NRSV Mark 10:46-52 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
My favorite musical, without much contest, would have to be Les Miserables. I love the storyline, the music, and it has a special place in Abbie and my relationship, connected to our engagement. While we were going to college in Philadelphia we got tickets to Les Mis on Broadway. I was planning on popping the question somewhere in New York City after the show, but was losing too much sleep thinking about it, so decided to ask her the night before. Les Mis ended up being a celebration of our engagement the next day rather than a nerve racking prelude to it. Making it much more enjoyable for me.
One of the themes that runs throughout the story is mercy. It begins with the prisoner Jean Valjean being released on parole and taking refuge in the home of a bishop, who welcomes him in off the street. Valjean is initially grateful for the hospitality, but on seeing how much the bishop has trusted him inside his home, decides this bishop is a fool, and steals some his silver. Valjean tries to escape by night, but is caught by the local police who bring him to the bishop in the morning to confirm he has been robbed. The bishop not only lies to save this stranger, saying that the silver was a gift, but also turns to Valjean and says, “But my friend you left so early/ Surely something slipped your mind/ You forgot I gave these also/ Would you leave the best behind?” On top of the silver Valjean already has taken, the bishop gives him two silver candlesticks, thanks the police for their diligence, and asks them to release this man. He then tells Valjean that God has now raised him out of darkness, and he must use this precious silver to become an honest man. The mercy that the bishop extends to the ex-convict Jean Valjean does alter the course of this man’s life. He becomes a successful mayor and businessman, and, on learning that one of the workers in his factory is dying and has no one else to care for her child, vows to her that he will raise her daughter, paying off the girl’s abusive caretakers to release her to him. And she grows up to be a young woman under his care, and of course there’s all these other intriguing subplots of love, and revolution, and law and order, and redemption, but one of the primary themes throughout is mercy.
Bartimaeus is the final recorded encounter that Jesus has before he parades into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey in that piece of street theater that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. In Mark’s gospel, all of this is a very intentional textual set-up. As Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, we’ve been presented over and over with the question of what it means to be a disciple. Along the way we’ve met some surprising candidates for discipleship – children are praised as being model disciples, and someone doing powerful deeds of healing but not in the official discipleship circle is proclaimed to be a de facto disciple, “Don’t stop him.” Jesus had said. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Meanwhile the official disciples stumble and bumble their way along. Just before meeting up with Bartimaeus they had squabbled for positions of power in the Messianic administration they were hoping Jesus would soon inaugurate. Just before that a would-be disciple, a possible recruit, had approached Jesus with a question that had been bothering him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had deflected the compliment: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Eventually Jesus gives this man an answer that was sure to drive away just about any aspiring follower: “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have real treasure; then come, follow me.” Who could actually pull something like this off? Being a disciple is hard, almost impossible.
After showing examples of what it doesn’t look like to be a disciple, Mark gives us a story about someone who becomes an instant disciple. Bartimaeus. And it has everything to do with mercy. That’s what he had shouted out for: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
As far as I know, the author Kurt Vonnegut preached only one sermon in his life. It was at the invitation of an Episcopal Church for their Palm Sunday service in 1980. He began the sermon this way: “Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by – and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow.” Throughout the sermon he praises Jesus as someone who had a good sense of humor and someone who showed mercy, referring to himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic.” He ends by saying, “This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God. I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.” (Full text of sermon HERE)
I’m rather fond of that line about coming to church to day-dream about God – and if you haven’t had the chance to do that yet today, feel free to take advantage of the opportunity in the time that remains. But to the larger point: Mercy – the only good idea we have received so far.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” Being merciful is good discipleship practice, but in the story of Bartimaeus, the disciple is the one on the receiving end of mercy. He is willing to call, shout, and stumble forward for mercy.
Bartimaeus, a beggar, blind, really doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His strategy, if you want to call it that, is pretty simply. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem which Jesus is walking was the final 15 miles of a trek that many Jews across ancient Palestine would have walked as they made pilgrimage to the holy city during one of the three major festival days. This time, it’s the Passover that is approaching, and traffic was no doubt picking up. Part one of the strategy is positioning himself along this busy thoroughfare. Part two of the strategy, and this is just a two part strategy, is to shout. Although one could argue that he has a three part strategy. If shouting doesn’t work, resort to part three – shout louder. It makes me wonder how our reaction would change to people positioned at the end of the exit ramps off the highway with signs asking for a job or food or money if they were shouting for mercy, and, once people start honking at them and telling them to be quiet, shout louder.
