Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 6); October 24, 2021

Son of a…

Why does the Markan composer name Bartimaeus and leave other beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry nameless? There must be something interesting going on here.

“Bar-Timaeus” is a hybrid name. It is a combination of the Aramaic word for “son” (Bar) and the Greek name that likely means “honored one” or “one who is highly esteemed or valued” (Timaeus). The Markan composer translates the name for his (largely) Greek-speaking audience, just as he translates other Aramaic words in the composition. For example, the composer translates “Ephphatha” (“Be opened”) in an earlier healing story.

There may be nothing important about this boundary-crossing name, but then again, the Markan composer doesn’t generally add details just for dramatic color. The amount of detail in this brief story is notable. Those details include the name and lineage of the blind man, his personal geography, the dialogue with the crowd, the cloak, the request, and the fact that he followed Jesus. “Whenever Mark furnishes his stories with these vivid details,” Hurtado writes, “it indicates that he wished to make the accounts prominent and effective in impressing upon the reader his portrait of Jesus” (page 175).

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It may be that Bartimaeus represents and embodies the character of the communities that first heard the Markan composition. Whether one places those first performances in Palestine or Rome, it is virtually certain that these early communities were at least bilingual and bi-cultural. That would simply make these communities like the world in which they lived.

If the composition was first performed for Roman congregations (my preferred solution to the location problem), then the tension between Jews and Gentiles in the text has a clear framework. The Roman congregations, as we know from Paul’s letter to them, were struggling with the relationship between more traditional Judaism(s) and the Jesus movement. And within those communities, the tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians was heightened by the fallout from the persecutions in Rome and the Jewish War in Palestine.

If the Markan composer is seeking, among other things, to tell the Gospel story in a way that brings these communities back together, then having Bartimaeus as the parade example of an authentic Jesus follower would be a good move. He begins the story as one who lives on the edge – the edge of the road, the edge of the town, the edge of community, and the edge of survival. He moves from the edge to the center by the end of the story. I wonder how many of the composer’s listeners had made the same journey.

I imagine one of these performances of the Markan composition. Candidates for baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the crowd late in the evening, perhaps on the eve of Easter Sunday. They listen to the story in all of its depth and drama as they consider whether they will go through with their commitments to lives of following Jesus to the cross. Perhaps these candidates in particular identify closely with Bartimaeus.

They have, perhaps, been living on the edge as well. Some of them may be enslaved persons who never quite know what the next moment will bring – a beating, a sexual assault, cleaning the latrine, or tutoring the master’s children. They may not be able to see into the next moment, much less the next day. They have heard that this Jesus character might be a source of good news in an otherwise dreary world. And they begin to cry out.

What is the significance of the title that Bartimaeus uses to address Jesus, namely “Son of David”? Hurtado notes that the title has messianic overtones in some intertestamental works and in the Christian scriptures. He suggests that “the weight of the evidence suggests that Mark understood the term as a designation for the Messiah of Israel” (page 174).

It is certainly the case that the mention of the “Son of David” creates a bridge to the material yet to come. The next event is the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The crowd will quote the psalms of Ascent during the parade. Those quotes will include a blessing on the “coming kingdom of our father, David.”

Because of this mention of Jesus as “Son of David,” Robbins argues that “this story is not simply a discipleship story. In it the Christological image of Jesus and the response in discipleship converge.” Robbins concludes that “Christology and discipleship prove to be simply two sides of the same coin in the gospel of Mark. An erroneous Christological perception of Jesus’ activity,” Robbins asserts, “leads to improper expectations and requests, and inept discipleship activity” (page 226).

Those on the edge face obstacles to moving. They can’t see over the crowds. They can’t tell what’s going on. The ones who are already inside have no interest in being disturbed. They might even tell the edge-sitters to shut up and know their place. But the distance from desperation to faith is often not very far in the Markan composition. So, they have cried out all the more.

Jesus stops in his tracks and listens. He says to the gatekeepers and guardians, “Call those edge-sitters here. Tell them the story. Let’s ask them what they want.” So, the good news begins. “Be brave now!” they say. “Get up!” they say. “He’s talking to you.”

Here is one of those second person singular pronouns that demands our attention. Perhaps you can imagine, as can I, the performer turning to the candidates for baptism as these words are spoken. Perhaps this is a moment in the reading or the sermon to turn to particular people in your preaching audience as well. “Be brave now! Get up! Jesus is talking to you!”

It’s not even necessary that we get our theology right before we come in the door. Jesus takes us as we are. We will read in a few chapters that the “Son of David” theology of the Messiah needs some updating and expansion, as far as Jesus is concerned. It’s not wrong. Jesus doesn’t correct Bartimaeus. It’s a place to begin. It’s an entry point. But there’s so much more.

No matter how dishonored and devalued Bartimaeus is in his context and culture, he is the Son of the Honored One. Jesus treats him precisely that way. So, those who wait to enter the water hear the same acceptance and invitation. Call them over here, Jesus says. Perhaps we can help our listeners to experience that same acceptance and invitation. Call them over to Jesus! That, after all, is preaching, eh?

Our baptismal candidates have come in their old clothes. Perhaps they come in the only clothes they own. That was likely the case for Bartimaeus. He throws off that cloak and jumps up. I wonder if some of the candidates reflexively reached for their own cloaks and began to discard them. I wonder if some of them leapt to their feet in joy and excitement, knowing what was coming both for Bartimaeus and for them.

Bartimaeus’ story is their story. Bartimaeus’ story is our story. I wonder if cheers and applause broke out in the crowd as they imagined the cloak flying and the blind man springing to his feet. I wonder if we could tell the story in such a way that cheers and applause (and perhaps a few people jumping up) might happen in our congregations. Well, that’s asking a lot, but who knows?

We get another second person singular now. “What do you want that I shall do for (or to) you?” Again, the storyteller perhaps turns to those most impacted by the story and asks the question. The “fourth wall” of play-acting is pierced again. The story reaches out and grabs at least some of us with its power. Perhaps we might stop in our reading for a moment and look people in the eye. Perhaps we might ask the question again. Perhaps we might let it hang in the air for a few seconds.

I wonder if the Markan composer intended a pregnant pause at this point.

“My teacher,” Bartimaeus responds. The distance has disappeared. The chasm has been bridged. The Son of David has become My Teacher. “That I might see again,” the blind man replies. The word is “anablepo.” The preposition that begins the word vibrates with multiple meanings. Let me see “again.” Let me see “anew.” Let me “look up.” The Markan composer intends and includes all these meanings in that small sentence.

“Is that what you want?” we might ask our listeners. Do you want to see the world as Jesus sees it? Do you want to see things in a new way? That’s one of the definitions of repentance, after all. And repentance is the precursor to believing in Mark 1. Do you want to look up? For a while in the days to come, looking up in the Markan composition will mean looking up to Jesus on the cross. Is that what you want?

The son of the Honored One is addressed directly one more time. The second singulars put their hands on our cheeks and direct our gaze to Jesus. “Your trust has saved you.” We’ve discussed that declaration in some detail. Imagine our baptismal candidates as they enter into the new world of seeing Jesus. And they hear that this is a vision of healing, wholeness, salvation, and discipleship.

