The Story of Bartimaeus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the social, economic, political, and cosmological features of the Gospel.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 23-29, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Most Lutheran congregations will observe Reformation Day on this Sunday. (For comment on the texts for Reformation Day, which are the same every year, see the archive entry for Reformation Sunday, Year A.) While for this reason few congregations may hear it, the Gospel reading for the this Sunday after Pentecost is of special interest relative to our concern for creation and its care. We began our series of comments on the lectionary for Year B last Advent with the observation that the Gospel of Mark has a strong interest in cosmology, an interest to which we were alerted by Gordon Lathrop in his Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology. Mark, he noted, “is very ‘interested in ‘heaven’ (e.g., 1:11; 6:41; 8:11; 13:25; 14:62),” an interest “driven in significant measure by Mark’s concern to break open the cosmic myths of the ancient world” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. p. 34. See our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent in this series). We have traced this interest throughout the year, particularly with reference to the Jerusalem temple, “that ancient symbol of the heart of the cosmos, the navel of all things,” as Lathrop describes it, which with its associated political establishment constitutes the center of power for the opposition to Jesus, as that conflict develops in the Jerusalem section of the Gospel. With the story of the healing of the blind Bartimaeus in this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10:46-52), we return to Lathrop’s argument, for which the story is a key text.
As others have noted, the healing of Bartimaeus is placed at the “hinge” between the Galilean and Jerusalem sections of the Gospel. It follows immediately after the third portent of Jesus’ death and the discussion of leadership which that portent evoked, as we discussed in the comment on the readings for last Sunday. It is followed in turn by Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after which the Gospel moves relentlessly toward the climax of Jesus’ conflict with the powers of the temple-state establishment. The action of the narrative now swirls around the temple. As Lathrop notes, “The temple is cleansed (11:25-19) and then held under the threat of destruction (13:2). But the cornerstone of a new temple (12:10-11) or its architect and builder (14:58; 15:29; compare 6:3) is the Crucified One” (Holy Ground, pp. 34-35).
But will the reader of the Gospel see that this is what the narrative is about? In the story itself, the followers of Jesus clearly do not. Readers might see this, however, if they put themselves n the shoes of the blind beggar. There is more to Bartimaeus, a great deal more, than first meets the eye. Although the story is “well known as a paradigmatic story of discipleship,” as Ched Myers notes, often missed in his view are its social and political dimensions It is Bartimaeus who introduces the title “Jesus, son of David” (10:47), further preparing us for the imminent struggle over the ideology of popular kingship. There is also an implied class contrast between the discipleship of Bartimaeus and the non-discipleship of the rich man, just as there was between the hemorrhaging woman and the synagogue ruler in 5:21ff. These stories exhibit several common characteristics. Bartimaeus, like the rich man, encounters Jesus “on the way” (10:17, 46). The rich man could not liquidate his fortune, but poor Bartimaeus throws away his garment, his sole element of livelihood (beggars spread out their cloaks to receive alms). The one at the top of the social scale rejected a direct call, but the one on the bottom does not even wait for a call, springing up and “following Jesus on the way” (10:52).
The social, economic, and political significance of the Bartimaeus story, placed as it is at the hinge between Galilee and Jerusalem, should be clear. As Myers puts it, “The poor join in the final assault on the dominant ideological order, and the rich have walked downcast away. The first have become last, and the last first” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1988, pp.281-82). Furthermore, he notes, as the blind beggar’s immediate response to Jesus’ call suggests, Mark draws a sharp contrast between him and the disciples:
“Upon their approach, Jesus had asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you? (10:36). To the beggar’s petition, Jesus responds with exactly the same words. But how different the requests! The disciples wished for status and privilege; the beggar simply for his ‘vision.’ The one Jesus cannot grant, the other he can. It is Bartimaeus who is told to ‘take courage’ (tharsei), as the disciples were told earlier, during their dangerous crossing of the sea (6:50). And it is the beggar who follows.”
Here is the message for the “disciples/reader,” Myers suggests: only if we struggle “against the internal demons that render us deaf and mute, only if we renounce our thirst for power—in a word, only if we recognize our blindness and seek true vision—then can the discipleship adventure carry on” (Myers, p. 282.)
The point is well taken. But there is an additional aspect of the beggar’s blindness to be considered. His name is Bartimaeus, which, Myers notes, “in Hebrew could mean “son of the unclean” (Myers, p. 282). In Lathrop’s view, that he is named at all is itself noteworthy: as “the only recipient of the healing ministry of Jesus in the entire Gospel who is given a name at all, the name matters.” Indeed, he is doubly named, as Bartimaeus can mean “son of Timaeus.” And since the name is “hard to place in a Jewish context,” Lathrop argues, “[w]e ought to yield the point. It is a Greek name and, in fact, one with a very specific and recognizable history. Here is the “Son” of Timaeus, Plato’s Timaeus, and, ironically, he is himself blind, crying out in lament, seeing nothing, going nowhere” (Lathrop, pp. 30-31).
So, beyond the social, economic, and political significances of the beggar identified by Myers, there is an additional layer of cosmological meaning. With this story, too, Mark is at work breaking open cosmic myths of the ancient world. As Lathrop has already explained to his reader before he takes up the story of Bartimaeus, Plato’s Timeaus is a “world classic of cosmology:” “no written philosophical cosmology has had more influence.” “[A]mong ancient educated people in the Hellenistic world, the Timaeus would have been the most likely work, after Homer, to have been read in Greek.” It is therefore no surprise, he suggests, to find references to it in the New Testament, (notably, we think, in two of the documents from which this Sunday’s readings are drawn, the Letter to the Hebrews and in the Gospel of Mark).
