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The Healing of Bartimaeus
This week I started to re-read Hamlet, slowly attending to all the notes and comments in my student’s edition. I am doing this because I became aware that I had fragments of the play in my head: “Frailty, thy name is woman”, “To be or not to be: That is the question”, “Alas poor Yorick” and so on. Somehow, over the years, these had stuck but I had lost the big picture, the full sweep of the story.
There is ever that risk it seems to me with the Scriptures. Sunday by Sunday we hear readings set for the day, disconnected sometimes from their context and sometimes beginning in what seems to be mid paragraph. It is as if we are too close to a palette knife painting and we can see the shape, the dexterity and the fineness of the craft but we have to take a step back to see the whole seascape.
Taking you back then to mid September and reviewing our Gospel readings, we have had a good run of passages from Mark dealing with discipleship and what it means.
The big picture began in Mark Chapter 8 at Caesarea Philippi, often thought of as the fulcrum of this Gospel when Jesus asks “Who do people say that I am?” and Peter confesses “You are the Christ.” This is the first acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus explains then that those who want to become his followers “must take up their cross.” So they begin their journey to Jerusalem and on the way, the disciples squabble about “who was the greatest.” Jesus reminded them that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. John, the favourite disciple, worried about the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name and is told “anyone who gives (as little as) a cup of water in my name will have their reward.” The rich man, also setting out on a journey, was told “sell all you possess and follow me” and last week James and John were requesting positions of honour to the right and the left of Jesus “in his glory” but again are told “you must be slave of all.” Interspersed with these events, Jesus is telling the disciples what will happen when they reach Jerusalem. All along the disciples are perplexed, struggling to understand; in fact they are struggling to see.
Then at Jericho, close now, only fifteen miles from the city, Jesus demonstrates what he means with this the last healing in Mark’s Gospel. He is surrounded by a large crowd and has set out for the final leg of the trip - but in lines from Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow’s poem:
“Blind Bartimaeus at the gate of Jericho in darkness waits.”
One person, alone, blind, a beggar by the roadside as low on the social scale as one could get. One person, whom the crowd try to silence. Longfellow again:
One person who cries out, “Son of David have mercy on me!” He is the only person, other than Peter, to call Jesus in this Messianic way and Jesus, surrounded by noise, the press of people, the energy driving him on to the city and his appointment with Hosannas and the triumphal entry stops. He, God of all, stops for this one lowly person. He hears his cry and then, perhaps a small thing in the context of what we know is to follow, he heals him.
And of course it is significant that he heals blindness, for after all this walking and teaching and for so long being befuddled and puzzled, the disciples are about to see; to see the meaning of it all the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And Bartimaeus you notice: “immediately he regained his sight and followed him along the way.”