“And immediately,” the composer tells us, returning now to narrator mode, “he could see again (or anew or up).” The more I reflect, the more I think that seeing “anew” is the real emphasis for the Markan composer here. That new sight, even though it resembles the old way of seeing, has new outcomes. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to suffering, to the cross – the Way of Discipleship.

N. T. Wright notes the multiple ways that Bartimaeus is portrayed as the model disciple. He recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. He believes Jesus can help him. He leaves everything behind to follow Jesus. “As with the blind man in chapter 8,” Wright notes, “the healing of Bartimaeus is a sign that Jesus is trying to open his followers’ eyes, this time to see him not just as Messiah but as the one who would give his life to bring salvation to all” (Kindle Location 2592).

Here is what you can expect, candidates for baptism, trembling in the candlelight and community. There is drama in the story. There is, perhaps, greater drama in hearing the story. One preaching challenge would be to capture and convey that drama to our listeners.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.

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.

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.

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.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Ward, Richard; Trobisch, David. Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It. Eerdmans. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 5); October 24, 2021

Performing Bartimaeus

Let’s do some performance criticism and analysis with this text. I’ve just read Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It, by Richard Ward and David Trobisch (Eerdmans, 2012). This is a brief, concise, inexpensive, and informative introduction to performance criticism and performing of Biblical texts for audiences. I would recommend it to anyone who seeks another perspective on interpreting and presenting Biblical texts.

Ward and Trobisch recommend memorizing a text before presenting it. That may be more than you or I want to tackle most of the time, but the story of Blind Bartimaeus is relatively brief, memorable, and significant. I’m going to try to memorize the text this week as part of our work together. Perhaps you will do the same.

After internalizing the text, the authors then offer the four components of a story and encourage us to analyze a text employing these four components. They are perspective, setting, characters, and conflict (page 76).

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Perspective

Perspective is not about what or who we look at. It’s about the place where we look from (I know my junior high English instructors were horrified by those two sentences, but it’s my blog).

The story of Blind Bartimaeus comes at us from several perspectives in quick succession. The narrative comes first from the perspective of the crowd that accompanies Jesus into, through, and out of Jericho. In a quick-cut worthy of twenty-first century cinema, the perspective switches from the crowd to Bartimaeus.

For a moment, the narrator puts us into the place of Jesus in the story. Then back to the crowd, and immediately back to the perspective of Bartimaeus. Even though we hear Jesus’ words to Bartimaeus, those words come to us from Bartimaeus’ point of view. And that’s where both this little story and this section of the Markan account land.

Setting

Next, we look at the settings in our text. “Break the passage down in settings, noting when place and time change,” Ward and Trobisch teach us. “If you filmed the story, how often would you have to set up the camera in different places, at different times?” (page 77).

We might think that there is only one setting for this story – the Jerusalem-side outskirts of Jericho. But I think we have at least three settings in this story. First, we are alongside the way with Bartimaeus. Then we are standing still and listening to a voice crying out. Bartimaeus runs from the side to the center. Third, we are on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus and Bartimaeus, headed toward the cross.

Character

Now we can look at the characters in the story. How many characters are there? How and how often do the characters interact? Is the narrator a character? As I think about these questions, I am reminded of the previous context. The Twelve are characters in the Bartimaeus story, even though they don’t speak. They have been instructed about discipleship in the previous scenes. Now they watch silently as that instruction is enacted before them.

It’s worth wondering in a section of text like this, who is “playing the lead”? In the story of Blind Bartimaeus the lead actor is, not surprisingly, Bartimaeus! It’s not Jesus. Is this a way to illustrate what Jesus said a few verses before about the last being first and the Son of Man coming to serve rather than being served? I don’t know, but character analysis raises this question for me. What does it mean for our proclamation to notice that in this little story, Jesus would be listed under the “with” category of characters rather than the “starring” category of characters.

The crowd is a character in the story. In fact, it seems as if they function as a sort of chorus, backing up the dialogue between Jesus and Bartimaeus. Then again, it’s a “crowd.” The crowd in the Markan composition often has multiple and conflicting opinions about things. Some interpreters wonder how the crowd can change its “mind” so quickly about Bartimaeus. But that assumes a uniformity of thought and perspective that members of crowds rarely possess.

Is the narrator a character in this story? Not in any specific or concrete sense. This is a third-person, relatively omniscient account by the Markan composer. The composer has access to some of the emotions and motives of the characters. Many in the crowd, for example, are “stern.” The narrator switches perspectives easily and without comment. So, this story, unlike many in the Markan composition, the narrator is not a character.

An important element of character in a story, not discussed by Ward and Trobisch at this moment, is identification. The changing perspectives, settings, and characters encourage listeners to identify with various characters in the story. I think, as I have learned from various performance critics, that we should attend especially to the final character in a story. That is the character we identity with (quite literally) in the end.

Conflict

The remaining element of the story is “conflict.” This doesn’t necessarily mean a disagreement or a fight, although those actions often accompany a narrative conflict. A conflict is a difference of internal perspective among the characters about who is “right” about what is happening in the story. So, what is the conflict (or are the conflicts) in the story of Blind Bartimaeus?

There is the tension produced by a blind man clamoring for Jesus to see him and have mercy on him. There is the conflict between the crowd that wants Bartimaeus to shut up, and Bartimaeus who shouts all the louder as a result. There is the conflict that seems to be internal to Jesus. He has to stop and consider for a moment before telling the crowd to call Bartimaeus forward.

There is the conflict that arises as we wonder if Jesus will heal Bartimaeus and how. And there is the conflict between Jesus and Bartimaeus about the formerly blind man goes next. We know that, despite Jesus’ words to the contrary, Bartimaeus follows him on the Way.

Application

What good does such an analysis do for us as preachers, performers, and presenters of the text? As I walked through this little exercise, I noticed a few things that hadn’t been obvious before. This little story has a lot of moving parts in just a few words. Simply from the position of a reader, it might be useful to note the rapid changes in perspective and scene. These might be useful places to pause so that our listeners do not become quickly lost.

This analysis has helped me to see once again that the Markan composer uses method to illustrate content. The way the story of Bartimaeus is told illustrates the demands of discipleship outlined in the previous section. If Jesus is willing to be a supporting actor in an existential drama, then perhaps we should consider our own such roles as followers on the Way. Where am I facilitating the journey of another potential Jesus follower and how? Or, where am I inhibiting the journey of another potential Jesus follower (like the crowd, at first) and how?

The number of conflicts in these few verses is surprising when we take the time to notice them. This story has all sorts of stuff going on – in the foreground, the background, and the center of the frame. Any of these conflicts could be a useful way into the story for a preacher.

I’m most taken at the moment by thinking about the rapidly shifting conflicts and resolutions with the crowd. They tell him first to shut up and leave Jesus alone. Then they tell him to take heart and get up. Finally, they welcome him into the crowd as they all go toward Jerusalem. What a confused and confusing bunch of folks! They sound a lot like some congregations I’ve served and observed over the years. It’s only when Jesus is at the center that we can get our act together as a crowd that becomes a community.

At the very least, this brief analysis can serve as a way to “crack open” a text that might be giving the preacher a bit of hermeneutical heartburn.

“In the performance of the text, the word becomes flesh,” Ward and Trobisch write. “Interpreters explore possible authorial intentions, the basic structure of the argument, reactions from the audience, and subtexts of underlying humor and irony, some or all of which might have escaped their attention had they only studied the text sitting at a desk and read it quietly to themselves” (page 58).

