Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Question

The Question
Mark 10:46-52
21st Sunday after Pentecost
25 October 2009

Stories about healings inevitably raise difficult questions for modern Christians. What really happened? Are these stories true, or are they just told to make us believe in Jesus’ divinity? Why don’t the types of miraculous healings from the Bible happen anymore? Or do they? And if they do, then what is the relationship between faith and healing? If someone doesn’t get healed, does it mean they didn’t have enough faith? The questions are daunting.

Mark doesn’t try to answer them. He just tells us these stories, and leaves it to us to figure out what to do with them. In many cases in Mark’s Gospel, after Jesus has healed he tells the people not to tell anyone. Is it because these miracles will draw too much attention to Jesus, or will raise too many questions? Who knows? All we know is that Jesus repeatedly heals, and then says, “Don’t tell.” But not this time. Today’s story is the last healing story in this Gospel, and Jesus doesn’t try to keep it quiet this time. He is on his way to Jerusalem now, on his way to the cross, and in a way, this final healing is the inauguration of that journey. There will be no more secrets about who this man is and what he has come for. Eyes will be opened, and the truth will be seen.

Mark shows us with this story. Jericho was a lush city of palm trees and springs, near the Jordan River, and it was surrounded by a wall. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sat by the road just outside the gate, so he could beg the pity of those on their way into or out of the city. The people inside those walls knew him, saw him every day. They were used to his sad story and his tragic condition. It no longer horrified them. And isn’t this the way it always is? We grow so tired of the need around us. We get so accustomed to seeing people begging that we are no longer horrified at their poverty or their need. We grow numb, or worse, we get annoyed. So Bartimaeus set himself up by the road outside the city walls, where he could appeal to travelers who might still be moved to compassion for an impoverished blind person begging for change.

There he sits, when a large group of people begin to leave the city, walking by him as they go. Bartimaeus hears that one of them is the great healer, Jesus of Nazareth, and he begins to shout. He starts making a racket. No more rattling a little tin cup or hoping someone might hear him calling out, “Please help.” No, this is his big chance, and he lays it all on the line. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People try to shush him. Even beggars have a protocol. Stay on your knees, look pitiful, say please. Not this guy. Not this time. He will not be shushed. He screams even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!!”

And Jesus stops. He stands still. Silence. And then: “Call him here.”

No more shushing for the blind beggar. An invitation now. The people who had been trying to silence him now call to him, saying, “Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!” Watch him now, as he throws off his cloak, rises up from his place of pity, crosses ground he has never seen, among people he has never seen, outside a city he has never seen,[i] to meet the healer he cannot see.

And it is like this for many of us, is it not? We fumble forward in life without a clear picture of who Jesus really is. Many times – maybe even most of the time? – we cannot even see how he is present in our circumstances. Every Sunday we come to church and hear the stories and say the words and sing the songs and go through the motions. But do we see him? Do we sense that he is a real presence in our lives?

The blind man could not see him, but moved towards him anyway. He threw off his old life like a left-behind cloak, and leapt forward into the unknown. And now a question for him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.

Does it seem an odd question? Do you think that Jesus does not know what this man wants? “Have mercy on me!” the man has shouted as Jesus passed by. The man has begged only coins from all the other travelers through the years. Now he has a choice. He can ask this Jesus for spare change, or he can ask for what he really needs. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks him. The question is not for Jesus’ sake – he surely knows what the man needs. The question is for the blind man, and for us.

It is not the first time he has asked this question. Just a few verses earlier, James and John announce, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And what they ask for is a ludicrous pretension towards greatness. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They ask him this right after he has told them – for the third time – that he is going to be condemned and killed. And here they are, still hoping that following him will mean greatness for them. They ask their selfish and delusional question, and he responds, “You do not know what you are asking.”

They are as blind as Bartimaeus. They clearly do not understand their calling or their destiny. Jesus is headed towards the most brutal kind of suffering and death. There will be two people on his right and on his left - criminals, executed in shame. James and John have no idea what it means to be on Jesus’ right and left hands. Jesus is resolute about his own calling, and destiny, and purpose. James and John fantasize about power, and privilege, and glory. They do not know what they are asking. Like the blind man, they cannot really see Jesus. The difference between them and the blind man is that they do not realize they are blind.

