Sermon preached by The Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Boston
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 26, 2015
This morning we heard the account of the healing of a blind man from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a familiar story, and it ought to be, for it also appears in St. Luke’s Gospel as well as St. Matthew’s. Mark, however, makes much more of it, and he provides us with details, lacking in Matthew and Luke, which suggest a meaning beyond the simple account of the miracle itself.
This should come as no surprise. Blindness is a dominant interest of St. Mark. Physical blindness, of course, and there are two accounts of restoring sight in the Gospel. But especially was Mark interested in spiritual blindness, for he was obsessed with answering a question which plagued him: why did people not recognize Jesus for who he was. Why were they blind? Why did they not see? His own people, for instance, the Jews, who should have understood . . . He worked miracles among them and fulfilled their ancient prophecies, but they conspired with the Romans to put Him to death. And His disciples . . . they were with Him day by day and listened to Him teach, but they too failed to understand. They just couldn’t see who He was and what he was about. At one point, exasperated, He turns to them, “Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear?” His strongest rebuke was for Peter who seems at one point to understand, but in the next breath gets it wrong. Remember, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are not on the side of God, but of man!”
And there is a recurring irony throughout the Gospel of Mark which is related to his obsession. The irony is this: that those who are blind – or ought to be – become the ones who truly see. Foreigners, criminals, pagans, prostitutes, outsiders, those who should not know about Jesus and the meaning of His mission as the Messiah are, according to Mark, the ones who come to understand it first and understand it best. Not the insiders – the scribes, the Pharisees, and even the disciples. Remember again. At the end, it is upon the lips of a Roman centurion (an enemy), watching Him die, that Mark places the line which is the climax and the point of the whole Gospel: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
And . . . the story which we heard today. Just before the account in today’s Gospel Peter and then James and John have revealed how little they comprehend the mission of their master. Peter wants Him to deny His cross – His destiny. James and John want Him to set them up on thrones in a Kingdom. And then Mark presents us with Bartimaeus – a blind man who really sees. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me.” Blind Bartimaeus somehow sees that the Messiah – Jesus – is here to save and serve and to give life, not to conquer and rule. And seeing that, his sight is restored.
But Mark, as I mentioned earlier, is doing more in the story than simply recounting a miracle of Jesus. And he is doing more than underscoring the irony of blindness and sight which runs throughout his work. There is another level of teaching here which is suggested by certain details which Mark adds to the story. They are absent in Matthew and Luke. Only Mark includes them and since they all point in the same direction it is reasonable to suppose that he is making a point and adding a level of meaning. These are the details.
First of all, the blind man has a name in the Gospel of Mark. Bartimaeus. In the other Gospels he is anonymous. Secondly, the crowd who witness the miracle, after first telling Bartimaeus to be quiet, change their mind and urge him on. “Take courage”, they say, “get up, he is calling you.” He follows their advice and – here is the third uniquely Marcan detail – “throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”
The name is the key – Bartimaeus – and since Mark repeats it in the same line, it is clear that he wants to think about it. And think we must, because you see, it’s not a name. It’s not even a nickname, but rather it’s two words transliterated into Greek and put together to look like a name. Not a name, however, that anyone would want. Bar – the Aramaic “Son of”. Timaeus – from the Latin for “fear”. “Son – of-fear.” “Son-of-Fear” – if it were a name, what a horrible name!
But to go on, what does one say to a man who is a “Son-of-fear”? Precisely what Mark tells us the crowd said: “Take heart. Take courage.” To one who is afraid: “Take courage. Get up. He is calling you.” And when he does take courage and get up, and when he does come to Jesus, he is able to “throw off his cloak”. I say able here – able to throw off his cloak -because, you see, for St. Mark and for much of the Bible a change of garments indicates a change of status or a change of state. Change your clothes and you become something, someone different. And here is the underlying level of meaning which Mark has given to the account of the healing. Bartimaeus is blind in a sense because he is “cloaked in fear”. And only in the presence of Jesus – when He is able, through the presence of Jesus, to cast off His cloak of fear – then he receives his sight.
St. Mark is trying to tell us that fear produces spiritual blindness, and that the only remedy for that blindness is Jesus. Jesus, who is Himself the source of the blind man’s courage and who, risen from the dead, is his savior.
Most scholars tell us that St. Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome and for the Roman Church. If that is so he was writing to people who were indeed cloaked in fear. The first official persecution of Christians took place in that city and it was brutal and thorough. Mark saw clearly how fear paralyzes people and dominates. Like pain it is ever present – it doesn’t go away – and it turns people in on themselves. They cannot see beyond themselves and their fear, and they become blinded by that fear; cloaked, indeed shrouded in their fear. And the only remedy is the courage which comes from Jesus. “Take heart. Take courage. He is calling you.” Throw off that cloak! (of fear) and follow!
My brothers and sisters, Rome was a scary place when Mark was writing. And the world today is often just as scary. And life itself contains a certain fear that’s just built in – death is with us every moment, and we know that time moves ever closer to that moment when we die. But we have Jesus – and if we will, He will put away our blindness. And His courage will quiet our fear. And His Risen Life grants us the assurance that dying we shall never die.