It is important to keep in mind, of course, that our system of pericope reading does inherent violence to the text as a whole. “Thus the story of Bartimaeus serves as the end or frame for the way material,” Joanna Dewey writes, “as the introduction to the Jerusalem events, and as a midway stopover on the road to Jerusalem. The hearer,” she argues, “would not perceive a break in the narrative” (page 74).

That is, the first audiences for the Markan composition wouldn’t really experience the Bartimaeus story as a conclusion but rather as a transition. The fact that the “Triumphal Entry” account begins with “and” (kai) supports this understanding.

If we take the words above about identifying with characters in combination with Dewey’s reminder, then as listeners we travel with Bartimaeus from Jericho to Jerusalem. What if we maintain that perspective and identification as we read the Triumphal Entry passage? It had not occurred to me before this analysis that such a reading might be either possible or preferred. But what if we walk with Bartimaeus through the gates of the Holy City as part of the Palm Sunday parade?

Parenthetically, I think that the “Son of David” title on Barty’s lips encourages us to do just that! In the next post, let’s think a bit about that title and what it says for our hearing of the Markan composition.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.

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.

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.

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.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Ward, Richard; Trobisch, David. Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It. Eerdmans. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 4); October 24, 2021

Is This a Call Story?

If the center of the Bartimaeus story is about discipleship rather than healing, then is this a “call” story? Just by asking that question we can get lost in the weeds of form criticism, never to emerge. I don’t want to do that. But I do want to work at a deeper understanding of what the Markan composer is up to in this part of the script. So, let’s see what we can do with this question.

I have needed to remember the historical situation of the first Markan audiences. Whether they were in Rome or in Galilee, many of the dynamics would have been the same. Some of the earliest leaders of the Way were killed in the forties and fifties in Jerusalem. James is one of those leaders. Peter, Paul, and others fell during the Neronian persecutions of the early sixties.

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Now, Jerusalem itself was in ruins. Palestine was fully occupied by the Romans. The Christians had fled to refuge in the city of Pella. Christians were worried about their survival and about what exactly God was up to in these events. As we can understand when we hear the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13, it looked to them like the world was ending.

The communities that first heard the Markan composition needed the encouragement of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And they needed to know that they could continue on the journey, even if their leaders had faltered, failed, disappeared, or died. Do you remember how often in the Markan composition it’s the “little people,” the outsiders, even the foreigners, who get it right? The disciples are often clueless, and yet the Good News is still good. In a time when people are looking around for leaders, the Markan composer is saying, “Look in the mirror.”

The Christian movement, the Way, seemed to be leaderless and perhaps floundering in the chaos. I imagine that a number of “leaders” attempted to fill the void. Some of them certainly took advantage of the disorder and benefitted personally. It may be that there was some heavy nostalgia for the “old” leaders and a certain romanticizing of who they were and what they were like. The Markan composition gives some reality to those romantic pictures and tells the community that they can go forward without the old leaders. They have Jesus.

So, we come to Bartimaeus. His story is the climax and conclusion of the Markan “Way of Discipleship” section of the composition. The leaders we need are perhaps not leaders at all. When the human heads are chopped off (in some cases, quite literally), the body of Christ does not die. In fact, anyone who trusts in Jesus can pick up a cross and follow him. Remember how many times in the Markan composition Jesus says, “Whoever does x can be my disciple”?

The Bartimaeus story has things that are not in common with the calls of the earliest disciples in the Markan composition. Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus as Jesus is passing by. The first four disciples are minding their own business, engaged in their daily work. Jesus initiates the conversation and extends the invitation. “Follow me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, “and I will make you to be fishers of people.”

Jesus went a little father along the seashore and found James and John, in their boats, repairing their fishing nets. “And immediately he called them,” the Markan composer reports, “and leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, they departed behind him” (Mark 1:20, my translation). In this report, the word for “called” is used in the text, the aorist form of the verb kaleo.

That verb is not found in the Bartimaeus story. On the one hand, Bartimaeus “cries out” to Jesus (krazo). When Jesus hears the commotion, he tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus over to him. The verb used there is phoneo. It can indeed mean to call to, to summon, or to invite. The crowd does call to Bartimaeus, and they tell him that Jesus is “calling” him (same verb).

So that verb, phoneo, shows up three times in one verse. Based on our past experience with the Markan composer, we should be on the lookout for something interesting when we get that sort of repetition. Menken, along with a number of scholars, finds this difference in vocabulary insignificant. I’m not at all convinced, given the extreme care the Markan composer exercises in the use of other words in the script.

That being said, phoneo is used in call stories in John and Luke. I don’t think that’s compelling evidence, however, It would not be the first or last time that the other gospel writers either missed something important in the Markan composition or sought to clarify or correct something they thought Mark may have gotten wrong. I find the vocabulary argument to be mostly an argument from silence in this regard. And I rarely find such arguments convincing.

Unlike in the call stories in Mark 1, Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go.” This is more in line with obvious healing and exorcism accounts in the Markan composition. It is the case, for example, with the woman who suffered the twelve-year hemorrhage. Jesus told her to go in peace. Jesus told the Gerasene demoniac to return to his home and share the story. In both cases the imperative verb is the same as here in Mark 10 – “hupage”.

Beavis does not wish to label this scene a “call story.” She notes that withholding this title “is no slight to Bartimaeus, in view of Mark’s uncomplimentary depiction of the Twelve…” She argues that Bartimaeus is literally blind and still sees Jesus. He follows Jesus when the disciples are not long from fleeing. He is portrayed, in fact, as “superior to the Twelve,” and “a paradigm of faith.” Bartimaeus, in Beavis’ estimation, is not a disciple of Jesus. Instead, he’s a hero of the faith. She sees the story not as a call to discipleship but rather to a prophetic role.

The Bartimaeus story has things in common with the calls of the earliest disciples in the Markan composition. The story seems to be a chance encounter with huge consequences. Jesus’ invitation means a complete change in life – leaving behind the safe and familiar and embracing the challenge and adventure of following him. The response is immediate and results in following Jesus on the Way.

Menken refers to the elements of a “call story” typically identified by form critics. Jesus passes by. Jesus sees the potential disciple, who always has a name and sometimes a family identification. The prospect is minding his (always his) own business. Jesus calls the prospect. The prospect abandons business as usual and follows Jesus. This pattern is not limited to Mark, according to the form critics but can even be found in John’s account (page 276).

In the Bartimaeus story, Menken argues, the following elements are present. Jesus is passing by. Bartimaeus is named and a brief family identification is offered. He’s about his daily business as a beggar. The crowd reports that Jesus is “calling” him. Bartimaeus abandons his spot, his cloak, and his “job” without hesitation. The response happens, in typical Markan fashion, “immediately.” And Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the Way (pages 277-278).

Menken notes that both Matthew and Luke have partially obscured some of these details. This indicates that they would each prefer to see this as a healing story rather than a call story. This is indirect evidence that the Markan composer intends this as a call story. Otherwise, why would the redactors feel a need to change it?

Menken concludes that this is mostly a call story with a little bit of a healing story added in. If the Bartimaeus story is most about calling a disciple, then Jesus’ Galilean ministry, as Menken notes, has been framed by call stories at the beginning and the end.