Jesus’ question confronts our most basic desires. “What is it that you want from me?” Do we know what we would answer? His question is not that of a genie, who is going to magically grant wishes. His question is that of a healer, a teacher, a man on his way to the cross. His question calls into question our own sense of purpose and of need. The blind man knew what he needed – “My teacher, let me see again.” Do you know what you need? Is there a healing that you seek? Are you aware of your own blindnesses? Do you want to see clearly? Are you willing to admit your need, and to beg for him to fill it? What is it that you want from Jesus? What are you looking for?

Forgiveness? Healing? New sight? New life? He stands there ready to give any of it, all of it. What is it that you want with him?

As soon as the blind man says, “let me see,” Jesus gives it. “Go; your faith has made you well.” And what is his faith? It is not some certain knowledge, born of seeing. It is not a set of beliefs; it has nothing to do with doctrine. His faith is a seeking. His faith is an asking. His faith is based on knowing that he cannot see and knowing that he cannot give himself that sight. His faith is the yearning that pushes him forward and makes him desperate enough to beg mercy from the One he has heard will heal. Put simply, his faith is hope. [Blind hope. Hope that freely seeks and begs for what he knows he cannot give himself.]

If we knew how poor, and how ill, and how powerless, and how blind we really are – if we knew it, maybe we would come begging and unashamed to Jesus. Maybe we would cry out with everything in us. Maybe we would seek him, even when we cannot see him. [Maybe we would ask something from him even when we cannot quite believe he will answer.]

He stands so ready to give what we need. The blind man only had to ask it, and it was done. His eyes were opened, and the first thing he saw was the face of love. And even though Jesus had told him, “Go, your faith has made you well,” what he did was to follow. Once he could see that face, what else could he do, but to go wherever that man went?

In the end, his story is a miracle story, modified. It is not just a healing, it is a calling. This is what true vision is ultimately for – to see our true purpose and the One who heals and calls us, and to follow him. His way is not the road to glory or success. It will be the road towards sacrifice and sometimes suffering. But it is also the road of truth, grace, giving, and real freedom. We never walk the road alone; he leads the way.

He knows we struggle. He knows we have a hard time following, and a hard time trusting or even hoping. He knows how broken we are, and how blind we can be – to our real selves, to each other, and especially to him and his great giving grace. He is so ready to give so much. He knows we have our questions about him and his way. He stands before us with just one: “What do you want from me?”

[i] John R. Fry. “Blindness.” A Chorus of Witnesses. 142.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Possible Impossible

The Possible Impossible
Mark 10:17-27
19th Sunday after Pentecost
11 October 2009

I was seven years old the first time I encountered the rich young man from this story in the Gospel of Mark. My uncle had dared me to read the whole Bible through, and I had taken the bait. I started with the gospels, and had gotten this far without reading anything that sounded particularly foreign to me. Most of the stories about Jesus were somewhat familiar from Sunday School lessons and Vacation Bible School.

But then one night I got to Matthew 19:24, which is repeated here in Mark 10:25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I had never heard this preached, taught, or quoted before. It was alarmed. I slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed, and ran down the hall to my parents’ room. I shook my mother awake. “Mom,” I whispered. “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!”

“We’re not rich. Go back to bed,” she replied.

I knew better. I knew that I had everything I needed, and a lot of the stuff I wanted. I had seen children on TV who had flies in their eyes and bellies swollen from hunger. I was pretty sure we were rich. In retrospect, I understand that we were a pretty standard middle class American family. But I think my seven year-old instincts were also right. I knew those words of Jesus were clear and hard and scary. And I knew they were meant for me.

Lots of people have tried to soften the meaning of his words. Many people have taught that there is actually a narrow gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which a camel could not pass unless all of its baggage was first removed. After dark, when the main gates were shut, if a traveler wanted to enter the city, he would have to use this smaller gate, which he could only do if he removed all his belongings from the camel’s sides and then had the camel enter the gate crawling on its knees.

[Having ridden a camel myself, I find the idea of riding one that is crawling on its knees to be a bit laughable.] But it makes a sweet little story, the point of which, presumably, is that if we can just get rid of the belongings which weigh us down, we can approach God. In other words, there is something we can do, ourselves, to be saved. Just get rid of your stuff.

But Jesus’s claim is more outrageous than that. And his story about the camel through the eye of the needle is meant to be ludicrous hyperbole. He is not telling us about something that is merely hard. He is talking about something which is impossible.