The book provides an account of the “generation and order of the cosmos,” considering, first, “the great, perfect pattern of all things (Plato’s ‘ideas,’ differently expressed) and the imitation of that pattern by the demiurge in making the things that are generated and visible.” Timeaus’ proposal of a “great sphere that is all things” includes heavenly bodies with their movements, and on the same pattern, the human head, it “being the most divine part of us and lord of all that is in us,” into which are “inserted the organs of the senses,’ the “first and chief of these” being sight.
A second part takes up more strictly philosophical issues such as “necessity, the dialectic between ‘the one’ and nothing, the passive material receptacle for all generations, and whether there are of necessity many worlds or one world,” and moves, like the first part, towards a discussion of the creation of the human body and its faculties, “including finally, and importantly, sight.” Sight is clearly the most important of the senses for Timeaus, Lathrop observes; at the juncture of these two parts, comes a speech which praises sight as “the scientific basis of his cosmology—observation, followed by deductive reason and mathematics,” and also of the “ethical implications of this cosmological reflection.” Lacking even the lesser gifts of sight, Timaeus notes in passing, a blind man laments his loss in vain; he is incapable “of being the kind of philosopher Timaeus envisions, incapable of attaining the good life, not able to follow those divine courses in the sky” (Lathrop, pp. 27-29).
Such a blind man, Lathrop notes, was no problem for “a world view marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.” He is, however a problem for the followers of Jesus, both in that day and in the present. Mark’s blind beggar is the symbol for a profound critique of cosmological systems which support the structures of class and patriarchal privilege and political domination. One of the “lessor sorts” disparaged by Plato, Mark’s blind beggar nevertheless . . .
“does not lament in vain. Throwing off his cloak (the ‘philosopher’s cloak’? Is it philosophy itself that is blind?) he comes to Jesus (10:50). Calling Jesus ‘my teacher,’ he asks to see. And upon receiving his sight, he follows Jesus “in the way” (10:52). What follows immediately in the book is the beginning of the Markan passion account, the enacting of Jesus’ cup and the baptism of his death. The ‘way’ that Bartimaeus follows is the way into this death, not the unperturbed and reasonable course of the heavenly bodies. Participation in this way seems to invite us to a different sort of cosmology, a different view of the constitution of the universe and a correspondingly different estimate of the good life” (Lathrop, pp. 31-32).
Exploration of such considerations constitutes an immense agenda for Christian thought, which is being carried out in the literature of the dialogue of theology and science, a matter we will return to below. But that isn’t the end of Bartimaeus’ contribution to the Gospel, either, Lathrop argues: “the crucial location of this figure in the structure of the Gospel, the open-ended report of his following on the way, and the narrative interest in both his clothing and his sight,” are reason to see him again in the figure of the young man following Jesus, “who runs off naked” when the soldiers arresting Jesus attempt to detain him; and then again, “the young man in the empty tomb, now dressed in a white robe, announcing where Jesus is to be seen” (16:5, 7). Linked in recent exegesis, these two figures are plausibly seen as . . .
“Mark’s ‘son of Timaeus.’ Then that beggar has been fully stripped and clothed in the manner of ancient baptisms. Throwing off the cloak of philosophy or of begging, he has come to the teacher (10:50-51) and entered into the way of the catechumen. That way involves more than ideas and reason. It leads to naked need and immersion in Jesus’ death (14:51-52. Finally, this very same figure, now clothed in resurrection life, bears witness to a new use of sight: beholding Jesus ‘in Galilee’ as he promised 16:5-70). This new Timaeus also follows ‘the absolutely unerring courses of God’ toward the ‘best life’ as the philosophy advises, but those courses are not found in the sky but, hidden under the form of disorder and loss, they are found among us, on the earth, in the way of Jesus Christ ‘seen’ in faith.”
“Cosmology itself,” Lathrop concludes, “that old Greek undertaking, is restructured in beholding Jesus, the Crucified, who draws all to himself” (Lathrop, pp. 32-33).
This does not mean, Lathrop hastens to add, that Mark supports a view which finds cosmology as such alien to the gospel. On the contrary, he notes, the “broken myths’ in the Bible “invite the reader to explore and use such patterns and themes of world coherence as may be available to us, but also to find the deepest, all-including coherence not in any of our schemes or symbols but in the mercy of God.” The Gospel of Mark in particular supplies multiple lines of connection to the cosmos:
“There is a way in the wilderness (1:203). Crowds are drawn from may regions and from the four directions (3:8; 8:9). A new sense exists that all the houses, fields, and families of the earth can be seen as home to those who follow Jesus (10:30). But the heavens are torn, and the courses of the stars—while belonging to God—are not necessarily the reliable sign of careful reason: the sun can be darkened (13:24; compare 15:33), the stars can fall (13:25). Order—deep order for all things—is only to be found in the word and promise of God and in the encounter with the Risen One” (Lathrop, p. 36).
We have followed out these lines, and more, in our comments on the readings for year B. To follow them fully requires engagement with recent literature in the theology and science dialogue, such as the works of John Haught and Ted Peters, to mention only a few authors. Christopher Southgate has done this to the particular benefit of the theology and care of creation in his The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louiville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2008). They have taken on the immensely difficult and important challenge of understanding “massive scientific inquiries needed to move toward an astrophysical account of the structure of things or a biological account of the structure of life, the massive social and political work needed to develop shared worldviews, the massive intellectual work needed to elaborate an accurate and responsible ecology, while preserving faithfully “room for lament, room for the other, and room for mercy” (Lathrop’s phrase),–room, that is, for the triune God whom we meet in the cross of Jesus, risen from the dead.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.