The Bartimaeus story has things that are not in common with other healing stories in the Markan composition. Bartimaeus is the only person who receives healing from Jesus and is also named. Simon is named, but his mother-in-law is healed. Jairus is named, but his daughter is raised. Bartimaeus is the only one healed in the Markan composition who gets to have a “job” – he’s a beggar.

And Bartimaeus is the only one healed in the Markan composition who also follows Jesus personally and physically on “the Way.” Other beneficiaries go out and tell the story or go home. But they don’t go with Jesus on the journey, at least not in the report we have in Mark. Menken notes that the report of the healing itself is unusually brief. The audience reaction is missing. The lead-up to the event is extensive.

What if it is a “call” story, but not a call to be one of the Twelve? I think that’s what is really going on here. Discipleship isn’t just for the Inner Ring. It’s not just for the chosen few. It’s for anyone, including every blind Bartimaeus along the way. Tossing aside cloaks and scattering coins is not something best left to the professionals. It’s for anyone and everyone.

In a time when leaders disappoint, disappear, and die, hope is not lost. The Church is filled with “little people” who can carry on the struggle. Anyone can take up a cross and follow Jesus on the Way. Just because there’s a shakeup in the hierarchy, that’s no reason to stop walking forward. Who knows, the next Bartimaeus may be…me?

Well, then. Just when I thought I had an out.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.

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.

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.

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.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 3); October 24, 2021

Jesus’ Left-hand Man

“It’s so clear, “we sometimes say, “that even a blind man can see it.” Perhaps this is part of the underlying message of this piece of the Markan composition. All those who should be able to see who Jesus is and what that means are “blind” to what is right in front of them. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, sees with precision and responds with action.

The text begins with Bartimaeus sitting alongside the “Way.” It ends with him following “in the Way.” “This interpretative move is crucial,” writes Luis Menendez-Antuna, “because it provides contemporary readers a focal point beyond the healing, allowing us to steer away from ableist interpretations (admittedly present in the text) that reinforce theologies that equate faith and healing. In other words,” he continues, “I suggest that contemporary interpretations should focus on the blind man’s disposition rather than on the blind man’s condition.”

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I had to sit with that last sentence for a while and return to it a few times. It is the ableist cultural default to assume that “blind is bad” and “sighted is good.” I succumb to the “tyranny of normalcy” without even noticing. In fact, we humans construct systems and structures that center some characteristics and marginalize others. We blame and penalize the marginalized for not “fitting in.” And we believe that the constructed systems and structures are just the way things are and the way things have always been.

It’s one thing if being marginalized is merely inconvenient. I’m left-handed, and I live in a still predominantly right-handed world. There was a time when some social scientists thought that left-handedness produced a life-expectancy of some nine years less than that for right-handers. That finding has since been questioned and largely disproved. Nonetheless, all I have to do is use a pair of “normal” scissors to know that right-handers still call the shots in American culture.

Left-handedness occurs in somewhere between ten and twelve percent of the population. During the Victorian era, that number dropped to about three percent as parents, teachers, clergy, physicians, health care workers, and government agencies tried to eradicate left-handedness. A number of stories were concocted over the centuries to demonstrate why left-handedness was “evil.”

It may well be that in some cultures, the left hand was (and is) used to wipe one’s backside. That’s certainly a mark against offering that hand to another as a sign of friendship. Being left-handed was regarded as a sign of moral decay, a symptom of mental illness, a sign of neurological problems, and the work of the Devil.

There is, of course, the imagery of Jesus seated at the “right” hand of God (as if God really has hands). This is a sign of Jesus located in the seat of power. There is also the image of the goats in the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25. They are located on the left hand and are condemned to the eternal fire. Of course, it was not their geographical location that caused the judgment but rather their lack of service to the vulnerable. But the association is there.

These stories underwrite and ratify real consequences for the left-handers. They were sometimes executed during the Inquisition – for using their left hands. Left-handedness increased the chances that a women would be tortured and executed as a witch in Salem. Children have had their left hands bound, broken, and scalded to prevent them from using them. Teachers have wrapped tender knuckles and bounced books off young heads to enforce the use of the right hand.

Why do I rehearse all this useless information (useless unless you happen to be left-handed), anyway? Left-handedness is a real thing. It has existed in human populations for millennia. It is associated with some real health and behavioral risks. It is also associated with some real health and behavioral benefits. It’s just a thing some humans have. But the dominant, right-handed group has constructed systems, structures, and stories to assign a value to left-handedness. And that value has, for most of recorded human history, been “bad.”

What if we move from the relatively trivial difference represented by left-handedness to the more significant difference represented by blindness? Will we, in fact, focus more on blind Bartimaeus’ disposition rather than his physical condition? Can we see this as a story much more about discipleship than about healing?

Mary Ann Beavis notes that some interpreters view Bartimaeus’ lack of physical sight as a symbol of his lack of spiritual or theological insight. Therefore, when he calls Jesus “Son of David,” he is getting it wrong, or only partially right. “There are many examples in the literature on the Bartimaeus pericope,” Beavis writes, “that suggest an unacknowledged tendency for interpreters to bring images of disability to the text that affect their valuation of the blind man’s role in the story, and even of the genre of the narrative” (page 23).

Guilty as charged, I would say – at least in past readings of this text. I have uncritically accepted the correlation made between physical blindness and spiritual obtuseness, naivete, and/or ignorance. “In such interpretations,” Beavis writes, “it is presupposed that the blindness of Bartimaeus is a wholly negative trait. Blindness and intellectual or spiritual imperceptiveness are equated,” she continues, “and Bartimaeus recedes into the background as a foil for the healing power of Jesus, an element in the theme of the misunderstanding of the disciples” (page 24).

In the Hebrew scriptures, blindness is always bad. It is a curse, a punishment, a tragedy, and a source of impurity. It is a metaphor for wickedness, folly, and ignorance. That conceptual framework continues in the Christian scriptures. The same assessments can be found in Greco-Roman culture, only more so. “Blindness, in particular, was regarded by the ancients as a condition incurable by doctors,” Beavis notes, “to be healed only by divine power” (page 28).

It is also the case in the ancient world that blind people were sometimes thought to have “second sight.” Blind people were sometimes regarded as prophets and fortune tellers. The most familiar of such characters is Tiresias, the blind Theban seer who makes an appearance in Homer’s The Odyssey and a number of other ancient works. You can find the role of Tiresias reprised by Lee Weaver in the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Perhaps some of that cultural expectation shows up in our text as well.

Given the value system of Jesus in the Markan composition, we should look for the normal assessments of a blind man to be turned upside down. In fact, they are. “Although Bartimaeus is literally blind when he appeals to Jesus,” Beavis writes, “the disciples are repeatedly described as metaphorically without sight or perception…Bartimaeus is portrayed as superior to the Twelve in that he ‘sees’ Jesus while he is blind,” she continues,” whereas the sighted disciples are deficient in perception” (page 35).

Bartimaeus is not portrayed, therefore, as deficient because he is physically blind. Instead, he resembles the literary types found in both Hebrew and Greco-Roman literature of the blind prophet who has more insight that any sighted person. The blindness is not a punishment but rather a function of age or accident. Thus, “Bartimaeus’ recognition of Jesus as the Son of David,” Beavis writes, “is prophetic…. Rather than functioning as a mere suppliant by asking Jesus to restore his sight, Bartimaeus enables the Son of David to fulfill in his own person the ancient eschatological prophecies that the eyes of the blind shall be opened” (page 37).

