+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When I was growing up, I remember being in awe of the disciples, particularly the ones Mark refers to as “the Twelve”. I doubt I could have told you why I felt that way at the time, but I recall thinking that there was something remarkable about them. Their images adorned the stained-glass windows around the worship space in my home congregation. Their standards hung around the walls of that same sanctuary. I’ll admit that I always felt a small swell of pride when I walked by the shield that bore the mark of St. Andrew, a silver x-shaped cross on a blue field. As I got older, I came to realize that I was most impressed with their dedication to Jesus, their ability to drop everything at his word and follow behind him into a life of deprivation and uncertainty. I imagined that they were sort of super-disciples, and that I could never hope to be as good as they were.
As we’ve read through Mark over these last couple of months, I’ve found myself at times chuckling at the young me, the one who saw in the disciples an example for following Jesus that lay beyond our ability to emulate. That’s because I’m fairly certain that if I’d ever taken the time to pay attention to the full portrait of the disciples in the gospels in general (and Mark in particular), I’d have quickly realized that they were just as flawed as I was and still am. Today’s reading serves as a great illustration of this fact. As our reading begins, we find Jesus and those disciples again “on the way”, journeying toward Jerusalem for Jesus’ final confrontation with the religious and political authorities who have opposed him and his mission to proclaim the good news. Here, for the third time in the gospel, Jesus pulls the Twelve aside to remind them what awaits them when they arrive in the holy city: betrayal and arrest, condemnation, mocking, insults, scourging, cross, and death. And here, for the third time, the disciples respond to that message by making it abundantly clear that they didn’t understand what he was saying as they proceed to do or say something that directly challenges what he told them about his destiny. Think back with me. At the first prediction, Peter dares to tell Jesus that he’s wrong, and that God would never allow him to suffer or die. After the second prediction, the disciples decide to engage in an argument about which one of them was the greatest in God’s reign. Now, James and John come to Jesus with an outrageous request that sets the other disciples off again and reveals their utter lack of comprehension about “the way” that they were walking with their teacher and Lord. In the span of three chapters, the disciples show themselves to be almost completely incapable of understanding Jesus!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of smugly condemning the disciples because I think I’m any great disciple in my own right; God only knows how often I walk off the path that Jesus has set before me in pursuit of some goal that I think is more important or more faithful. But the awe with which I regarded the Twelve as a young man was clearly misplaced. In truth, I would have done much better to spend more time reflecting on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus for mercy and healing.
Let’s take a look at his story with a focus on some of the details that can easily be overlooked. Jesus and the disciples arrive in the city of Jericho, where they encounter Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside – or, in keeping with our theme over the last couple of weeks, “sitting beside ‘the way’”. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is near, he calls out to him repeatedly, addressing him as “Son of David” and asking him to be merciful. He remains persistent in the face of stern rebuke, calling out more loudly until Jesus calls him over in return. Immediately, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps to his feet, and approaches Jesus. Bartimaeus repeats his request, Jesus declares that his trust has made him well, and Bartimaeus regains his sight. Then, without hesitation, he began to follow Jesus “on the way”.
What makes this story more worthy of awe than the stories of the Twelve? Well, it’s clear that Bartimaeus faced significant barriers to discipleship, most notably his vision – which had caused him to end up “beside the way” – and the many attempts to silence his cries by the people who knew him best. But beyond the obstacles, notice how Bartimaeus responded to Jesus’ call: even before he received his sight, he threw off his cloak, the garment that likely served as his only source of shelter and his only way of storing the meager income he received from begging – in short, his cloak was his security, a symbol of the life he had lived and which he was prepared to leave behind in an instant. Last, but certainly not least, like the rest of the disciples he immediately follows Jesus, though with a twist: Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way”, signaling that in a real sense he understands what he’s getting into in a manner that the other disciples don’t yet.
Perhaps because he regains his sight relatively late in the game, when his newfound vision isn’t obscured by everything else that has surrounded Jesus and caused people to perceive him wrongly, Bartimaeus is able to follow his new teacher “on the way”, even though he hasn’t received the insider information that the disciples have. Again, none of this is intended to cast the disciples in an unfair light. If anything, this fact reveals something about me – and, I suspect, about many of us: that sometimes those of us who should see Jesus most clearly have trouble looking past our own baggage to glimpse the truth about him and about what the life we spend following him is supposed to look like.
British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge was a popular commentator on religious and moral matters in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and his commentary was informed by his Christian beliefs. He wrote much about the problems that he saw were besetting society and decried a growing trend toward “Godlessness” in Britain. He claimed a robust faith, and his writing seemed to bear that out, and yet he had an experience late in his life when visiting Mother Theresa’s mission in Kolkata, India, that revealed how much he was missing of God’s presence in the world around him:
Suddenly, almost with a click, like a film coming into sync, everything has meaning, everything is real: and the meaning, the reality, shines out in every shape and sound and movement, in each and every manifestation of life…. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How could I not have understood that the grey-silver light across the water, the cry of the sea gulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear, is telling me about God?*
Brothers and sisters, God is moving all around us, and if we have eyes to see that movement, we will be truly amazed at what is possible because of God’s power and presence in the world. As we continue through this season of Lent, we may find that our vision is impaired by any number of things: our pre-conceived notions about how God is working in the world (or among whom God’s presence can be found); our own spiritual or emotional baggage that seems impossible to throw aside; the competing images of discipleship that play across our television screens or within our community; or simply the unwillingness to open our eyes to the Spirit’s movement in this and every place. If any of this describes you – the way that, if I’m honest with myself, it describes me – then perhaps we would do well to look to Bartimaeus, to call to Jesus for mercy, to throw aside the things that define us and hold us back, and to follow Jesus on the way with clear eyes and open hearts, trusting in his goodness and grace to bring us through death into abundant life. Let it be so among us. Amen.
*Malcolm Muggeridge, Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 10-11; quoted in Karen Chakoian, “Mark 10:46-52: Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 336-7.