A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 8th March 2023
On Ash Wednesday I reflected on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar sitting by the roadside on the outskirts of Jericho. The story comes right at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and just before the triumphal entry. I suggested that in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus is held up as an example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus:
- we’re to persist and not allow setbacks to stop us
- when called, we’re to respond willingly and with enthusiasm
- some things that have been vital to us, we need to kick to one side as Bartimaeus did with his cloak
- and we must follow Jesus on the way
‘The way’ is understood by Mark as journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem. On the journey Christ teaches his disciples about what it means to be a disciple. Three times Jesus talks about how costly this is by referring to what lies ahead.
The first time Peter rebukes Jesus only for Jesus to reply: ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Mark writes that the second time: ‘They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.’
The disciples then start arguing with each other about which of them is the greatest.
And this morning we heard that as soon as Jesus spelt it out for the third time, James and John the sons of Zebedee come forward to ask Jesus a favour: ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.’
It’s hard to fathom how they can have been so inept.
Why after both the second and the third attempts by Jesus to teach the disciples about what lies ahead, why do the disciples on both occasions start talking about status and honour?
Here’s a suggestion.
An important event in Jesus’ ministry has taken place after the first mention of the cross, and before these next two occasions. Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up a high mountain apart, by themselves where he’s been transfigured before them. This vision was granted only to these three disciples when they caught a glimpse of Christ in glory – what we call the Transfiguration.
Might this help explain their subsequent preoccupations with status and honour?
The experience was granted to only Peter, James and John: so perhaps there is a pecking order in Christ’s kingdom, or at least an inner circle?
If there is a kingdom coming then there are important positions to be allocated: how’s that going to be decided?
And at the very least, if Jesus is soon to die, as he keeps saying he is, then someone’s going to have to take over from him: perhaps it might be me?
This may help us to understand a little the mindset of these disciples and their, to us, extraordinary preoccupation with status and honour.
Of course, their society was much more hierarchical than ours now is. A modern, western, liberal, democratic society has come on a long journey from a previous, much more structured and hierarchical society.
But these things are still important to us: what is our celebrity culture about if not about status and honour?
So, while the society that Jesus lived in was a more overtly hierarchical society than our own, and these three had perhaps wondered whether they’d been given privileged access to our Lord, we know that Jesus is touching a raw nerve in all of us when he says: ‘whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’
I’m not sure that we really get it any more easily than the disciples did.