Seeing, in the Markan composition, is obviously not about refraction and reflection. It’s about repentance. It’s about being open to a different way of seeing the world, even if your eyes work just fine. Physical blindness is a disability that can be overcome, if the cultural system demands that. Spiritual blindness is a harder ailment to treat.

Human systems, structures, and stories are often constructed to keep the oppressed “in their place.” The crowd in Mark 10 is happy to perform this function. Bartimaeus cries out, and the crowd tells him to shut up. His “place” was on the sidelines and in silence. But Bartimaeus wasn’t having it. And Jesus wouldn’t cooperate with the system. Bartimaeus receives a new place, a new community, and a new mission in life.

But let’s remain clear on the text here. The return of physical sight to Bartimaeus is almost an afterthought in the text. The real change is in his place – moving from beside the Way to on the Way. In large part, it was the way Bartimaeus crashed the constructed boundaries of the system that brought him into the community of disciples. That’s one of the ways his faith “saved him.”

The role of the Church is not to ratify the systems, structures, and stories that keep people marginalized – by race, gender, orientation, class, age, ethnicity, language, disability, or any other difference. The role of the Church is to dismantle such systems that might keep people from taking their proper place on the Way.

After all, they made room for us left-handers, right (I mean, correct)?

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.

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.

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

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.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Notes about upcoming text studies

Friends, I am going to stick with the Gospel of Mark for Reformation Sunday (10/31) and All Saints Sunday (11/7). Our time with Mark (my favorite gospel account) is speeding toward its end for another three years. I want to read and reflect on as much of the Markan composition as possible in the time remaining. So, I’m going to focus on the following texts.

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October 31 (Reformation): Mark 12:28-34 — The greatest commandment. I can’t think of a better text to focus our attention in a “First Commandment” way. And therefore, I can’t think of a better text to help us read texts the way Luther reads texts.

November 7 (All Saints): Mark 12:35-44 — David’s son and the Widow’s Mite. These verses provide some interesting opportunities to reflect on the communion of saints.

November 14: Mark 13:1-8, 32-37. I think that the prologue and epilogue of the Little Apocalypse is a good way to treat the text with integrity.

November 21 (Christ the King): Mark 15:1-20 — I think the Markan composition offers at least as many ways to reflect on Christ the King as does the Johannine text (especially with the Barabbas scene).

I hope this will offer a helpful heads up for ongoing readers.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 2); October 24, 2021

Your “Faith” Has Saved You?

“And replying to him, Jesus said, ‘What do you want that I shall do for you?’ but the blind one said to him, ‘Rabbouni, that I shall see again.’ And Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has saved you’” (Mark 10:51-52a, my translation).

“Your faith has saved you” is a thing in the Markan composition. Jesus says the same thing to the woman who touched his cloak (let’s not lose track of that connection) in Mark 5:34 (my translation). “But he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be made whole from your illness.” The words in the most pertinent phrase are identical.

Let’s look at the word alternately translated as “saved,” as “healed,” and as “made well.” The latter rendering is the NRSV’s preference in both Mark 5:34 and Mark 10:52. The verb is “sozo” and the related noun is “soteria.” The primary meaning of the verb is “to save.” The primary meaning of the noun is “salvation.” Definitions involving health and healing are secondary meanings for the words.

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Foerster notes in his TDNT entry that the verb “never refers to a single member of the body but always to the whole man (sic)…The choice of the word leaves room for the view that the healing power of Jesus and the saving power of faith go beyond physical life” (page 990). The disciples use the verb, he notes, in the story of the rich man to wonder “who then can be saved?” The word can describe what it means to enter into or inherit the life that comes with following Jesus.

We need to go back to the story of the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak for a few moments. Hurtado notes that “the woman was healed because she put faith in Jesus and his power, not because the touch of a holy man automatically cures” (page 87). A similar emphasis, Hurtado argues, is found in the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The result of “faith” is more than physical healing. It is, in fact, a whole new life.

N. T. Wright helps us as well to think about being saved by our faith. He notes that it was clearly Jesus’ power that healed and saved the woman. But Jesus says it was her faith that made it happen. “The answer must be that faith, though itself powerless,” Wright argues, “is the channel through which Jesus’ power can work” (Kindle Location, 1219).

There is a great deal of subtlety here, and it is worth trying to unpack. The woman, and Bartimaeus, do not “earn” their healing and saving by their believing. Instead, their trust is both the first sign of that healing and saving and the conduit through which the healing and saving come to them. In the case of the woman, the power flows out of Jesus and into her. In the case of Bartimaeus, Jesus summons him, and he responds.

Therefore, Wright suggests, “faith, however much fear and trembling may accompany it, is the first sign of that remaking, that renewal, that new life” (Kindle Location 1221). Somehow, this “faith” both makes and marks the new disciple.

I think that part of the struggle for many traditional Protestant readers is the notion that “your” faith has saved you. The assumption seems to be that if something is my property, that is, if it belongs to me, then I must have either produced or purchased it. The property is, therefore my “accomplishment.” We find ourselves, then, in the territory of works righteousness, and the interpretive train quickly goes off the tracks.

It is not necessary, however, that the only things that belong to me are things I have either purchased or produced. My voice, for example, is certainly mine. It doesn’t belong to someone else. Yet, I am not responsible for its existence. I can only receive my voice as a gift and then use it or not use it. If I had not received my voice along with the rest of my body, there wouldn’t be any questions about its use.

I think we can see “faith” in the same way. My faith can be “mine” without me having to purchase or produce it. It is part of me, inheres in my being, and is available for my use. In fact, it is part of what makes me “me.” Faith, in this sense is, as Wright suggests, is a sign of new life, not the way to get it. But that doesn’t mean that “faith” is a purely passive reality.

If you want to pursue this line of inquiry and reflection, you will certainly want to read Matt Skinner’s workingpreacher.org commentary. Skinner describes “the active faith of Bartimaeus.”  This active faith “is not about reciting the correct confession or subscribing to certain dogmas,” Skinner writes. “It is his unrelenting conviction that Jesus can and will rescue him from his need. We see this faith,” Skinner argues, “in what Bartimaeus does…”

Skinner puts this doing under four headings. Bartimaeus grasps who Jesus is. He persists despite hindrances. He expects a transformation. And he asks for the right thing. It’s worth putting my own experience and definition of faith alongside these headings and see how “faith” works for me.

“In Mark, Bartimaeus is not the first person seeking a miracle who approaches Jesus in faith, but he is the only one who winds up following him,” Skinner observes, “presumably straight into Jerusalem and into his confrontation with the temple-based aristocracy.”

The story of Bartimaeus gives us disciples hope in the face of the failures of the Twelve. “Without Bartimaeus, and others in Mark like him who tenaciously cling to Jesus out of faith born from their urgent needs,” Skinner continues, “this Gospel would offer little assurance that anyone could have the spiritual insight to perceive the mysterious ways of God in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.”

Skinner reminds us that this connection between “faith” and “being saved” is a field filled with theological landmines. “Faith” may not always result in “healing.” Illness does not arise directly from one’s sins. We may have to carefully say out loud that there is no direct connection between what we do and how we are saved. Faith, we remember, leads first to the cross. But the cross leads to resurrection.

