Saturday, October 28, 2006

Seeing Jesus Again for the Very First Time

Text: Mark 10.46-52

Sometimes what the Bible does not say is as interesting as what it does say. For example, how many gallons of ink have been spilled in wondering about what Jesus was doing in the twenty or so years before he began his public ministry. The public ministry of Jesus began (Luke tells us) when he was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3.23). The next earliest story we have of Jesus (also from Luke) is his visit to the Temple when he was about twelve years old (Luke 2.42). Twenty years of Jesus’ life pass in silence. Did he spend the time quietly working as a carpenter in Nazareth? Did he travel beyond Palestine? Was he abducted by aliens? But the New Testament leaves with nothing but silence.

I’m even more intrigued by the story of the woman caught in adultery. When she is brought before Jesus, he stoops to the ground and writes in the dirt with his finger. (John 8.6) It’s the only account the Bible gives us of Jesus writing. What do you suppose he wrote? One preacher suggested that Jesus wrote the names of the men in the crowd who had committed adultery themselves!

Today’s gospel also leaves us with an intriguing silence. “Jesus and his disciples 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. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jericho and that they left, but tells us nothing of what happened in between. How long were they there? Did Jesus teach and preach? Did he weave any new tales of prodigal sons and good Samaritans? Of lost sheep and priceless pearls? And above all, I wonder, did he work any miracles? But undoubtedly something happened while Jesus and the disciples were in Jericho.

But before we get to what might have happened in Jericho, consider the significance of Jericho itself. Jericho, now as then, is an important town. It is situated in an oasis in the desolate wasteland between Jerusalem and the Jordan River. It is about 15 miles east of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the hills that stand between Jerusalem and the Jordan. It was an important commercial center and trading post on the principal road that connected Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley and points east. But its religious significance outweighed even its commercial significance. Jericho was the point at which the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. Jericho symbolized God’s fulfillment of the divine promise to Israel that they would enter and possess a land flowing with milk and honey.

Thus Jesus’ choice of routes into Jerusalem was full of significance. He could have traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem via the flat coastal plain, passing along near the sites of modern-day Haifa and Tel Aviv. But instead he chose the rougher, more arid interior route of the Jordan Valley. Jesus’ journey recapitulated Israel’s journey. But there was a difference: Israel journeyed from the wilderness to the promised land, but Jesus journeyed from the promised land to the cross. However, each went via Jericho.

So, what do you supposed happened between the first and second sentences of today’s gospel reading? Between “they came to Jericho” and “as he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving”? That something happened is beyond doubt. Something happened that came to the attention of blind Bartimaeus.

Imagine Bartimaeus’ world. Marks tells us that Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Let me see again”. Bartimaeus is different from the blind man whose healing is recounted in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel who was blind from birth. Bartimaeus had once had sight but had lost it. I imagine that Bartimaeus’ desire for healing was greater, much greater, than the blind man in John’s gospel. He had had something precious and had lost it. The loss of sight must cause inconceivable anguish. I imagine that Bartimaeus had had to struggle with bitterness because of his enormous loss.

It is somewhat redundant to refer to Bartimaeus as a “blind beggar”. He was blind, so of course, he was a beggar. He had no alternative. He sat beside the road and begged for spare change. However, Mark portrays Bartimaeus as a man of decisiveness and action, not as a passive victim. Rather than passively accept his fate, Bartimaeus refuses to be ignored. He shouts. He makes a scene. He shouts Jesus’ name. The crowd hushes him. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet…” But Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “cried out even more loudly” and shouted Jesus’ name again.

A detail I find especially poignant is that when Jesus notices Bartimaeus and calls for him to come to him, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. What do you suppose that cloak represented to Bartimaeus? Just how many cloaks would a blind beggar of the first century possess? Perhaps he had a begging bowl and a staff, but I doubt he would have much else. That cloak may have represented anywhere from 25% to 50% of Bartimaeus’ possessions. It is even more powerful when we think of the story of the rich man who came to Jesus earlier in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions”. What a contrast with Bartimaeus who, with joyful abandon throws away his cloak, perhaps his most expensive possession!

As a sightless man Bartimaeus’ only way of learning about the world was via his other senses, mainly his sense of hearing. What Bartimaeus knew about Jesus he would have learned by listening. So whatever Jesus did during his visit to Jericho, Bartimaeus must have learned about it by listening to the buzz of the crowds. He could not observe directly.

From the few remarks of Bartimaeus that Mark records, it is plain to me that Bartimaeus knew two things about Jesus. First, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. As Jesus is leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David” is a messianic title. The Messiah was thought of as the heir of the throne of David, the one who would re-establish a united kingdom of Israel and Judah, as David had. Secondly, Bartimaeus knew that Jesus could heal. When he and Jesus come face to face, Bartimaeus poignantly says, “My teacher, let me see again”.

