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This article, written by Ridley Faculty member, Graham Stanton, was first published in the Melbourne Anglican Newspaper July 2018, No 571
What did last week’s sermon enable you to see?
I’m not asking about whether the preacher used an entertaining video clip. Instead I wonder how much our life of discipleship resembles that of Bartimaeus, the blind man we meet in Mark 10:46?
When Bartimaeus hears that it’s Jesus of Nazareth walking by, he shouts to him, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). Even though Bartimaeus is blind, he ‘sees’ Jesus clearly. Bartimaeus knows that Jesus is the son of David, the promised Messiah. And though he knows that he doesn’t deserve a share in the Messiah’s glory, he puts his hope in the Messiah’s mercy. And we know he means it, because when the crowd try to shut him down, he shouts louder still.
When Jesus stops and asks, “what do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), it seems fairly obvious that Bartimaeus would ask to see. If I was blind, especially in the first century without any of the modern aids for those who are vision impaired, wanting to see would be at the top of my list. But in Mark’s story Bartimaeus’ answer is more profound than just physical healing. In Mark’s account of the Gospel, sight has a lot to do with discipleship.
Back in chapter 8:22-25 we find the strange story of Jesus taking two goes at healing a blind man. First the man is able to see, but only to the extent that people look like trees walking. After Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes a second time, he’s then able to see everything clearly. When we connect this story with the account that follows, it seems that the blind man is a metaphor for how the disciples are responding to Jesus. Peter recognises Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:29), but rebukes Jesus for talking about going to the cross (Mark 8:32). It’s as if Peter is no longer blind because he’s begun to follow Jesus as the Messiah; but he does not yet see everything clearly, because he still hasn’t fully understood the way of the cross.
By the time we get to chapter 10 the disciples have begun to see things more clearly. Jesus is leading the way on the road to Jerusalem. The disciples are astonished (Mark 10:32). This must mean they’ve moved on from where Peter was in chapter 8. They must have come to grips with the reality of his impending death. Twice now Jesus has foretold what will happen to him in Jerusalem (Mark 8:31; 9:31), and they are astonished that he is continuing the journey. The disciples are astonished, but they’re not afraid. Those who follow are afraid (mark 10:32), as I imagine I would be also – if the one I’m following is about to be killed then what will become of me?! But if the disciples don’t share the crowd’s fears, then perhaps they’ve also begun to see something of the glory that Jesus has promised will come on the other side of the cross?
The question that James and John ask of Jesus shows that the disciples have a sense that the death of Jesus will not be the end of his (or their) story. “Allow us to sit at your right and at your left in your glory” (10:37). Before we judge them too quickly for asking the wrong question, we should acknowledge that they have at least been able to see beyond Jesus’ death to his glory that will follow!
But they’re missing something. And I think Mark hints at what they’re missing by repeating this phrase, “to sit at your right and at your left”. We will hear those words again in Mark’s account, in chapter 15:27, at Jesus’ crucifixion where they crucify two criminals with him, “one on his right and one at his left”.
It seems to me that Mark is suggesting that James and John are more willing to accept the benefits of the cross, but haven’t really thought about the full implications of following Jesus in the way of the cross. The disciples are beginning to see. By chapter 10 they can see a little bit more than they could in chapter 8. What would happen if they were to see clearly? Mark shows us an answer to that question when Jesus heals Bartimaeus.
Since Mark is using sight as a metaphor for discipleship, for Bartimaeus to ask that he might see is to ask that he might follow. When Jesus’ words confirm that Bartimaeus has been healed, Mark tells us, “Immediately he could see and began to follow Jesus on the road”. And if we cast our minds back to the beginning of the story in Mark 10:32, we see that this isn’t just any road, but it’s the road to Jerusalem; the road to Jesus’ crucifixion. Bartimaeus sees, and follows Jesus on the way of the cross.
The Christian life is not only about benefitting from the work of the cross; it’s also about following Jesus in the way of the cross.
In Mark 10:43-44 Jesus describes the life of Christian service, “whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all”. Mark 10:45 points us to the source of that kind of life: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. If we want to live the life of Christlike service, we have to see that such a life is made possible only through the ransom of the Son of Man. And once we receive Jesus’ service in his death for us, we will be forever ruined for self-interest. We won’t always stick to the path of sacrifice, but we will always be left with a sense of unease whenever we put our own interests above those of others. If we see Jesus clearly, we’ll follow in his way of sacrificial service.
John Calvin says that in faithful preaching of the word, “Christ is depicted before our eyes as crucified” (Institutes, 1.xi.7). It is not just that Christ is discussed in our hearing, or that the crucifixion is explained for our understanding. When the gospel is preached we are being summoned to a new imagination. When the gospel is preached Christ is depicted, not before our physical eyes, but before “the eyes of our heart” (Ephesians 1:18). And when we see Jesus, we can be like Bartimaeus, people who cry out for mercy, and follow Jesus on the way of the cross.