Welcome Failure! That’s the good news!
Last Sunday after Trinity. Yr B 2018
Mark 10 46-end
A miracle story, and rather lovely one at that – somehow we all remember the story of Blind Bartimaeus! And it rounds off the church’s year and – more or less – our year long readings from Mark’s Gospel. There is something very particular about this story, and I’ll come to that in a minute. But I wanted to spend a moment reflecting on this Gospel that we have been listening to for the past year. It’s always difficult to get a full feel of the tone and style of a gospel from these short extracts we read Sunday by Sunday. Worth taking a moment to look back.
Mark’s is the first and oldest of the Gospels and it is very distinct in its approach. For one thing Mark has the highest rate of miracles per page of all four of the Gospels – 18 in all. 15 of those happen in the first half of the book. You read them, and you drink in the good news, and you think this is wonderful. But then comes the second half of the book, and is utterly different. We are told that the Son of Man must suffer, and that we too will have to undergo suffering. Everyone must be salted with fire, Mark says. That’s a terrible saying. In other words we may very well be persecuted or even destroyed! The first will be last and the last first. Life will be through death. It’s tough stuff. Tougher than than you ever get in Luke or Matthew, both of whom take Mark’s Gospel and seem to ease up on the toughness of It. And Mark paints a picture of the disciples, probably correctly, who never understand any of this, and end up squabbling among themselves. And that’s another thing about Mark. He’s very ready to point out the failures of the disciples. It’s as if they never do anything right, even before they all run away when Jesus is arrested. Three times Mark tells “With God nothing is impossible.” And you can’t help thinking: God has got a job on his hands with this lot.
Now all of this difficult stuff is framed within Mark’s account of the long journey to Jerusalem. Jesus, in Mark’s account, is clear eyed all the way, in no doubt about what will happen there. And this little miracle story we have just heard rounds off that whole long section. The next chapter is in Jerusalem, the trial and the crucifixion, and Mark’s last miracle, which is a strange one: Jesus curses a fig tree because its unfruitful: and it dies. But here it’s as if the light is suddenly switched on again – a relief given the surrounding narrative. And it’s very carefully told. In the first place Jesus makes a blind man see – that is one of the signs of the coming Messiah that Isaiah notes, a sign of the kingdom. And notice how Mark tells us just where Bartimaeus is sitting: by the road, “by the wayside”. Remember the parable of the sower and the seed, right at the start of Mark’s Gospel? In that story, good, fertile seed goes to waste because it gets scattered “by the wayside”. It gets translated in different ways but the Greek here is identical with the parable. So it’s a deliberate echo. This is going to be a story about making a choice between a wasted life and a life that will be fruitful.
And notice what Bartimaeus calls out: “Son of David, have pity on me”. Which is perhaps strange. Beggars usually ask for cash. And when Bartimaeus hears that Jesus wants to see him he “throws off his cloak”. Interestingly in the early church people often changed their clothes at the moment of baptism. And then, standing in front of Jesus, he is asked, “What do you want?”, and he says “To see again.”
You can translate that in different ways. The words can equally mean ‘to be enlightened”: I want to know, I want to step out of confusion into the light of understanding. And the gift he receives is just that: salvation, he sees, he understands, he is enlightened. And he becomes a follower: the man who once was “by the road” is now on it, walking it. Mark gives us a play on words here: he becomes a follower of The Way – that early Christian description of those who follow the Christian faith.
This is a passage about what it means to waken up to faith. But Mark is unpicking the meaning of that. Remember Jesus’ insistence that he must suffer, and his followers must understand about suffering? Well Bartimaeus knows what it is to suffer: a beggar and blind, he was doubly disadvantaged. And in that dark place he had been heard and seen by God. Bartimaeus is now the one person following Jesus who understood what he meant. And it’s interesting that Mark actually names him, Bartimaeus – we don’t usually know the names of those Jesus heals. He would have been horrified by Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, but not thrown by it. He knew that even in the darkest times God does not fail us. So perhaps he was an early member of the Jerusalem Church. Mark may have known of him.
And that is the thrust of this Gospel. After that first wonderful half in which Mark makes clear that Jesus truly is the bringer of Good News, really good news, he goes on to make clear the context in which we will discover that. And it’s not a context of success, it’s a context of failure. The disciples fail, the whole Gospel ends in failure. No resurrection appearances in this Gospel: just an empty tomb and the women running away in fear. There are two other endings that go on from that in our bibles, but they were put there later by people who wanted to put on a happy ending. But that’s not Mark. He is uncompromisingly bleak. But not just bleak: real.
And that is why this is such a good Gospel for the 21st Century. Because the church is not being successful in our society. Despite our best efforts it’s getting smaller. And in our care of children and vulnerable people, we, and our friends in the Catholic Church have been a disaster, a disgrace to the name of Christ. We need to remember Bartimaeus and call out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Mark doesn’t believe in success. But, the tomb is empty. That means that God is on the side of Jesus. And the young man outside the tomb tells the women to go off and try and work out what that means. And when you look back at this Gospel, certain things stand out from its tough text.
The one character who Jesus hold us as a model for us is the child – and children in that society had no status. But a child appears twice, in chapter 9 and chapter 10, and in both cases Jesus hugs them. They are the only ones he does hug.
And remember the rich man who Jesus tells to go and sell all he has? He walks away sad. And Mark says “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It’s the only instance of Jesus loving somebody. He loves the person who can’t do it.
And remember Bartimaeus, the doubly disadvantaged man, who knows what suffering means. And who discovers that he is called, and in that calling, loved.
Welcome failure. That’s the good news. Learn that God’s love flows out to us at our weakest, most disadvantaged moment, and it is always with us, and always has been. He sees us, calls us, loves us. And when we know that, when we know that what we need is mercy, it’s all we need to know. Everything can crumble around us, but we will know that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. The tomb is empty. Of course it is: God is with us.