It seems like not much was happening in Jericho. Mark gives us this scintillating detail: They came to Jericho, and then they left. I guess what happens in Jericho stays in Jericho. It's a curious bit of travel information--it seems like a totally unnecessary detail, which is not usually Mark's style. If he's not going to tell us what, if anything, happened in Jericho, then why bother telling us that they went there at all? We might wonder if Mark is making some allusion to Joshua and the battle of Jericho. There might be a sermon in that, about this miraculous healing taking place on the outskirts of this city that was one reduced to rubble by God's people, and God's command.
But then, that might be a stretch. Perhaps this is just Mark reminding us that Jesus is on the move. At this point in the story, Jesus has started his final journey towards Jerusalem, where he will come face to face with the keepers of the way things are--puppet kings and high priests, imperial rule, military might, systems of all manner of oppression. He's on a collision course with the powers that be. It will be a showdown between the kingdom of heaven--God's reign of love, and justice, and righteousness--and the kingdoms of the current order--the ways of violence, and scheming, power grabbing and manic greed. A cosmic battle is on th horizon! That's going to happen in Jerusalem, which does make whatever happened in Jericho seem a little pale.
Jesus is on the move. He's told the disciples that what he's about is unstoppable. His strategy is not everything that they would like--the plan is that he'll suffer and die at the hands of the very systems he's supposed to oppose and defeat, and then be raised to life on the third day overcoming their power once and for all. Peter has already expressed that he doesn't think this is a great plan. But the table is set, and Jesus is on the move, and the only direction he's moving is toward the cross. He's leading his most intimate followers and this great crowd of tag-alongs in the way of the cross.
The breakneck turn at Jericho reminds us that Jesus' mission, God's work in the world is urgent. Jesus is propelled forward and with him this whole crowd of women and men caught up in the dragnet of God's grace. If we squint the right way, we can almost see that this great crowd gathered around Jesus is a sort of glimpse of the kingdom--an unstoppable wave of people moving in step with the Word of God made flesh, marching in time with the Messiah, the true king after God's own heart. And it's intense; it's full of noise and energy. There's no time to stop in Jericho--Jerusalem's the goal!
So, it's no wonder that when a blind beggar starts to make a scene folks want him hushed. They may not know exactly what they're doing, but they're doing something in the name of the Lord and they can't afford distractions. And anyways, it's just Timaeus' kid, Bartimaeus. Something caused him to lose his sight so long ago that no one remembers what it was (though, it was, we're quite sure, something he probably deserved) and now he's a fixture at the city gates. And yet, here he is, acting the fool in front of the Rabbi, embarrassing his followers, and getting in the way of God's work. The nerve!
The preacher, Will Willimon, insists that dissatisfaction with the way things are is integral to understanding, and even desiring the gospel. It's a fair point. It's hard for those of us who are faring pretty well to imagine that the world God wants isn't just a slight improvement on the way things are, but a complete inversion. It's a repented world; a world spinning in the opposite direction. That's what the prophets promised, what Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and Anna sing about, what Jesus preached again and again. When the king after God's own heart shows up, valleys are raised and mountains laid low, swords are beaten into plowshares, lions and lambs lie down together; the meek and the mourners, the poor and the peaceable, the hungry and the pure of heart are called blessed.
And I think Mark wants us to remember that, one more time. He wants us to remember that the way of the cross is a very strange sort of royal march--not endlessly upwards, but startlingly downwards. It's blind Bartimaeus, a hopeless beggar, a man desperate for mercy, one utterly dissatisfied with the way things are, who recognizes Jesus for who he is: Son of David, God's promised king. It's the first time in the gospel that the title is used, and it's a Messianic title. Son of David is code for the One whom God will send to make the world what God wants it to be. Bartimaeus may not quite get the logistics of it all, but here, at the end of his rope, his only hope is that Jesus will be the one who brings to life God's desire for all things. His only hope is that Jesus will be the evidence of how God is in the world. His only hope is that God's kingdom really is a kingdom hard to recognize from the seats of power; that it's best seen from bellow, even from where he sits. Have mercy upon me Jesus, Son of David.
And the crowd would shut him up. Because important things are happening. And it's not that they're not also eager for Jesus to take charge, to be God's chosen king, even if he's a peculiar choice, but the tension in this moment betrays their motives. A blind beggar is an embarrassment to the revolution. This "nobody" is getting in the way of important "somebody" things, distracting Jesus from his Jerusalem-bound mission. Look at the size of this crowd! This is a serious movement! We don't have time to stop in Jericho; we certainly don't have time to hear out the beggars that line the way. This is urgent, kingdom business!
And yet, bless his heart, maybe Bartimaeus understands that better than anyone that day, whether he'd say so or not, because he cries out even louder: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! And the Church is chastened. Because Jesus ignores the mission statements that his disciples have so carefully crafted. He dispenses with polity they've begun to shape. He shrugs off the timeline and disregards the membership policies. He stops. Mark says "he stood still." If ever there was a pregnant pause, this is it. And it's good news. It's a physical reminder that the way of the cross is urgent but not manic; it's unstoppable but not impersonal. As Jesus stops in the road and everyone with him, we see clearly that to walk in step with the Word of God made flesh, to march with this odd king after God's own heart, requires a different rhythm, an alternative momentum. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, like the Roman Empire that Jesus' followers were all too familiar with, and the ones that we know, the march isn't mercilessly onward, obsessively forward. Instead Jesus is perfectly capable, perfectly free, unnervingly willing to stop, to stand still, to show mercy.
