward glance (assuming that he can now glance backward), Barty hits the road with Jesus – wearing only his tunic and a smile. And that, the Markan composer tells us, is what a real disciple looks like. “In a section of the gospel particularly invested in suggesting modes of discipleship,” observes Menendez-Antuna, “Bartimaeus appears as a radical disciple that cast away his only valuable belonging.”
Jesus and his disciples and the crowd head on toward the Passover festival in Jerusalem. I have this image of Bartimaeus leading the procession, leaping and dancing with joy.
In his exuberance, he may have displayed a bit more of his anatomy than was acceptable in polite company. But even that detail may have reminded people then, as it does me now, of another dancing fool heading toward Jerusalem. David danced and sang and leapt for joy as the Ark of the Covenant was carried back to its proper place in the royal city.
Are there echoes of that happy parade here? Keep in mind that in the next scene, Jesus enters Jerusalem as the real King of the Jews, not only the “Son of David,” but the one who is bringing the “Kingdom of David, our father.” Jesus rides into the city on the back of a donkey. Before he mounts the donkey, his followers “throw” (“epiballo”) their cloaks on it. As he rides into the city, many strew their cloaks on the “way” as well as branches they have cut in the surrounding fields.
I wonder if someone had collected Barty’s cloak for him, just in case. He might have welcomed it back like an old friend. But I think it’s more likely that it ended up on the back of a donkey or on that “way” into Jerusalem, no longer Barty’s sole earthly possession but now just another tool in the journey of discipleship.
Culpeper notes the sympathetic vibrations this scene sets off in other locations in Christian scripture. He notes the call in Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV) – “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” He points to the places where Paul and his successors urge Christians to strip off or put off the old person, such as in Colossians 3:9-10 (NRSV), “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”
In the Christian scriptures, stripping off our old clothing is always balanced by putting on the new – that is, putting on Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 (NRSV) “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Bartimaeus sheds his old rags in order to be clothed in the garments of discipleship. Those are the only party clothes appropriate for one who is now journeying with Jesus on the way to the cross.
We can raise some challenging questions for our listeners and for ourselves as preachers. What am I so wrapped up in that I cannot be fully clothed with Christ? What is there in my life (and there will likely be many things) that would have the same value to me as the cloak had for Bartimaeus? Is that an impediment to my being saved? Would I part with it in order to follow Jesus? What needs to be cast off in order for me to leap and dance on the way?
I don’t think these are questions a preacher needs to answer unless I would do that for my own situation. There will be plenty for listeners to consider without steering them.
I also wonder if this is another text that would be well-served by a bit more drama in the reading. I’m not sure if the preacher should be stripping something off and leaping at the appropriate moment in the text (but I’m not sure the preacher shouldn’t). Another thought occurs — what a fantastic text for someone to interpret as a dance, perhaps during the reading.
An alternative to this re-enactment, if one has the technical resources, might be to play a brief clip from The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne escapes from prison, sheds his prisoner’s rags, and is “baptized” in the rain of his newfound freedom. In the clip I have linked, the relevant section happens about two and a half minutes into the clip. I have used this clip in a variety of settings to great emotional effect.
I started here because this is clearly much more of a discipleship (call) story than a healing miracle. It will be important to keep that in mind throughout.
References and Resources
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.