Karl Jacobson, in his workingpreacher.org commentary puts it this way. “Faith can make us well. This is not magic, or superstition, or some simple fix of course. It seems clear, to me at least, that when Jesus says, ‘Your faith has made you well,’ he is not saying that these people somehow believed their way into wellness.”

“Rather,” Jacobson continues, “he is pronouncing their wellness, declaring it, making it happen for them. It is Jesus who heals, and faith that receives that healing. And so it is, or can be,” he concludes, “for those who hear this story and this good news. Faith can make us well. Faith can open our eyes (sic), unstop our ears — even raise us from death. This is the power of the promise wherein faith and forgiveness, faith and wellness, meet; this is the power of Jesus’ word for salvation. And it is to this meeting of faith and fullness of life that we ought to be preaching.”

The classic location, especially in our Lutheran tradition, for the connection between salvation and faith is Ephesians 2:8-10. “For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith; and this is not out of you, (it is) the gift of God; not out of works, in order that no one may boast” (verses 8-9, my translation). The grammar indicates that the “gift of God” includes the faith. It is not something we produce or purchase. That it, it is not a “work” in that Pauline sense.

The real punchline for this passage, however, is in verse 10: “For we are (God’s) works of art, being created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk through our lives in them” (my translation). The word I translate as “works of art” is “poiehma.” It’s where we get our words “poem” and “poetry.” Faith is God in Christ working in us to fashion us as God has created us to be.

Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” The root of “do” is closely related to the works of art in Ephesians 2:10. What if we translate the question as, “What do you want me to do to you?”? The Greek dative will certainly permit that translation. “Faith” is what God does to us in Christ to re-make us into what God has always intended us to be. Bartimaeus is saved in order to grow into one of God’s works of art in Christ.

That’s the kind of faith that can get me up and going!

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.

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

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.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 1); October 24, 2021

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.

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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.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

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.

On Wanting the Wrong Things — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:32-45

James and John waste no words. “Teacher, give us what we want!”

Those words take me to breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. We finish eating. We are funneled back into the retail store. Every time it’s the same conversation. “Grandpa, give me what I want!” And another grand-child learns that life is filled with disappointment.

Wanting isn’t the problem. “What is it,” Jesus asks them, “that you want me to do for you?” The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

Photo by Ayyub Yahaya on Pexels.com

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things. James and John want power and prestige, status and security, dignity and dominance. They want to rule with Jesus. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what that means.

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. Our economy exploits our wanting. We have often enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cracker Barrel with the grandkids. To get what we really want, we are required to run the retail gauntlet. We are surrounded by plaques and party dresses, rocking chairs and recipe books, toys and trinkets. Our desires are carefully channeled to stimulate sales. The store shapes our desires and then tries to satisfy them.

There’s the problem. We are created wanting. But that’s not the whole story. We are designed to desire God. Nothing else will do. No matter how the retail gods tease and tempt us, we always want more. We can never buy enough, eat enough, love enough or rule enough to be satisfied. This is the curse of consumerism. Retail therapy is a symptom of the disease, not a treatment.

We are designed to desire God. Christian thinkers have known this from the beginning. “Our hearts are restless, O God,” writes St. Augustine, “until we rest in you.” Blaise Pascal describes the “infinite abyss” in each of us that can be filled only by God.

The hallmark of sin is that we settle for restlessness. The hallmark of sin is that we fill the abyss with anything and everything except for God. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

This is about much more than temporary trinkets at Cracker Barrel. Now we come back to James and John. They don’t want plaques and party dresses. They want power. Subtlety is not their strong suit.

The problem isn’t wanting. The problem isn’t even wanting power. But power in God’s kingdom is nothing like power in the world. Power in God’s kingdom comes in the shape of a cross. The gospel writer knows who will be at Jesus’ right and left hands. It won’t be James and John. It will be two bandits. Above Jesus’ head will be a sign that reads, “The King of the Jews.

The world thinks this is backwards. Only the lead dog has a clear view. Everyone else has a…tail…in their face. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. You’re either climbing or you’re falling. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Truth is a poor substitute for victory.

Jesus says power comes in the shape of a cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus tells all of us disciples, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The purpose of this power is freedom. A ransom is paid to free a hostage. The first purpose of power in God’s kingdom is to set captives free. If you are a captive, this is good news for you. Jesus died and lives so you can be really free.

If you are a captive…but then, who isn’t! We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Jesus draws the powers of sin, death and the devil on to the cross with him. As we read in Ephesians, he takes captivity captive and kills those powers. When we trust him and follow him, we share in that freedom.

Still, we are captive to consumerism. Consumerism is a system that promises identity, meaning, and purpose through shopping. That’s not the definition an economist would give. But it is precisely the spiritual promise consumerism makes. Consumerism turns wanting into the goal of life. In this worldview, what we want is irrelevant. Our desire becomes our god.

It is “stewardship season” in many American Christian congregations. Someone once asked me if the goal is to increase giving to a congregation. That would be a salutary side effect of such an appeal. The goal, however, is freedom. The goal is freedom from captivity to stuff, security and certainty. Grateful giving is the best path to freedom from wanting. The goal is freedom to be the self-giving servants that God has made us to be. In part, that will be the freedom to buy less stuff.

Giving for the life and work of the Church is a tool for reaching that goal. An offertory prayer describes it well. “Merciful God,” we pray, “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you. We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

The world thinks serving is for suckers. Jesus is no naïve dreamer. He knows how the world works. He reminds his disciples of that. The weak are meat for the strong to eat. The world asks, “Do you want to eat or be eaten?” Jesus is hardly a utopian romantic. He simply says, “It is not so among you.

We are also still captive to self-serving power. We live in a time when power has ceased to be a tool. We live in a time when power has become the goal. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus says, “But it is not so among you…” Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings.

When I vote, for example, I apply this litmus test to every candidate. Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings. Self-servers do not get my vote. Self-givers do. I must confess that the slate of people for whom I can vote appears to be shrinking by the day. But I keep looking.

Jesus comes to release all of Creation from bondage to sin, death, and the devil – ALL of creation! If I will not participate in that work of release, then I cannot receive it. We live in a time when White Male Supremacy struggles to remain the dominant system in our society. Christian denominations and churches have been central to sustaining that system for the past four centuries. We can be part of shedding that system or sheltering it. The Jesus option should be clear.

“You know that the so-called leaders of the White Christian Nationalists lord it over people of color, women, migrants, and anyone else who threatens their power,” Jesus says, “but it is not so among you.” If it is so among us – even in subtle ways – then we are not following Jesus.

Jesus delivers his clearest and most detailed teaching on the cross and resurrection. Then James and John ask for a promotion. That’s crazy talk! But that’s precisely what we White American Christians do when Jesus sets us free and we use that freedom to keep others in bondage. That is, as James Baldwin once noted, a kind of insanity.

Our release comes by means of Jesus, dying and rising. The cross changes Creation – no, restores Creation to the way God makes it, and us. That change costs those of us who are invested in the status quo of power over others. It will feel like dying. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. So, if we’re losing power, position, privilege, and property, then things are probably working as they should.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who are privileged White Christians is developing and sustaining the moral, emotional, and institutional stamina to live through the losing. “To serve,” for us first means dealing that fragility as dominant and dominating people. We are being forced to look at our history and practice of tyranny and to sit with that for a while.

