Mark:  Why the Gospel is good news

Week 10:  Journey to sight.  Mark 10:32-34, 46-52

Sermon:  Sun 13th March 2016

The Literary Context of Our Passages

Before we examine the passage itself it is important to understand how it fits into the story Mark tells about the significance of Jesus. Looked at in very broad terms, Mark’s Gospel has two ‘movements’: 1.1-8.30 tell the story of Jesus’ largely-successful ministry in Galilee where people follow him around in large numbers and with great excitement at his wonderful words and deeds – mostly deeds as Mark’s Jesus is primarily a man of action; he doesn’t teach much (in contrast with Matthew who presents Jesus as the bringer of the new Torah in five large blocks of teaching taking almost half his much longer Gospel).

However, from 8.31 things change radically with Jesus’ dramatic announcement that his calling is not be successful but to be persecuted and to die; and that any who want to be his disciples let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me [8.34]. His disciples are shocked and dismayed, a state in which they remain to the end, which is why 8.31-10.52 contain frequent attempts by Jesus to explain to his uncomprehending disciples, as well as to others outside his inner circle,  what it means to be disciples of a suffering Messiah [eg., 9.33-37; 10.17-31, 35-45]. This second ‘movement’, then, balances the success and excitement of the first with an inexorable journey into persecution, rejection and death [8.31-16.8]. So deep is Mark’s engagement with Jesus’ suffering that not even his account of the resurrection lifts his disciples out of their confusion. The Gospel ends with the words, for they were afraid, an ending we’ll have occasion to examine in a later session.

Mark 10.32-34Notice how what I have said is captured in v.32: they (ie., the disciples) were astonished (the Greek word carries the connotation of being startled, made uncertain and thus fearful); and those who followed (ie., other interested people some of whom have been interacting with Jesus) were afraid. Nobody is happy, but nobody can escape Jesus’ magnetic attraction, even though [vv.33-34] he paints them the bleakest-possible picture of his imminent fate. The path to his death is inexorable: we are going up to Jerusalem…the Son of Man will be handed over…they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over…they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog…and kill him. The sequence of emphatic verbs creates a kind of remorseless tread along the path to death. Although the end is the glorious promise: and after three days he will rise again,  the context and the disciples’ continuing fear and incomprehension, suggests that their spirits weren’t uplifted by a promise outside their experience. Death, however, was definitely something they knew, and they knew death on a cross as a fact of daily life under Roman rule.

Mark 10.35-45Isn’t it extraordinary that Mark places this incident immediately after Jesus’ teaching in vv.33-34? By doing so he draws attention to just how difficult it was for the disciples to understand what he was saying – to really ‘hear’ him, as we might say. He has spoken of discipleship as death but they still think of it as the path to glory, not earthly glory admittedly, but heavenly, eternal glory. Notice that Jesus is incredulous! His mouth hanging open (one imagines), he asks: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink…[v.38]. Uncomprehendingly, they reply confidently, We are able [v.39]. (Compare Matthew 20.20-28 who has their mother ask the question). These men are blind, spiritually. They follow Jesus but they haven’t understood a word he’s said; and clearly they are not alone. The anger of the ten remaining disciples attests to their desire for similar glory, so Jesus has to repeat his teaching [vv.42-45].  

Mark 10.46-52It is, then,  a stroke of genius to follow with the story of a blind man, Bartimaeus, who does see. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, the kind of person treated like an animal at that time. Such people were pushed outside the city wall every night to sleep in the bushes. He is the lowest on the social rung and thus the very opposite of the aspiration to honour and glory which we have seen dominates the minds of the disciples. Furthermore, he is blind yet he believes utterly in Jeus, refusing to be quietened as he calls to Jesus to have mercy on me [v.48]. That he ‘knows’ Jesus is indicated by the title he uses to address Jesus: Son of David was a Messianic title. This man may be blind physically, but he knows he is in the presence of the true Messiah.

Onlookers change their initially-dismissive attitude to him when Jesus commands Call him here [v.49]. Jesus asks him to name his request and grants him his sight. This sight is an appropriate physical demonstration of the more important spiritual sight he has already shown he has. It is this that Jesus acknowledges.
In addition, it is no accident that Mark chooses this story to end his account of Jesus’ public ministry, for in 11.1 Jesus will enter Jerusalem and be faced with his opponents in a sustained attack on him which will lead to his death. So 11.1-15.39 contain Mark’s account of the “Week” (to be discussed in a later study) of Jesus Passion. But by concluding his account of Jesus’ public ministry with the healing of a blind man who ‘sees’ Jesus, Mark draws Jesus’ ministry to a triumphant close and points to the purpose of his entire ministry, that we should see him for who he is, the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the whole world.

Bartimaeus, then, stands as an image of the disciple who has nothing in the world except his knowledge of Jesus. He is more in Mark’s story, that is, than just a single individual: he stands for the kind of person believers are to be: people who have nothing in the world, who desire nothing; whose very Being is nourished only by faith in Jesus. This is where “the journey to sight” is to lead us.

ConcludingThe three pericopes (the name given to units within the Gospel narratives) in this reading have a logic which we should appreciate: it begins with Jesus’ teaching about his imminent death which, follows his teaching from 8.31 on their calling to follow him to this death. It is a hard teaching, so Mark moves us to an incident in which we see that his disciples haven’t grasped it at all but are still thinking of the honour and glory that will come to them because they have followed Jesus. Finally, a blind man who is not a disciple, shows that he is the one who ‘sees’ Jesus. So the logic is: Jesus teaches and his teaching is both misunderstood and clearly understood by those around him. In this way, we see how difficult it is, yet we have hope that it can and will be followed faithfully.
Questions for Discussion

  • Share what stuck with you in the sermon you heard on Sunday
  • Remind yourselves of what Jesus has taught about discipleship from 8.31 (eg., 8.31-36; 9.33-37)
  • From your memory of Mark as a whole, how does Mark portray Jesus showing his disciples an example of the  life he advocates?
  • Are James and John committed to the way of life Jesus has been advocating? Why do you think as you do?
  • Is your own commitment closer to Jesus or to James and John?
  • Why are the other disciples “angry” with James and John? What does their anger tell us about them?
  • Is Bartimaeus a truer disciple than James and John?
  • In what way does the Bartimaeus story act as a commentary on the James and John story?
  • How do the three pericopes (the name given to units of text in the Gospels) connect with one another?
  • What has struck you most forcibly in your reading of this text?

Tim Long, 07/12/2015