This is the thirtieth installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 9, chapter 10: 32-45, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-ninth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
46 They 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. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49 Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52 Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (NRSV)
Mark cuts to his next scene, the healing of Bartimaeus, rapidly and without comment. Travel is not described; suddenly they are in Jericho – “they came to Jericho” (10:46)- not far from Jerusalem. Then, they are leaving Jericho – “he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho” (10:46) – and we must assume, given the three Passion Predictions especially, on the way to Jerusalem. The teaching of Jesus remains hanging in our minds, as he encounters Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus on the side of the road. The identification of Bartimaeus not only by his given name, but by his father’s name is especially precise and detailed for Mark. It stands, therefore, as an important encounter in Mark’s narrative. What makes it so significant for Mark’s narrative?
Mark must want to stress the historical dimension of this encounter. Perhaps Bartimaeus was known to many early Christians through this encounter and subsequently, if he became a disciple (Bartimaeus “followed him on the way:” 10:52). Perhaps the healing on the way to Jerusalem remained especially significant in the minds of the disciples due to its timing; as to its placement in Mark, it is the last of Jesus’ healings or miracles of any kind. This sets the healing and Bartimaeus apart historically and narratively. These are significant enough considerations, but there is more to it than that dramatically and in terms of Jesus’ mission.
Recall that at the end of Act 3, in Scene 11, Jesus encounters a blind man, whose name is unknown to us, and whose healing is initially only partial. He cannot see clearly. A second attempt allows him to see fully. I wrote there,
But Mark does not end his Act 3 here, he introduces us to a strange scene in Bethsaida, in which a blind man is brought to Jesus, who heals him with a physical act of putting saliva in his eyes (8:22-23). The man can see, but only partially and he says to Jesus, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking" (8:24). The man has partial sight only, a miracle that is only partly fulfilled; so Jesus does it again and then the man can see all things clearly (8:25). The man is sent away and told, "Do not even go into the village" (8:26). Here is the secrecy motif, but this can be left for later, as I think the whole of the secrecy motif has to do with Jesus’ destiny, not his Messiahship, and this will be unpacked in Act 4. But the double healing of the blind man: what does it mean? Does it mimic the double feeding miracle? Spiritual sight is not complete until all people can see who Jesus is.
The partial miracle is combined with the secrecy motif in Mark – the healed blind man in Act 3 does not follow Jesus and he is told not even to go to his village. We suspect that the twice healed man is not to tell of Jesus to anyone, and this might have to do with his still partial understanding of Jesus’ identity and destiny, or Jesus' desire to reveal himself fully to his disciples' first, as we have seen in Act 4. It is only throughout Act 4 that Jesus reveals his identity and links it to his destiny clearly: I am the Messiah and the Messiah must go to Jerusalem to die on behalf of the many. Bartimaeus definitely understands Jesus’ identity, according to Mark’s narrative, for it is the first time in the Gospel that anyone has identified Jesus as “the son of David,” arguably the most significant of the Messianic titles because there is no question as to its meaning (“son of man, for instance, is able to be understood in a number of ways).
When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is on the road, “he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (10:47). People told him to shut up, but he would not listen – “many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:48). Why would you shut up if you believe the son of David is walking by? One wonders whether the fact that still, at this point long into Jesus’ ministry, disciples are still telling blind men who call to Jesus to leave him alone offers us a glimpse into their stubborn lack of understanding of Jesus’ mission. Bartimaeus has something these followers of Jesus’ lack: the understanding that even if he is (physically and spiritually?) blind, he knows where to go for the cure. He has faith in Jesus and he will not be put off.
Jesus stops and tells his disciples to call Bartimaeus to him – “Call him here” – and so they go to the blind beggar saying, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you” (10:49). Bartimaeus needs no other invitation and “throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (10:50). Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?,” is, I believe, more dramatic when you imagine it visually rather than simply on the page. Bartimaeus remember has twice called out to the “son of David” to “have mercy on me.” What exactly could this blind man begging at the side of the road want? Jesus knows exactly what he wants, what the sum of mercy in this context is, but he wants Bartimaeus to say it again, not I would argue for Jesus’ sake or to annoy Bartimaeus, but for the sake of the disciples and the crowd, some of whom moments ago were telling him to be quiet.
Mark presents Bartimaeus as unfazed by the question: “My teacher, let me see again” (10:51). Jesus’ response is just as direct, “Go; your faith has made you well” (10:52). Again, the two part healing that ended Act 3 needed Jesus’ physical touch, twice, once with saliva and once more with Jesus touching his eyes. Bartimaeus does not need the physicality of Jesus, only Jesus’ acknowledgment of his faith. Bartimaeus’ faith leads to healing without touch. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way” (10:52). The fact that Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way also indicates his complete healing and Jesus’ implicit acceptance of his deeper understanding – he is not told to be quiet, not told to back to his village. Bartimaeus’ eyes are not just opened by faith, but so is his spirit to see Jesus as the Messiah, the one he must follow even into Jerusalem to the fulfillment of his mission. Jesus has made it clear in Act 4 what it means for him and his disciples to bring his mission and ministry to fulfillment. Only those who want to remain blind cannot see it. Secrecy is gone, for his destiny is clear.
John W. Martens
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This blog post was written while listening to the great Dwight Twilley.