In the meantime, as church institutions, we need to practice some losing. Of course, some of that is being forced on us by a changing culture. But when will we start giving land back to Indigenous people? When will be start including reparations to Black institutions as part of our annual denominational and congregational and personal budgets? That’s the question I put to myself, and it’s painful.

Must be the right question.

The test for this is always the Jesus test. Our Lord comes to serve, to give, to die and to live. But that living is God’s gift, not the result of selfishness or fear. William Willimon reminds us that “our faith is full of people…for whom survival was low on the list of priorities.” If survival is the goal, we have failed the Jesus test. If serving in love is the goal, we have passed.

Wanting is not the problem. Wanting stuff in order to help others is not the problem. Wanting power in order to serve others is not the problem. Wanting freedom in order to worship God and love our neighbor is not the problem. Pray this week for right desire. Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 6); October 17, 2021

Another Friday with Phil

If you know some of my research interests, it will come as no surprise to you that the mention of “slaves” leads to me to think of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. One of the things I love about studying that little letter is that it allows me to imagine and get in touch with real people in real relationships in a real family, home, church, and community in the first century. It’s one thing to wax academic about what these texts mean. It’s another to conduct thought experiments with Phil and his household to see how it might all play out.

What if we sift Philemon and his household with the sieve of Mark 10? Before you think I’m letting the rest of us off the hook, I am not. This is going to be hard on Phil and his household. It is just as hard, in different dimensions, on me and my household. I’ll try to come back to that before we finish this post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Let’s begin with Phil’s marriage to Lady Apphia. I assume they were husband and wife, but that detail is not necessary to carry through this analysis. It just makes it a bit simpler for the sake of the experiment.

If we read the divorce text at the beginning of the chapter, we will see that Phil is called to see Apphia as a person in her own right and not a utility for his convenience. She is a partner in the enterprise of the household and not a piece of attractive furniture. Her sexual functioning is not his property, nor is their marriage a mere contract. Apphia is his sister in Christ as well as his spouse and is thus an equal in this newly (re)constituted family.

If Philemon was a traditional Roman, upper-class, man, this was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more.

Let’s move to Phil’s relationship to Archippus. If Archippus is the adult son of Apphia and Phil, some changes are in order in that relationship as well. He is now also a brother in Christ to Phil. He is not merely a receptacle for Phil’s bequeathed honor and estate. As with Apphia, Phil’s power “over” his son must now be replaced by power “with” and “for” his offspring.

In a culture that regarded infanticide as a legitimate means of birth control and children as subhuman until after puberty, this, too, was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more!

It is obvious that Philemon is “rich,” not poor. He has enough wealth to own a home where a group of Jesus followers can meet regularly for worship and community life. He is rich enough to hold at least one enslaved person, and it is likely that his household contained at least several more enslaved persons. Paul addresses him as an “honorable” man who commands respect because of his power, position, privilege, and property.

This takes us to the story of the rich man in Mark 10. I would think that such a story would not go down well with Phil and other rich people in the early Jesus movement. It doesn’t appear that Paul asked Philemon or other wealthy patrons to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to join Paul personally in the missionary enterprise. Paul clearly depended on the patronage of some well-off people and communities to do his work. The counsel of Mark 10:17-31 was not adopted wholesale.

This adaptation was not without its problems in some of the Pauline communities. The disparities in wealth and status in the Corinthian church caused no end of mischief. The rich arrived early for the love feast (because they didn’t have real jobs) and ate all the good food. The privileged claimed that their voices counted for more in the assembly – especially, it seems, the voices of some of the privileged women (but that’s another conversation). In Corinth, wealth was making it difficult for some members to enter the Kin(g)dom of God.

The concern for property was, I think, an issue for Philemon as well. It may be that Onesimus took some property or some cash when he escaped to find Paul in Ephesus. It would seem that this tension was a fairly big deal for Philemon, since Paul offers to pay the costs out of his own pocket (and then guilts Philemon into withdrawing his complaint about the “crime”).

At the least, Paul wants Philemon to see that mutuality in Christ trumps any concerns about personal property. Paul does not appear to require divestment of wealth as a condition for following Jesus (and Paul). But he does expect that wealth will be used for the well-being of the community and not for the benefit of the wealthy.

So, Phil, stop worrying about your money. If it bothers you so much, send another gift of cash along with Onesimus when you send him back to assist Paul in things that are far more important!

So, this “Good News” deconstructs Phil’s family relationships. It calls into question the importance of his power, position, privilege, and property. The Good News calls on Phil to put love for neighbor ahead of the demands of the honor and shame system of the culture. That would be more than enough work for a lifetime. But wait! There’s more!

Let’s take a little stroll back into Mark 9 for a moment. Phil, you know those wandering hands of yours (and anything else that might be wandering) that seem to find their way on to the bodies of several of your slaves? Cut it out or cut them off! You know those roving eyes of yours that linger a bit too long on your next-door neighbor’s wife as she rests in their courtyard? Give it up or gouge them out!

Given the norms of elite sexual behavior in Greco-Roman culture, these boundaries would have made Phil the laughingstock of the local bathhouse. But wait! There’s more!

Finally, we come to the enslaved persons. First of all, they cannot be regarded as sexual, physical, and commercial utilities at the disposal of the slaveholder. Jesus followers don’t get to treat anyone that way.

Second, there’s this “ransom for many” business. The language of “ransom” in the first century, as we noted in a previous post, is really the language of manumission for enslaved persons. Phil, how can Jesus release the enslaved from bondage, but you will not? I think that’s the question that stands behind Paul’s request to Phil that he would treat Onesimus as “more than a brother.”

Enslaved persons were a substantial part of the wealth in first-century households. The release of the enslaved persons would likely crash the household economy. And the rich people would have to start doing actual human work. The last would become first, and the first last, in very practical ways. Phil would have the chance to become “great” in Jesus’ terms because he would start serving whether he liked it or not.

Is it any wonder Jesus says all that stuff about camels and needles’ eyes?

I find this experiment of processing Philemon and his household with the Markan “moral sieve” instructive and terrifying. I don’t have actual enslaved people under my roof. But I find it very hard to give up Amazon purchases even though I view the wealth of Jeff Bezos detestable. It pisses me off to have to look at the labels on my clothes, investigate how they are sourced, and determine if the clothing is ethically produced (it hardly ever is).

We made a commitment at our house almost three years ago to maintain a whole-food, plant-based diet. I did that because one day I realized that I couldn’t treat animals as edible automata. I’m not evangelistic about this choice, but it works for us. At the same time, those choices have reduced our options for socializing, made us the ongoing topic of conversation among family and neighbors, and made grocery shopping an experience in mindfulness.

If being modestly vegan takes that much effort, what does it mean to be a Mark 10 disciple? Phil, I’m not judging. I’m empathizing.

It seems that at least some of Paul’s churches chose the route of moderate accommodation to the culture. I think that’s why we find the tables of household duties in Ephesians and Colossians – tables that ratify the larger culture and make no mention of Markan discipleship. That is certainly why Christian elites continued to hold and deal in enslaved persons, in and through the Church in many cases, for centuries.