But this isn’t a sermon about being the one in the car trying to decide what to do. It’s about being the one on the receiving end of mercy.
The thing about Bartimaeus is that he doesn’t get a whole lot right. When he shouts for Jesus he calls him the “Son of David.” Although other gospels use this title freely for Jesus, in Mark this is the first time it’s come up and is a title that Jesus will reject a little later while in Jerusalem because of the Messianic kingship overtones it had. Peter had earlier called Jesus the right name, Christ, and Jesus had rebuked him. Now a blind beggar shouts out the wrong name, and Jesus welcomes him. And it’s not even clear if Jesus is asking Bartimaeus to be a disciple. After giving him his sight, Jesus doesn’t say, “Come, follow me.” He says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” I don’t know about you, but Come and Go sound like opposites to me. Jesus had told the rich young ruler to “come, follow me,” but he went away grieving. Now Jesus tells someone to Go away in good faith. But instead, Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way,” a statement of discipleship. On his own initiative, unable to help himself but join the party.
As far as I can tell, all this mixing up of what matters and what doesn’t is fairly par for the course as far as the gospel goes.
This past week I wrote a bit in the Musing about Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with US marine Lu Lobello, who was in Iraq in the early days of that war and was part of a marine unit that fired on three cars of Iraqis, mistaking them for combatants, killing three members of the Kachodorian family. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and trying to make sense of his involvement in the war, he tracked down the family’s whereabouts in Iraq with the intention of sending them a video with an apology, but eventually ended up visiting the family along with a journalist. The family welcomed them into their home, fed them, and repeatedly expressed their forgiveness. Mercy. Listening to the interview, I liked the mixing up of things with a battle-weary marine educating me, a strong believer in nonviolence, about mercy.
One of the things about mercy is that it doesn’t guarantee much of an outcome. It’s a pretty risky offering. Jean Valjean might just as well take the extra silver and run. Bartimaeus might just as well leave the scene, sight restored, without a trace of gratitude. Lu Lobello might just as well head back to the US with a story about how weak the victimized Iraqis are for not wanting to fight back.
Being the good Christians that we all are, we’re probably accustomed to being on the giving end of mercy. Some of the time wondering if it’s producing much of an outcome. So being on the other end as the receiver of mercy might be just as important. When you’ve received mercy, when you’ve had that gift, that grace, that opening of space and opportunity that wasn’t there before, you know how special of a gift it is, just to have chance to use it well.
When have you been on the receiving end of mercy? Do you think it shaped you in some way? Might it shape you now as you reflect on it?
When I thought about a time when I’ve received mercy one of the first stories that came to mind was a rather simple one – a childhood experience. Maybe it’s because I’ve been walking the girls to the bus stop every morning that I thought about this bus memory. It was one of the first times I was riding the bus, and of course, being a little person, getting on a big bus full of big rowdy people can be a little scary. And our farm was the last stop before the bus headed back into town to school, so the bus was full and loud by that time. I have a distinct memory of walking up the steps onto the bus, walking the aisle and looking for a seat, and an older kid inviting me to sit beside him. I don’t remember a whole lot more other than I felt a huge sense of relief, and I felt safe. So, it’s a simple story, but one that I have thought about from time to time.
We have been in Mark for a number of weeks and this is where we leave it. The next few weeks we’ll be having a different focus with CMFer Daniel Hershberger talking next week for Peace Sunday about his service in Germany working for the Military Counseling Network. And then the week after that we’ll have a guest speaker from Mennonite Central Committee, Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz. And then our Thanksgiving Sunday celebration, and then after one more week we’re into Advent, with a whole different focus.
So we leave Mark with this image of Jesus on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, followed by a crowd, which includes Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who asked for mercy, asked for sight, and chose, on the spot, to be a disciple. He followed Jesus on the way.
Blessed are those who have received mercy. Who shout for it, whisper for it, accept it for the pure gift that it is. Let it give them sight that they didn’t have before. Mercy is “the only good idea we have received so far.” And there’s a decent chance the second good idea might come from music, and so now we sing…