Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The tale of blind Bartimaeus is a bit uncanny in Mark’s Gospel — because nothing goes wrong.

Mark 10:47
He began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"Photo by Allan Filipe Santos Dias on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 28, 2018

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Commentary on Mark 10:46-52

The tale of blind Bartimaeus is a bit uncanny in Mark’s Gospel — because nothing goes wrong.

Was Mark feeling quite well the day he jotted down this one? Had he eaten something funny, like maybe one of the poisons mentioned in Mark 16?

Much of the time the Gospel of Mark feels like a gauntlet thrown down. His Jesus, off to a great start, has already blown his reputation by Mark 2 and convinced people that he is either crazy or demonic by Mark 3. Despite mastering nature, demons, disease, and death, Jesus is momentarily defeated by the “unbelief” he encounters in Mark 6. To say nothing of the shocking denouement of the crucifixion story and a seriously ambiguous encounter at the empty tomb.

It’s much as if Mark is daring you to infer correctly who Jesus is, supplying evidence without drawing the conclusion for you — as in the parallelism between “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1) and “the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14), or the not entirely straightforward rebuttal “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” in Mark 10:18, or the centurion’s confession: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Are you really going to trust a centurion on this one?

Simmering beneath the surface of Mark’s incredible (which means, unbelievable) story lies a commentary on the nature of faith. It comes a little clearer in the Greek, since English suffers from the bifurcated terminology of “faith” and “believe/belief.” In Greek, every instance of faith/believe/belief contains the — pist root, as seen below. (This list omits the instances in the later ending of Mark, which positively bristles with — pist terms: whoever wrote it, if it wasn’t Mark, at least grasped the theological importance of the theme in the rest of the Gospel.)

– 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe (pisteuete) in the gospel.”
– 2:5 And when Jesus saw their faith (pistin), he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
– 4:40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith (pistin)?”
– 5:34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith (pistis) has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
– 5:36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe (pisteue).”
– 6:6 And he marveled because of their unbelief (apistian).
– 9:19 And he answered them, “O faithless (apistos) generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
– 9:23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes (pisteuonti).”
– 9:24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe (pisteuo); help my unbelief (apistia)!”
– 9:42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe (pisteuonton) in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea…”
– 10:52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith (pistis) has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.
– 11:22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith (pistin) in God…”
– 11:23 “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes (pisteue) that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”
– 11:24 “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe (pisteuete) that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
– 11:31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe (episteusate) him?’”
– 13:21 “And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe (pisteuete) it.”
– 15:32 “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe (pisteusomen).” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

Of course, note the final instance of –pist here: a sarcastic taunt on the part of the powers-that-be regarding their own potentiality for faith. But today in the tale of blind Bartimaeus we get a happier account of faith, so let’s enjoy it while we can.

What stands out about Bartimaeus is that he calls on Jesus by name, appending that impressive title “Son of David,” without ever having met him. In fact, he not only calls out; he creates a ruckus. Onlookers try to shush him. Undeterred, he demands mercy. The rich young man wanted eternal life, James and John wanted glory, but this guy, blind and parked on the roadside, wants only mercy. He doesn’t even specify the nature of the mercy until Jesus puts the question to him plainly. When Jesus responds with “Call him,” the crowd quickly changes its tune to say “Take heart, he is calling you,” and Bartimaeus tosses his cloak aside in his eagerness. He may be blind, but he isn’t lame: “he sprang up.” On receiving his sight he learns “your faith has made you well,” a statement applied only to one other person in the Gospel, the woman with the issue of blood. She too was distinguished by her adamant insistence on contact with Jesus when he passed by in the midst of the crowd. Restored to sight, Bartimaeus doesn’t “go your way,” as Jesus instructed, but “followed him on the way,” a new disciple.

As always in Mark, the placement of a story and its contrasts contribute to the meaning. He’s the second blind man to be healed, but the first time was the slightly embarrassing “trees walking” episode. What happens between the first and the second healing of sight is Jesus’ three prophecies of his crucifixion. At first the hearer/reader, like the first blind man, gets only a garbled, blurry view of Jesus — but after the news of the cross, with Bartimaeus, things come at last into crisp focus.

Bartimaeus’s story is also wedged between the Zebedee boys’ massive miscalculation on the nature of glory and Jesus’ apparently glorious entry into Jerusalem. Between these two manifestations of glory is a manifestation of mercy, sought and bestowed. Those who have ears to hear know which one to prefer.