Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch from back in the day in which Chris Farley plays the tropical storm system called “El Niño” as if he were an all-star wrestler.

October 28, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 10:46-52

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch from back in the day in which Chris Farley plays the tropical storm system called “El Niño” as if he were an all-star wrestler.

At the end of the bit he says, “For those of you who don’t habla español, El Niño is Spanish for … the Niño”. 1 The Gospel reading for this week begins in much the same way.

After teaching for the third time what it means that Jesus is the Messiah — that he must go to Jerusalem, be handed over to the authorities, be condemned to death, mocked, beaten and killed, to rise three days later (Mark 10:32-34) — and chastising the disciples for arguing about who is the greatest (they should know, after all, that Ali is the greatest), Jesus is on the way to Jericho with the disciples. And there we are introduced to a blind beggar. His name, for me at least, is one of the great strange moments in the Gospel of Mark:

“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.”

What is so striking, and frankly funny, about this is the repetition in the “naming” of the blind man. Bartimaeus, which is sometimes seen as his given name, is actually the man’s “last name.” Bartimaeus is an Aramaic phrase: bar timaeus, where “bar” means “son.” The astute among you will have noticed that if you take away the “bar,” what have you got? Timaeus. The Greek phrase here is ho huiòs Timaíou Bartimaîos, literally “the son of Timaeus, Son of Timaeus.” So for those of you who don’t speak Aramaic, what Mark is telling us is that Bartimaeus is Aramaic for “Son of Timaeus.”

When Jesus Speaks Aramaic
This is not intended, of course, as a joke or to be taken as funny. And it is not just a strange episode in the text. The use of Aramaic phrases that are then explained or translated is a relatively common feature of the Gospel of Mark. Here are a few of the other examples:

  • When Jesus raises a little girl from the dead he says to her, “talitha cum,” which is Aramaic for “little girl, get up” (Mark 5:41)
  • When he heals a deaf and mute man he says, “ephphatha,” which is Aramaic for “open up” (Mark 7:34).
  • And when Jesus calls out to God from the agony of the cross he says, “Eloi Eloi, lema sabachtani?” which is the Aramaic of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (The Hebrew of that verse, ´ëlî ´ëlî lämâ `ázabTäºnî, shows us the slight difference in pronunciation, which may explain why the crowds around the cross don’t understand what is happening.)

So what does all of this mean, and why should we care? In the case of Son of Timaeus Son of Timaeus, probably not too much; the name itself is not terribly revealing or important. But in the larger view the explanation of things that Jesus says in a language that the early reader of Mark’s Gospel may not have recognized (and which the modern pew-sitter will almost certainly not get at all) always serves a particular purpose in the Gospel. And the story of Blind Bartimaeus may serve us as an allegory of sorts for this pattern.

The words that Jesus speaks when he heals, and when he cries out to God, need to be made clear to us. His words that give life, and hearing, and sight, serve in Mark’s Gospel to emphasize, in a way, the “otherness” of Jesus, his identity as God’s Messiah (the “Son of David” to whom Bartimaeus cries out) and his power to transform the lives of broken or faithless people. The words he uses — talitha cum, ephphatha, eloi eloi — may need to be explained, but they are spoken for us, to us, and we can learn to understand them.

Notice that Jesus heals the Son of Timaeus with a word. When he raises the little girl, he touches her first, taking her by the hand. When he heals the deaf and mute man he first puts his fingers in his ears and touches his tongue. Not here. For the blind man of Jericho, Jesus simply speaks the word — or the Word — “your faith has made you well,” and he is made well, and can see. It may call to mind the line from Psalm 94:9: “He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” We might change this and ask the question, “God who formed the eye, can he not make it see?” The power of Jesus’ word to heal is the same power of the word of God to create.

Your faith has made you well
This phrase by which Jesus opens the blind man’s eyes will be familiar. “Your faith has made you well” is most often associated with the synoptic story of the woman who has been suffering from a hemorrhage (cf. Matthew 9:22; Mark 4:34; Luke 8:48). It also appears in Luke 17:19 when Jesus cleanses ten lepers, and one in particular, who returns to thank him, hears these same words. This is, I think, an important promise that this story suggests for preaching.

Faith can make us well. This is not magic, or superstition, or some simple fix of course. It seems clear, to me at least, that when Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well” he is not saying that these people somehow believed their way into wellness. Rather he is pronouncing their wellness, declaring it, making it happen for them. It is Jesus who heals, and faith that receives that healing. And so it is, or can be, for those who hear this story and this good news. Faith can make us well. Faith can open our ears, unstop our ears — even raise us from death. This is the power of the promise wherein faith and forgiveness, faith and wellness, meet; this is the power of Jesus’ word for salvation. And it is to this meeting of faith and fullness of life that we ought to be preaching.