The Gospel of Mark
is the shortest and most dramatic
of the four authorized gospels.
Mark is not only the first and earliest
of the four gospels,
he creates the pattern for the others.
But most importantly,
he is the best story-teller.
The tale I just read is not much to bark at,
just a homely little story
told in ten sentences,
but those ten sentences we just heard
are the hinge
upon which Mark’s whole Gospel swings.
Here is what I mean.
Mark takes ten chapters
to tell us about the last three years
of Jesus’ adult life.
Remember, Mark does not bother
to include all that mythology
surrounding Jesus’ birth.
Instead, Mark begins with a fully-grown
and mature Jesus
who is suddenly swept up
into an amazing spiritual awakening
at his baptism.
It starts with a bang –
all of a sudden, one day a spectacular
event changes his life
and the history of the world going forward.
Then Mark takes ten chapters
chocked full of stories that
leads up to Jesus’ fateful decision
to take his road show to Jerusalem.
Mark takes TEN chapters
to tell us about three years in the life
of the adult Jesus.
But then, he takes SIX chapters
to describe the last WEEK
of Jesus’ life.
So, ten chapters for three years
and six chapters for seven days.
The hinge, between these two episodes,
is the story of Blind Bartimaeus.
This ten-sentence story
is a microcosm
of everything in the ten chapters
leading up to it;
and it is a foretelling of everything
that will be told in the next six chapters
Here are the pertinent bones on this skeleton.
First, the story of Blind Bartimaeus
takes place on a stage dripping with drama.
Jericho was an incredibly opulent resort city.
It was, in Jesus’ day,
home to the summer palace for King Herod.
We have descriptions of several palaces
in Jericho, where even just some of the homes
had magnificent sunken gardens.
It is no accident that the hinge
upon which the big story swings
takes place in Jericho.
Jericho was the intersection of the world
in those parts. Literally.
No kidding, at Jericho two Roman roads
met like cross hairs in a sniper’s scope.
There were only a few roads in the world
that could host chariots
and heavy traffic, not like today
when we need GPS just to decipher
which varicose vein
will take us where we need to go.
One Jericho road
went straight to Jerusalem and Damascus,
while the other Jericho road
went all the way to Rome.
It was the point of decision –
for Jesus and his followers.
It was the very moment
that split past and present,
safety and danger,
control and vulnerability.
Turn back, and they could go home
to the people and places they knew best:
the smaller villages and towns
where Jesus’ rural images
and down-home zingers
aimed at the principalities and powers
would take them to the people among whom
he was popular and well loved;
it would be safer and wiser.
But if he turned the parade toward Jerusalem,
that urban citadel of Roman occupation
and religious authority,
it was unclear what might happen.
In that caldron of political and religious power,
Jesus would be viewed with suspicion,
and it would be dangerous
because trouble-makers and agitators
were rubbed out like bugs on a picnic table.
So, the stage could not have been
more dramatic or evocative:
opulent playground of military
and political power
where past and future intersect.
It was the very moment, we could say,
where Time stood still.
There are such moments
in human history,
those with a longer hang-time
in which momentous events seem to stand still
just a little longer,
and just a little more pulsating
than the moments surrounding them.
Though we do not have any real-time record of it,
Blind Bartimaeus and Jericho
was that kind of a moment.
Lurking in this thickened moment
are several of Mark’s central actors
who I want to shout out.
These are important characters
who actually tell the story
throughout the chapters of Mark’s gospel.
First, the Roman Empire is a character
and is always lurking around between the lines
in all of Mark’s stories.
The empire does not always have a line to deliver,
but it is always there
because it was a foreign occupying force
making every day miserable
for Jesus and every other peasant.
Another character of course, collectively,
are ‘the disciples:
Jesus’ students and close associates.
We know the twelve famous ones
who were important enough to be named,
but there was also a bigger group –
sometimes numbered at 70.
In Mark’s stories,
the disciples are almost always present
and, whether an individual or group,
they serve as a foil or the brunt of humor.
Mark caricatures the disciples
who should know better, yet never do.
The disciples, above everyone else,
should “get it” but they just don’t.
Then there is ‘the Crowd’
which is also a unique feature of Mark.
It is another collective character,
a legion of faceless, nameless, odorless people
who are dependable in their demeanor.
The crowdis especially graphic
in this Bartimaeus story.
Jesus and his disciples AND the large crowd
were leaving Jericho, it says.
The crowd, as in many of Mark’s stories,
serves here as a narrative witness to the events.
whether in Jericho, Nazareth
or Jerusalem, also share common characteristics.
Usually they are hungry and thirsty,
if not for food then for a miracle or a magic trick.
And ‘the crowd’
won’t take “no” for an answer.
In this sense the crowd is also a foil.
Jesus, according to Mark,
routinely tries to flee or avoid“the crowd”.