So much for what Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. What do you suppose Jesus knew about Bartimaeus? Again, we don’t know how long Jesus had been in Jericho or what he had done there. Perhaps he had taught extensively. Undoubtedly, he had healed. Otherwise, why would Bartimaeus have begged Jesus to heal him? More than likely, Jesus was tired. But most importantly, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death. There must have been much on his mind and heart. And then suddenly, as he was leaving Jericho, faintly, from the edge of the crowd that thronged around him closely, he heard a noise, some kind of disturbance. And then it came again, and the second time, he could make out the words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus told the crowd to bring to him the man who was calling out for him.

Perhaps the most powerful detail in this story is the question that Jesus asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” It is powerful because it is almost word-for-word what Jesus had said to James and John in the story immediately preceding the healing of Bartimaeus. “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10.35-37)

What a contrast! James and John had wanted glory, power, fame, and perhaps riches. They had wanted the choicest seats in the Kingdom of God. In contemporary terms, they had wanted Jesus to choose them as his running mates! But Bartimaeus had only wanted his sight; he only wanted Jesus to restore the ability he had once had to see the orange sunset, the petals of a daisy, the smile of a loved one.

Mark forces us to ask the questions: Who was really blind? And who really received their sight? Plainly, the rich man whose great wealth had kept him from “inheriting eternal life” was blind when he came to Jesus and blind when he left. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, threw away the greatest part of his worldly possessions. Can you see his cloak flying from his hand as he runs toward Jesus as fast as his blindness would permit him?

James and John were at least as blind as the rich man who could not part with his great possessions. They understood the kingdom of God in terms of power and status; for them the kingdom was about who was in and who was out; who had front row seats and who was in the “nosebleed” section. In contrast, Bartimaeus asked for nothing more (and nothing less) than God’s first creation and gift to the world: light.

How do we know that Bartimaeus was healed? That’s obvious, isn’t it? Mark says that “immediately, he regained his sight…” Nothing could be clearer. However, there is more, much more. Bartimaeus could have regained his sight and remained blind.

Mark has placed the story of Bartimaeus’ healing in a very significant place. It takes place immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It takes place just before the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus, as I said earlier, is on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death. Everything in Mark’s gospel leads up to this point. Although Mark tells us of only one other blind man that Jesus heals, it could be argued that virtually everyone in Mark’s gospel is blind, especially the disciples. The disciples consistently fail to understand what Jesus is all about. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah but is horrified when Jesus foretells his death on the cross. James and John ask Jesus to give them preferential treatment.

Blind Bartimaeus is one of the few people in Mark’s gospel who really see. And we know this by the last five words in chapter ten. “Immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way”.

Mark presents us with a stark choice: Will we be like the rich man and let our possessions or accomplishments come between Jesus and us? Will we be like James and John and think of the service of God as a means for self-advancement? Or will we be like Bartimaeus? Will we let nothing keep us from crying out in prayer to God? Will we toss aside whatever gets in our way and run as fast as we can toward Jesus? And above all, will we “follow him on the way”, even though we know that it is the way of the cross?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Looking Glass Ethics

Text: Mark 10.35-45
Looking Glass Ethics

In Through the Looking Glass, the author Lewis Carroll takes his character Alice on a series of adventures in “Looking Glass Land,” where you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place and where the Red King practices believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Looking glasses or mirrors are helpful for more than practicing posture and putting on make-up. They enable us to see ourselves as others see us. However, looking glass land is different from our everyday world in a fundamental way: looking glass land is our world backwards and inverted. In other words, looking glass world is not a photograph. The world we see in the looking glass appears to be our world but as we begin to explore, we find that it operates by a different set of rules.

Seeing our world reflected in the looking glass can be helpful but it can also be misleading. We’ve all had the experience of trying to tie a tie while watching ourselves in the mirror. The hand in the mirror goes in one direction and our hand goes in another, and we end up with a Gordian knot instead of a bow tie. On the other hand, the mirror can help us untangle puzzles. Scientist and artist Leonardo Da Vinci famously learned how to write backwards and his notebooks can only be deciphered when they are viewed “though the looking glass.”

The gospels hold up a mirror to our world. At first, the world we see in the gospels seems much like the world in which we live. People are born and they die; they hunger and thirst; they marry and have children. But when we look more closely we see that the looking glass land of the gospels is so very different from the world we inhabit.

For example, we celebrate the wealthy, famous, and powerful but the gospels tell us that the poor and persecuted are the special objects of God’s favor. As the Song of Mary says, “God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty way; God has brought down the mighty and has lifted up the lowly.” We live in a world that measures success by the bank accounts, houses, and cars that we possess but the gospels tell us that in God’s kingdom the only thing that matters is our capacity to love. Our world is all about getting more and climbing higher but the gospels tell us that God evaluates us by how much we give and by our willingness to serve those who occupy the world’s lowest places.

