The Bible is probably the most misread and misinterpreted book in the world, and for many Christians of a certain theological persuasion it has become an idol.
Mark 10:46-52: Blind Bartimaeus
As an exploration of what I mean I will be taking a close look at today's Lectionary reading concerning the story that is often referred to as Blind Bartimaeus. But no matter what theological interpretation we put upon the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the cost of the Cross is central throughout the Gospel of Mark.
So is the Cross the place where heaven and earth are restored into a wholeness through the blood sacrifice of Jesus?
Or is that interpretation of the Cross to be rejected as Cosmic child abuse?
Or is the Cross - the place of abandoning selfcentredness - the killer of selfishness, greed, unrighteous anger, envy, pride and so on?
Is the Bible the Word of God, or the Words about God or the record of ordinary people trying to explain their experiences of God?
If we simply read Mark's Gospel at face value, and especially if we read it as accurate history, we are ignoring the all-important context in which it was written. As I understand it, the Gospel of Mark is not an accurate written record of factual history but it is a human theological explanation of a spiritual encounter, and an encouragement to a persecuted people told within a coded social commentary on the events of that time.
Most Christian Testament scholars today agree that Mark's Gospel was written during the persecution of the Jewish and Christian sects between 64 and 73 C.E. The Roman Emperor Nero blamed members of the synagogues in particular for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. and that included Jew and gentile followers of Jesus along side the Jews who rejected the witness and work of Jesus. There is some agreement between these scholars that Mark's account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth was being circulated between 67 and 73 C.E. during the Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupation of Palestine.
This social and political context leads me to conclude that the Jesus stories as told by Peter and committed to written text by Mark were intended as coded messages rather than as a Gospel - written so that the followers of the Jesus Way would understand what was being stated but the Roman persecutors would miss the point altogether.
So what was Mark trying to convey through this story of blind Bartimeus? And hold onto this point: Bartimaeus means 'Son of Timaeus'.
In the 11 verses that immediately precede the reading today, James and John, the 'sons of thunder' went to Jesus and demanded that Jesus agreed to allow them to sit one on each side of him when he came into his glory. I am convinced that this was not an expectation of a future spiritual heavenly abode somewhere up above the clouds, but a growing understanding amongst the disciples that he was leading them as the new Messiah to victory against the Roman Imperial Occupation Army. After all, this was the Jewish expectation of a Jewish Messiah!
In Mark's story, James and John demonstrated that they had failed to understand that the Jesus Way - that the life of the Kingdom was and remains to this day, not a place to be located or a status to be attained but about a way of sacrificial and servant hood living. Jesus did not agree to their demands.
In today's reading we find Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, calling out to Jesus: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, could have been real and actually had sat at the gate of Jericho and one day had called out to Jesus. However, this may not have been an historical event but intentionally created and placed here in the text as a literary device to contrast clearly the lack of understanding of the disciples with what the Kingdom of God is really all about.
Indeed, although it is an off the wall speculation on my part, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, never existed and this incident involving Jesus and Bartimaeus at a Jericho gate never happened: the story is theology and not history. We cannot ignore the fact that one of the Hebrew Testament confirmations that the Messiah had come was that the blind would receive their sight. It's there is Isaiah 29:18 written in the 8th century before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Also notice that in the story blind Bartimaeus was desperate for healing but unlike James and John, he did not demand anything of Jesus, he simply asked for mercy. Also notice that this story is not just about mercy and healing but is also an example of coded subversive politics and needs to be put into context of a century before: that of Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar had been assassinated in the year 44 BCE and made into a god two years later. Subsequently his adoptive heir, Octavius Augustus fought a Civil War against his earlier ally, Mark Anthony. Along with Cleopatra, Mark Anthony's fleet was defeated on 2 September 31 BCE on the Ionian Sea. This battle was fought off the Greek coast near the Roman colony of Actium where there was an ancient Temple to Apollos.
