For Sunday October 25, 2015
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Job 42:1–6, 10–17 or Jeremiah 31:7–9
Psalm 34:1–8, (19–22) or Psalm 126
By my count, there are three distinct stories in the gospels where Jesus healed a man who was blind. This is an iffy number, because it's obvious that sometimes the writers told the same stories in different ways to make different points to different audiences.
In Matthew 9, Jesus healed "two blind men" by touching their eyes.
In Mark 8 and John 9, Jesus healed a man at Bethsaida by spitting and making mud that he applied to the man's eyes. In John's version, the physical healing provokes a much longer discourse about spiritual blindness — an important reminder that Jesus's miracles are much more than magic tricks.
Then, in a story that occurs in all three synoptic gospels, there's the reading for this week about the healing of a blind man at Jericho (Mark 10, Matthew 20, and Luke 18). In Matthew's telling there are two men.
There are about thirty healing stories in the four gospels, and they are always anonymous. We never learn the name of the person who was healed. Someone should check me on this, but I think that Lazarus is the only exception to this rule. The most we ever learn is something once-removed like "Jairus's daughter." These people had names, of course, but we never learn them. It's strange.
This anonymity is another tip-off that the writers weren't interested in mere spectacle. The miracles point beyond themselves to the more profound and mysterious identity of Jesus. He was more than a magician.
So, Mark 10 for this week is a rare exception; it's one of only two out of thirty healing stories in which we learn the name of the person who was healed — Bartimaeus. And what a name. It's a name about which scholars have spilled a lot of ink, and for good reason. Mark uses some apparent word play that points beyond the miracle to the meaning of Jesus.
Bar-Timaeus is a linguistic hybrid that's half Aramaic and half Greek. Mark knows that he has intentionally flummoxed his Gentile readers, and so in 10:46 he employs a favorite technique that he uses eight other times in his gospel. He gives us a parenthetical explanatory translation: "that is, the Son of Timaeus."
But what does that mean? Literally and simply, 10:46 thus reads, "son of Timaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus)."
If "Timaeus" sounds vaguely familiar, you might be channeling your college introduction to philosophy class. Timaeus is the title of Plato's most famous dialogue and the name of its narrator. In the Timaeus and elsewhere, Plato famously contrasts "seeing" the mere physical world while being "blind" to Eternal Truths.
And so Bartimaeus begs Jesus, "Rabbi, I want to see!"
In his book Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (1983), the classicist David Runia argues that "the Timaeus was the only Greek prose work that up to the third century A.D. every educated man could be presumed to have read." Would that include Mark?
Is Mark contrasting Greek philosophy with the Jewish Jesus for his Gentile audience? It's such a tantalizing suggestion. But as the British like to say, for me, it's too clever by half. In my view, this interpretation is at best a "definite maybe."
The name Bartimaeus suggests other linguistic possibilities. In simplest terms, the name combines the Aramaic "bar" (son) with the Greek "timaios" (honorable). So, Bartimaeus is a family name. He's just the son of a father named Timaeus.
More subtly and allegorically, he's the "son of honor" or an honored person.
Still others point to the Aramaic or Hebrew word for "unclean" (br tm'), suggesting that Bartimaeus is the "son of the unclean."
I like to combine these ideas. Bartimaeus, a down and out blind man, a poor person who begs for money, might be dishonored and marginalized by Greeks, he might be unclean to ritually clean Jews, but in Mark's telling he's a person we should honor.
There's a good reason why Mark honors this dishonored man. Whereas "many people rebuked him and told him to be quiet" (10:48), trying to put him in his place, the blind Bartimaeus was insistent. Not once, but twice, he cries out, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Longing for help and healing, the Son of Timaeus confesses the Son of David. Here we have hit the theological pay dirt.
The title "Son of David" is a loaded phrase that occurs seventeen times in the gospels. It hearkens back to the very first sentence of the New Testament, where in Matthew 1:1 we read that Jesus is the "son of David, son of Abraham."
The title "Son of David" points to more than a genealogical connection. It's a shocking theological confession that makes a miraculous healing pale by comparison. Jesus is greater than Abraham. He's more than Moses or even King David. He surpasses the justly famous Plato.
He's the longed-for Jewish messiah mentioned in 2 Sam 7:12-13.
The story of Bartimaeus is the last healing in Mark. It's a transition story with a palpable sense of geographic movement. After the healing of Bartimaeus at Jericho, Mark pivots to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem — and thus the beginning of his passion week and the fulfillment of his mission.
Just before the Bartimaeus story, the disciples "were on their way up to Jerusalem" (10:32). With the healing of Bartimaeus, "they came to Jericho" (10:46). And after his healing, Bartimaeus "followed Jesus along the road" (10:52) as they "approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives" (11:1).
As with virtually all the characters in the gospels, we never hear about Bartimaeus again. But with Mark's description of how he followed Jesus those seventeen miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, I like to picture the Son of Timaeus confessing the Son of David, walking with him to the City of David.
Bartimaeus invites us to the same journey of "following Jesus on the way," and to the same confession, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
NOTE: For Mark's nine parenthetical explanatory translations, see Mark 3:17, 5:41, 7:11, 7:34, 12:42, 15:16, 15:22, 15:34, 15:42
Image credits: (1) At the Edge of the Enclosure; (2) Gospel Renegades; and (3) Index of Armenian Art, Fresno State University.