Today’s gospel reading is a perfect illustration. James and John come to Jesus and say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." They made the mistake that everyone makes when they look at the world through the looking glass; they assumed that it was exactly the same as the world in which they lived. They assumed that greatness would be rewarded with power and prestige. They didn’t realize that in looking glass world (that is, the kingdom of God) that which is high in this world becomes low; that which is valuable in this world is worthless on the other side of the looking glass.

Wherever Jesus’ followers have successfully practiced his “looking glass ethics,” they have mystified the world and the world has predictably responded with hostility. The Romans did not know what to make of the early Christians. The Romans valued honor above everything else. “Love of honor” or philotimia above everything else. They defined honor much like we define honor. Military victory was honorable (provided the fight was fair) and defeat was dishonorable or shameful. Athletic prowess was honorable. Holding high political office or coming from a good family were also honorable. The Christian faith inverted Rome’s values, because at the heart of Christianity is the story of Jesus who voluntarily submitted to die the most dishonorable death imaginable in the Roman world – death on a cross. Not only did Jesus die on the cross, he went to his death without any resistance. In the Roman mind, Jesus died a shameful death in a shameful way, that is, without putting up a good fight.

James and John assumed that the values of this world operate on the other side of the looking glass in the kingdom of God, but Jesus quickly corrected them. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

It ran contrary to common sense in the first century and runs contrary to common sense in the twenty first century. The headlines of our newspapers and lead stories on the news celebrate presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and senators.

The Christian has the difficult task of practicing looking glass ethics on the wrong side of the mirror. The best illustration I can give is to tell a story by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Imagine, he said, a thief who breaks into a jewelry store, but strangely he doesn’t steal anything. Rather, he rearranges the price tags so that what had been valuable becomes cheap and what had been cheap becomes valuable.

Sisters and brothers, our task is to value the things Jesus values and to love those whom Jesus loves; to seek the place of service rather than the place self-aggrandizement, to fill the hungry with good things and to love the poor, the hungry, the homeless. And to remember that what seems high on this side of the looking glass is low on the other side and what seems cheap here is of infinite value in Jesus’ upside down kingdom. Our mission is to be subversive: to put the price tags back where they belong .

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Impossible Possibility

Text: Mark 10.17-31

“A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound… money makes the world go round.” So sings the Emcee in Cabaret, but it’s not a new idea. Karl Marx was wrong about almost everything, but he was right about one thing: Consciously or unconsciously, we usually act in accordance with our economic self-interest. But long before Marx Jesus said much the same thing.

Jesus had a lot to say about money. He told us that hearts would be found in the same place as our treasure. He told us that the measure of a life well-lived is how much we give, not how much we receive. He said, “Blessed are the poor, but woe to you who are rich.”

Today’s gospel reading contains two of Jesus’ “hard sayings.” The first one is obvious: Jesus’ command to the affluent young man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. But there is another even harder saying hidden in today’s gospel reading that we will get to in a few minutes.

Britain’s former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, is one of my heroes. When I was studying in Britain she was in her second term and was elected to a third term during my time there. However, she was incredibly unpopular with British intellectuals, including most of the clergy, although I think there is little doubt that her policies laid the foundation for the prosperity most Britons are enjoying today. A key element of “Thatcherism” was the sale of state-owned industries, such as British Petroleum, British Aerospace, and so on. I ran into a friend one evening, a priest, who was out walking his dog. He began to rail at Mrs. Thatcher and her lack of compassion for the poor. Finally, I said, “But John, the Prime Minister is just doing what Jesus told us to do…. Go and sell all that you have.”

Seriously, though, was Jesus telling us that we must sell all that we have? Was he saying that unless we embrace poverty, we cannot follow him? The quick and easy answer is to point out that Jesus requires only one person in all the gospels to make this sacrifice. When he dines with the corrupt tax collector Zacchaeus, Jesus does not tell him to sell all that he has. Zacchaeus offers to give half of his possessions to the poor and to reimburse anyone from whom he has stolen by a factor of four, and Jesus appears to give Zacchaeus his blessing.

So are we off the hook? Can we keep our houses and cars and bank accounts, unless Jesus personally requires us to sell it all or unless, like Zacchaeus, we need to make amends for a life of crime?

When he was on his deathbed, comedian W.C. Fields asked for a Bible. Fields had never displayed any interest in religion, and his friends were astonished. ”Why do you want a Bible?” they asked. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Fields replied.

Like Fields, we want to find loopholes. We want to believe that there is some fine print in the Bible that says that we can amass great wealth and also follow Jesus. We want to believe that Jesus was talking about someone else when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.” But the sad fact is that all of us have our hearts in the wrong place. All of us are too firmly tied to this world by chains of money and possessions.