To celebrate the victory of Octavius Augustus, additional inscriptions were made in his honour because he not only brought peace to the Roman Republic but established what very quickly became the Roman Empire. Octavius Augustus was declared: "Divine; Son of God; God; God from God; Lord; Redeemer and Saviour of the World"
A century later these same titles were commandeered and applied by his followers to Jesus of Nazareth! To do so was both very subversive and a capital offence. It was asking those who wished to follow the Jesus Way to make a costly choice: "Who is God - Jesus or Caesar?"
In the aftermath of the Jewish rebellion between 67 and 73 CE and then through the 8th and 9th decades when the Jewish and Gentile Followers of the Way of Jesus were being expelled from the synagogues, the later written Gospels of Matthew and Luke took Mark's narrative and theologically developed it further to link Jesus even more closely with the ancient Jewish promises of Messiah - but this time as a spiritual rather than as a military Messiah. After all, Jesus had obviously failed if his mission had been to militarily defeat the Roman Occupying Army!
Additionally, to help explain the context of the coded writing of Mark's Gospel we need to be aware of one of the popular theatrical dialogues being performed around the Mediterranean at that time, simply called 'Timaeus'. It was Cicero's Latin translation of the dialogue written 400 years before by the Greek philosopher Plato. The dialogue featured a conversation mainly between Socrates and a friend called Timaeus and explored deep issues of life and eternity.
Imagine: as Peter watches the dialogue so the pennies continue to fall into place concerning Jesus as Messiah God and his place in the nature of eternal issues. Plato's dialogue has Timaeus exploring the differences between the physical and the eternal worlds. The creation of the physical world was based upon the orderliness of the heavens. The physical is experienced through the senses and can be corrupted and will eventually pass away, but heaven is always the perfect constant, from time immemorial to time never ending. Timaeus made the point that God is the creator of both the heavens and the earth, declaring that order is preferable to disorder.
Listen to the penny dropping! Here was Peter experiencing the Ways of Jesus in his own life: ways that seemed to bring order to his life even though he was living in the religious and political disorder of the Jews and Christians within the oppression of the Roman Empire. For Peter, here was Jesus, of this world by birth but also of the eternal by virtue of being that long-expected Son of David, the Messiah.
In Peter's developing theology he experienced God as the foundation of order and Jesus as the embodiment of that heavenly order on earth. Therefore to Peter and to Mark, the coded message is that the orderly Way of Jesus the Messiah is preferable to the disorderly oppression and persecution of Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus carried out by the Roman Emperor. But neither Peter nor Mark could openly say or write such a thing, especially during that time of persecution. Therefore their declaration that Jesus is God is hidden within the Bartimaeus narrative but the faithful listeners and readers would have known exactly what was being said!
I repeat, Mark's narrative was designed to hide the developing Son of God theologies concerning Jesus from their Roman oppressors. And although I am convinced that Jesus healed many who were lame and blind, Bartimaeus SON OF TIMAEUS was probably a creation of Peter not only to affirm his belief that Jesus was the Messiah but also to convey the deep truth of the experience of the Jesus Spirit with them in their adversity.
Notice also that in Mark's story Bartimaeus adds, "have mercy on me!" Mercy is about compassion, pity, sympathy and understanding. The story of Bartimaeus conveyed to the early Followers of the Way of Jesus residing in Rome that to experience Jesus was a personal experience of sacrificial compassion, pity, sympathy and understanding. These were the marks that set apart this Christian community of Jew and Gentile alike, from the excesses of Emperor Nero.
Notice that after Jesus had healed Bartimaeus Jesus did not invite him to go to Church! There was no 'Church' at that time and Christianity had yet to be invented!
To live this Jesus Way of sacrificial compassion, pity, sympathy and understanding will change us and the world about us because it is the Sacred Way that is common to all people and to all the great religions of the world. It is there in the depth of our humanity that we will experience divinity.
The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
46 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.
Copyright ©: 2015, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.