In our own context, we know how much effort, theology, and violence have gone into maintaining White Male Supremacy in and through Christian churches in America. The resources for this discussion are now voluminous. But at the least, I hope you will read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Robert Jones’ White Too Long, and Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne. These works give depth and data to the White Christian Church’s complicity in the American project of White Male Supremacy.

So, Phil, what do we do about this? I’m reflecting on how best to make reparations for the rest of my life – to Indigenous people, Black people, Brown people, AAPI people. I don’t think I’m going to sell it all and give the proceeds to the people to whom that wealth is owed. But I also don’t think I can continue to do little or nothing that has a dollar sign attached to it.

References and Resources

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.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 5); October 17, 2021

Onside with Jesus

“But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be a slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, my translation).

Whenever enslavement comes up as a metaphor for sin, discipleship, or any other theological category, we White American Christians should get nervous. The Christians Scriptures have been used for too long and continue to be used as ideological props for White Male Supremacy in our culture. I think, at least in our reflections, we are required to interrogate this metaphor and get to the other side of it.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, my translation and emphasis). The words about becoming servants and slaves are conditioned on what the Son of Man does. That’s the logic of the text. The Son of Man ransoms the captives, releases the enslaved, frees those in bondage. That’s the Good News of the text and of the Kin(g)dom of God.

If the enslaved are freed, enslavement is ended. The only way the enslavement metaphor now makes sense is if freed people willingly take on serving. Power over others is, as we shall see below, ruled out of bounds for Jesus followers. Power “for” and power “with” are to be embraced, embodied, and enacted in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom.

This is possible because (thus, “for”) the Son of Man has given his life a ransom for many. The Cross is an event that is accomplished, not merely an example to be followed. There is certainly an exemplary character to the Cross for Jesus followers. Jesus does, after all, invite us to take up our “crosses” and follow him. But providing an example is an outcome of the Cross, not its purpose.

The purpose of the Cross and Resurrection is to release enslaved people, to ransom those in bondage, to rescue captives. David Seeley argues in his article that the model of “servant rulership” described in our text has roots in and resonances with such thought in Greco-Roman philosophy running from Plato through the first-century Cynics. I don’t find that argument compelling. There is plenty of material in the Hebrew scriptures to support the image of “servant rulership” for the Jewish Messiah. Just read the royal psalms.

Seeley has a final section, however, on the word “lutron” (ransom), which is instructive. Up until the appearance of that word in our text, Seeley argues, the imagery would support an exemplary, “paradigmatic” view of the Cross. But when the Markan composer quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man came as “a ransom for the sake of many,” the notion of a paradigmatic death is left behind. Something is actually happening in the Cross.

Seeley notes that (forty years ago) Markan scholars were at pains to separate Markan theology from Pauline theology. He gives four reasons why that is wrong-headed. Paul speaks about the death of Christ as liberating people from slavery (see Romans 6). It would be hard to be a Christian in the late first-century (especially if that Christian were in Rome) and not to have heard of or given a nod to Paul. The sacramental imagery in Mark 10:38-39 sounds so very much like Paul. And the Markan composer was a sharp enough tool to figure out how to dialogue with Paul without plagiarizing or endorsing everything Paul said.

A generation ago (sigh), I spent a week with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary on the conversation between this section of Mark and Philippians 2. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a contested topic in the New Testament guild, but apparently it was. Frederickson made a strong case that “having the mind of Christ” is precisely what the Markan composer also meant when, in chapter 8, the composer accuses Peter of not “thinking the things that are of God.”

Here at the climax of the discipleship discourse in the Markan composition, we have (I think) another marker from Philippians 2. If a Jesus follower is to become a “slave of all,” that is because the One I follow has gone there first. Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “who, though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be gripped with both hands, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7, my translation).

The Son of Man, the one in human likeness, embraces the form of an enslaved person in order to release all of Creation from bondage. It is that willing embrace, even of death on a cross, that results in his exaltation as the Name which is above every name. The Good News of the Kin(g)dom is that this is the very character of God! Jesus takes on the form of the slave in order that all the enslaved would be ransomed, redeemed, and released.

Our text “seems well on its way to presenting the Son of Man’s death in terms of paradigmatic suffering and martyrdom,” Seeley writes. “But then the term lutron is added. By using it,” Seeley continues, “Mark invites his audience to understand this death as liberation” (page 249).

Seeley argues that the Markan composer goes no further than this because the composer wants to give a nod to Pauline theology without affirming all of that theology. That strikes me as an argument from silence and a misunderstanding of the Markan composition as an oral text. The mentions of baptism and eucharist earlier in the paragraph would leave the door open for further comment by the performer if the audience setting called for it. Better to address what is in the text than what is not.

What can we draw from this part of the discussion? First, this text is an anti-slavery passage. It may have been used to undergird human enslavement by pro-slavery Christian preachers in the past. I’m not sure of that, but I suspect that was the case. In fact, the very purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is to ransom, redeem, and release the enslaved.

The Cross is not a metaphor, example, or paradigm. It is an effective event. Real people get real freedom. If nominal Jesus followers don’t do that, we aren’t following Jesus. The Son of Man has come to challenge the powers of domination that are the human norm and to change the status of those who are in captivity to those powers.

Second, therefore, disciples dismantle hierarchies. Disciples flatten power pyramids. And that happens at the systemic as well as the personal level. If we think this text is only about personal behavior, we’re wrong. If you want a place where Jesus talks about systemic evil and the need to dismantle a system, this is your text. He doesn’t point to specific Gentile rulers who are lording it over others. Instead, he describes a general system of domination that is typical of the world in which he lived. And he declares that such a system shall not be so among us.

Systems that create and sustain domination of some humans over others are not part of God’s intention or goals. Amassing power, position, privilege, and property is not a feature of following Jesus. Any system that is based on such behavior is contrary to the character of God. Like it or not, this is a political text. It is about how human communities are structured. The Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, when in fact, there is only one Lord and one God. It takes hard work and layers of self-delusion to miss this dimension of the text.

Third, Jesus followers enter “enslavement for all” (whatever that means in my situation) willingly and freely. The actually enslaved never get to choose to serve. Nor are the actually enslaved slaves of all. Only those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can choose to freely serve. And those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can only work for the freedom of others, if we are to be consistent in our Jesus following.

There may be no better expression of this text than Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Luther loved paradoxes almost as much as the Markan composer. One of his favorites comes from the great 1517 treatise. The Christian is both perfectly free, servant of none, and perfectly slave, servant of all. The freedom comes as God’s gift to all of Creation in Christ. The servitude is chosen as a grateful response for that gift and an enactment of that Good News.

Fourth, we can see why the Cross stands in the center of the Jesus way. He is clearly opposed to the normal structures of power in this world. These are the structures that make “lording it over” the order of the day. A few people gain a great deal from such systems and will fight to the death to maintain what they have. Opposing such systems of power always provokes a violent response.

We live in a time when people are doing much to dismantle hierarchies and flatten power pyramids. The systems of White Male Supremacy, European colonialism, unfettered Capitalism, and unregulated wealth are certainly receiving long overdue scrutiny, criticism, and resistance. Is it any wonder we are witnessing such violent and systematic responses? More to the point, are we American Jesus followers on the “Jesus side” of these conflicts?

Too often we are not. Perhaps a reminder of how the Good News actually works can move us a millimeter closer to that Jesus side.

References and Resources

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.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

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