Jesus can’t possibly be talking about me, can he? If I were a corporation I wouldn’t make the Fortune 500 list; I wouldn’t even make it if they expanded it to a thousand or a million. When it comes to wealth, I’m not only not in the same category as Bill Gates, I’m barely on the same planet. Wealth, however, is relative. To be wealthy in the world of Jesus, was to have a roof over one’s head and enough food to eat. When I taught New Testament at Samford University, I had to work hard to convince my students that when Jesus talked about the rich, he was talking about them (and their teacher, too, of course). The average student at an American university is fabulously wealthy, not only in comparison with the average person in the world of Jesus but even in comparison with about two-thirds of the people in the world today.

All of us want to negotiate with Jesus. I know I do. “Jesus, I’ll follow you… I’ll give up everything I have, except…” What? What is the one thing you would not give up to follow Jesus? I know that if a heavenly voice roused me from my sleep at 3 am and said, “Go and sell the Steinway grand your parents bought for you in high school” I would ask for a second opinion. What would you not give up? The money you have saved for retirement? The vacation house at the lake or the beach? But Jesus does not negotiate. Matthew’s version of this story read, “If you would be perfect, sell your possessions and give everything to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”

I have to give the young man a lot of credit. He did not try to negotiate with Jesus. He may not have been willing to pay the cost of discipleship but he understood it. In fact, he understood it so well Mark tells us that he was “shocked and went away grieving.”

The first “hard saying” of Jesus is his challenge to the young man who was seeking to “inherit eternal life:” “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” The second (and, I think, harder) saying comes in the discussion Jesus has with his disciples after the young man’s departure.

He tells them that it will be as hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Now, it is sometimes argued that the “eye of a needle” was a narrow gate in the wall around Jerusalem. That is not correct. The gate known as the “needle’s eye” was built long after the time of Jesus. Jesus meant a real camel and a real needle. In other words, he was saying that it’s impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. His disciples were astonished. They assumed that the rich would have an easier time of getting into God’s kingdom because they could do so much good with their wealth. So they asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply to that question is today’s second and harder saying: “For mortals it is impossible…”

“For mortals it is impossible” is a hard saying because deep down most of us believe that if we really, really try, then we will be to enter the kingdom, to get into heaven. We won’t even have to sell our possessions as Jesus asked the affluent young man to do, because unlike him, we know that we will do so much good with our wealth. We’ll give to our church, the United Way, our college alumni fund, support political candidates who will write good legislation and enact wise policies. Of course, we won’t be able to do this all by ourselves. We will need God’s help. But isn’t that what the very next verse says: “With God’s help all things are possible”?

Ah, now that’s a problem, because the new translations have corrected a mistranslation in the earlier versions. The King James’ Version reads, “With God all things are possible.” “All things are possible with God” is the RSV’s translation. But the New Revised version translates the Greek correctly: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

“With God all things are possible” implies that all that we need is to get God on our side and try a little harder. It’s like the old bumper stickers that said, “God is my co-pilot” which always made me wonder why the less qualified person was in the pilot’s seat.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth called the Christian faith the “impossible possibility.” A virgin give birth to the savior of the world? Impossible. The infant in the manger God incarnate? Impossible. An executed criminal who rises from the dead on the third day? Impossible. The rich enter the kingdom of heaven? Impossible. The poor enter the kingdom of heaven? Also impossible. But that is God’s business: turning impossibilities into possibilities.

The French mystic Blaise Pascal said, “Those who seek God have already found God.” Those who seek God have already found God because the desire for God is a gift. I think the young man who asked Jesus what more was necessary to inherit eternal life was sincere, but I think he wanted to have eternal life AND riches. There is a great fascination with spirituality in our age. There is much good in this but the danger is that spirituality life will become just one more hobby. For example, Madonna has become interested in Qabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. I can imagine an interviewer saying, “Now, Madonna, tell us about some of your interests.” “Well, I do yoga, support animal rights, and .. uh… oh , yeah… I’m getting into Qabbalah.”

I think a story from the Buddhist tradition may help us understand why Jesus made the young man an offer he COULD refuse and why the man went away grieving. Like Jesus, people routinely came to Buddha seeking spiritual help. “Master,” the man said, “I know that you have attained enlightenment. What must I do to become enlightened?” The Buddha looked at the young man, and said, “Do you really want to be enlightened?” The man said, “Yes, I really do.” “Come with me, then.” The Buddha and the man walked down to the lake. “Lean over and look into the lake,” the Buddha said. As the man leaned over the surface of the lake, the Buddha seized the man’s head and held it beneath the water until he was half-drowned and then released him. “Now, when you want enlightenment as badly as you wanted air, come and see me again.”

The kingdom of God is not our achievement; it is God’s gift. It is only by grace that we will be able to seek the kingdom with all our hearts, to think nothing of giving up everything and following Christ; to be as desperate for God as a drowning man is for air. Amen.