It's wonderful. I dare say even funny. Jesus tells the very people who would keep the man quiet and brush him off to the side (in order to protect their leader's gallant march to victory, to maintain the sanctity of his authority) to now call the desperate one into the crowd. Now it's up to the ones who would rather turn the wretch away to invite him into Jesus' presence. It's as if Jesus is reminding them that they're not there because they deserve it. He's reminding them that they didn't choose him, he chose them and it wasn't because they were especially qualified. He's reminding them that they don't get to set the limits on who will get caught up with them by the grace of God. By instructing them to call the one they'd really rather not have anything to do with, he's reminding them of the grace of their own call; he's reminding us, the ones on the inside, that we were lost and are found, that we were blind and now see, and that we still need God's healing grace, God's expansive mercy. We don't get to set the limits. We walk when he walks; we stop when he stops.
And he stops here. He allows for this desperate disruption. And I just love the change in tone. The ones who would shut him up are now telling Bartimaeus to take heart, to be bold. It's such a beautiful phrase: Take heart; get up; he's calling you. It's absolutely resonant with grace. It strikes right at the heart of all of our deepest fears about unworthiness, worry that we won't get chosen, that we don't deserve to be chosen. It undermines both our weakness and our arrogance and opens us up to a whole new, gospel possibility. This is the kind of king we're in cahoots with: the One who stops, who calls, who invites us to come boldly into his presence, who draws us into the will and way of his breathtaking mercy.
Take heart; get up; he's calling you. Is it any wonder that Bartimaeus "sprang up"? Can't you see it? His cloak flying off, the ridiculous energy as he bumps and stumbles through the crowd that would have been a barrier if they'd had their way, but which is now parting like the Red Sea; his unseeing eyes perfectly trained on the source of all his hope, his whole body alive with wonder and no little fear. He arrives breathlessly in front of Jesus. And Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you."
It seems like a bit of a silly question. Word has spread that Jesus of Nazareth can make the blind see--what else could Bartimaeus want? But maybe there's a remarkable truth hidden in the question. Could it be that Jesus is not as quick to decide what people want, or should want, as maybe we are? That when it comes to the stuff of grace, and love, and mercy--when it comes to the stuff that shapes our humanity and gives texture to the image of God in us--a one-size-fits-all approach won't work? It just won't hang right. Is this Jesus who calls us reminding us that he calls us in ways that are personal and intimate, not general and efficient?
Not only does Jesus stop the whole procession to tend to this beggar who's making a nuisance of himself; he wastes more time with asking questions, he takes him seriously. The news that is good for the poor, sight for the blind, strength for the lame, freedom for prisoners will not be abstract and depersonalized. This is the God who will not stay far off and aloof, who will not be reduced to general principles, but who takes on flesh and moves into the neighborhood, to live with us and for us. The God who gets close enough to touch. The God who comes near enough to respond to our deepest needs, to heal this world's deepest hurts. Heaven knows we need a God who will get that close.
I've begun to think that the healing stories in scripture are not just miracles to be wondered at, but if we hold them together they become a kind of parable for how God is with us, how Jesus calls and heals us, how the Spirit gifts and changes us. There is no consistent pattern of healing in the gospels. Jesus doesn't walk around smacking everyone on the forehead and telling them to be healed. That only happens on TV. Sometimes he heals with a word, or a touch; sometimes he takes the sick by the hand and sometimes they grab hold of him; sometimes he's close enough to rub spit on blind eyes and sometimes the healed one is a long way off; sometimes it works the first time, immediately, and sometimes it doesn't. Shouldn't this stand as a reminder that how Jesus is with us, how he draws us into God's world-renewing work, isn't going to be impersonal and general? Jesus takes us seriously, deals with us personally. Jesus' mercy is for us; Jesus' call is for us: Take heart, get up; he's calling you!
Jesus' desire is to see us made whole, made well, to have the kind of disruptive trust in him, in the stuff of his kingdom that Bartimaeus has. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: [in the presence of Jesus] Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16) Where do we need mercy and grace? Where do you need mercy and grace? Where do you need healing and hope? We don't have to sit and suffer in silence; we don't have to wait our turn. We can make a holy nuisance of ourselves. We can trust that the One who has already given everything for us and for this world will finally make all things well, in the end. He will finish the work he's begun in us. Our need will not define us; sin and death will not define us; grace and mercy will.
But there is a bit of a caveat, a little warning at the end of this story. Bartimaeus experiences this miraculous healing. Immediately he regained his sight. But also immediately, he is drawn into the way of the cross. This is no vague spiritual experience. He joins the crowd on the way. He follows Jesus, learning to walk when he walks and stop when he stops, learning (we might imagine) how to call in people he'd rather leave out, watching mercy and grace take shape in a body, in a man from Nazareth--never abstract principles, but a physical reality, embodied truth. He follows Jesus to Jerusalem, where he'll see what real, divine love looks like; he'll hear it as God's king prays forgiveness over his murderers and commits himself--heart, soul, mind, and strength--into the hands of the One who so loves this world, the only One can bring life out of death. He'll learn to say with Jesus Not my will, but Yours; Your kingdom come.
This is the uncomfortable and astonishingly beautiful truth of the gospel--a truth that takes maybe a lifetime or more to work into our hearts, souls, minds and strength, into muscles and nerves, hands and feet: that we are called and healed not for our own sake but for the sake of the world, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of all creation. It's a remarkable truth that by the grace of God these lives, these bodies, in this time and this place are sufficient to take part in God's world-healing work in Christ. Alive in God's grace, we are enough to walk in the way of the cross, to take a stand against the ways of brokenness and death, to bear the light that no darkness can quench. He will make us bold. He will make us into holy nuisances, for ourselves and for others. He will make our lives evidence of His mercy and grace. He will make us to know the height and depth, the length and width of God's love for us and all things, and if we'll trust him--heart, soul, mind, and strength--He'll make us a sign of that love, here and now and forever.
Take heart, get up; He's calling you.
God give us grace and mercy for the task.