So, there are the bad guys: the Romans.
There are the clueless guys: Jesus’ disciples.
And there are the needy guys: the crowds.
Then, just to make it a little more complex,
there is the marginalized guy,
often a female or child,
poor or ill, and in this case, Blind Bartimaeus.
There is always a Bartimaeus in Mark’s Gospel
but usually unnamed:
a bleeding woman,
a woman with a dying daughter,
a quadriplegic carried on a mat,
a possessed lunatic exiled to a cemetery.
They are quite colorful,
and often these marginalized ones
are the key to the punch line.
So, all these characters appear
in the ten little sentences of this hinge story.
Each one has at least a cameo
in this scene so thick with drama
it is a bug in amber perfectly preserved for us.
the urgently needy,
and the outsider:
All on the same stage of history
all at the same time.
But of course, there is one more character
we haven’t named yet: Jesus.
Jesus represents God’s agenda.
So, we have all the characters
in their places
all on the same stage
where history and time are about to intersect.
Let’s see what happens.
The bad guys are indifferent.
The Romans merely observe the festivities
at Jericho, benignly, and only later,
in the days ahead,
when it perceives a threat,
does it act.
But when it does act, it acts swiftly
and with sufficient violence
that the irritant is immediately snuffed out.
Coercive authority, Mark may be telling us,
does not risk its hold on power.
Less in the background and holding the moment,
The crowd also watches.
The crowd, amoeba-like,
moves around the scene
and gives definition to its edges.
Some jeer some cheer.
The crowd is content so long as it has
a good show.
It gets surly though,
when it does not have enough
to feed its attention.
The crowd in this story,
is following along being fed,
holding in its fingers the insiders,
the bad guys, and
The insiders, of course,
are the dunderheaded disciples
who play the fool.
How many times
have the disciples witnessed Jesus
respond to people at the margin?
How many times
has Jesus lectured them
about their indifference to suffering?
How many times
has Jesus reminded them
that the first will be last and
the last will be first?
Still, even after ten chapters
and moving into the crescendo of the narrative,
their knee-jerk reaction to Blind Bartimaeus
is to stifle him: “Shut up!” they bark.
All they can see is their own parade
and that Jesus is too busyon the stage of history
to stop for some miscreant beggar.
It is as if all of Jesus’ words and deeds
have been to no avail, and
have not changed those disciples one iota.
Mark might be saying
out of the side of his mouth, that insiders always
have a steep learning curve.
The outsider, of course, is Bartimaeus.
He will not shut up.
He may be marginalized but he is not powerless.
He does not whine.
He does not fall back under his coat
or cover his face
or whimper “Woe is me.”
He refuses to act like a victim
even though he has been victimized.
In fact, he takes a huge risk.
Here is one of those details
that can be easily missed
if we only read the story from 10,000 feet.
The only thing Bartimaeus owns
in the whole wide world,
is his coat.
That was standard for beggars
and just about any outsider in those days.
Your coat was your blanket,
the only thing you had to sit on in the day,
and the only cover against the cold at night.
It was priceless.
For those who had nothing else,
their coat could be the difference
between life and death.
Given that he was also blind,
for Bartimaeus to throw off his coat
and run forward,
where he may never find his coat again,
was an act of radical trust or bold desperation.
It was an all-or-nothing kind of play.
For Bartimaeus, Jericho that day,
was an earth-shattering moment of decision –
just as it was for Jesus
in relationship to his future.
Okay, everybody is in place
and we are frozen in that moment
when history and time
hang like LeBron James
for an extra second or two: Jesus stops.
On the stage of history,
at the intersection of Past and Future,
Jesus stops for one lousy beggar.
Like the more ancient story of God
hearing the cries of puny Hebrew slaves in Egypt,
through the noise of the crowd
and through the protest of the disciples,
And like God in that Exodus story of old,
once he hears,he stops.
Jesus turns his attention away from history,
away from the drama of the moment,
and asks, “What do you want me to do?”
That is the nub of the story.
There are all kinds of possible conclusions
we could draw from Jesus stopping,
and among them could be,
that Mark wants us to act on our stage in history –in our own stories –
the way Jesus acted in Mark’s story.
In other words, we need to be listening
as Jesus did,
and when we hear,
we need to be stopping
as Jesus did.
To act like Jesus
instead of the other characters in this story,
our focus needs to be lifted away
from the drama of our own parades,
and with keen ears,
listen to hear the people and events
for which our stopping, and our acting,
may be needed.
I do not know what that looks like
in your life
any more than you know
what that looks like in my life.
But both of us know, that in those rare moments
when we have listened and heard,
and when we have actually stopped
our own parade to respond to others in need,
that we suddenly found ourselves
on new avenues we never expected to travel.
I think, if we really want God in our lives,
that is how to make it happen.