The question at the heart of this story is not about wealth or poverty, about possessions or lack thereof. The question is about eternal life. The rich man wants to know how to get it. The disciples want to know who can have it. And the good news that Jesus offers is this: “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”


This story is essentially one of the healing stories. The rich man runs us to Jesus and kneels, just as countless other in need of healing have done through the Gospel of Mark. His running and kneeling show that his request is both urgent and sincere. But he is the one person in the entire book who rejects the healing offered him.

Within the context of the disciples’ wrangling over greatness, we have a glimpse of someone who does have greatness according to the world’s definitions. He is not a disciple, but not an opponent either. He does not resemble the scribes, Pharisees, or Sadducees, who test Jesus, or the soldiers, who mock him, or the passersby at the crucifixion, who taunt him. He looks like all the other earnest seekers who have come looking for a healing. He looks something like you and me.

Those around him believed that wealth and prosperity were signs of God’s blessing. But even with his wealth and status, the man realizes he lacks something important in his life. He has come to the One who has offered sight to the blind and freedom for the demon-possessed. Yet he cannot take the risk of the impossible life to which Jesus calls him. He cannot accept Jesus’s healing, because he does not yet fully see himself as needing to be healed.

And because he seems to reject Jesus, this has often been seen as a story of condemnation, a condemnation of all of us who may love our things too much – which is almost everyone. Ye Mark says this: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Matthew and Luke leave this out. But Mark, always spare with words, takes the space to note that Jesus loves this man.

In Mark, whenever Jesus tells someone to “go,” it almost always has to do with healing, and it’s always tailored exactly to what that person needs. To the hemorrhaging woman, he said, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed.” To the Gerasene demoniac, he said, “Go home to your friends and tell them what I’ve done.” To the rich man, he also tells how to be healed, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

What is the healing this man needs? What he lacks is that he does not lack. This man is possessed – by his possessions. Jesus is offering to free him of his possession, to cure him of his excess. But the rich man turns his back, grieved.

What about you? Do you love your stuff? Do you have more than you will ever need? Do you sometimes feel burdened by all of it, and yet still find yourself striving for more? If we get rid of it all, will we be closer to God?

What can we do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus’s answer is this: Nothing. For mortals, it’s impossible. But not for God. To say we must give up all our possessions in order to be saved puts the burden on us to save ourselves, and we’re not capable of that. There is nothing we can do. Ever. Neither possessions nor lack of possessions saves us. God does.

Even Jesus realized he could not save himself. He reminded us that those who think they can save themselves will surely lose their lives. But those who recognize the utter futility of self-reliance, who realize that by their own doings salvation really is not possible – those who recognize their need will be saved by the God who makes all things possible.

The problem with having so much stuff is that it keeps us from realizing our need for God. We use our stuff as a buffer against vulnerability. We use to fill the emptiness in our souls. We use it to feel less susceptible to the vagaries of life. It makes us feel safe and happy, and it keeps us from seeing how needy we really are.

The rich man’s secure status kept him asking the wrong question: what can I do to inherit eternal life? This was a man accustomed to being able to make things happen. Whatever he wanted, money could buy. Jesus’ response was the opposite of what he wanted to hear. Jesus told him that there was nothing he – or anyone – could do. Jesus advised him to release his wealth and give it to the poor – to get closer to the fragility of life, to take his own place among those who know they are needy.

There is a parade of people in Mark’s Gospel whom Jesus treats with special care: the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, the women, the children. What they had in common was that they all knew they were needy; they all knew they did not have the power to take control of their own lives. They all lived close to the fragility of life. Maybe that made them more likely and more able to respond to Christ; it certainly made them more open to his healing power.

In many ways we may need to be more like them – like vulnerable children or like who know they are really sick or like those who know they are in bondage to something beyond their own power. Maybe we need to be like them. We need to recognize our vulnerability and our deep need in order to seek and respond to the One who wants to heal us.


None of this is to say that we have justification to accumulate however much we please and use it however we wish. The witness of Scripture is clear regarding our responsibility to take care of the least among us, to be good stewards of what we have, and to be honest and fair in our business dealings. The rampant consumerism in our culture is at odds with the life to which Jesus calls us. We have to ask ourselves tough questions about how much we need and how much we have, and we have to find a way to live according to the witness of Jesus, allowing his way to govern how much we spend, how much we keep, and how much we give away.

Our wealth and how we use it absolutely matters. But our salvation doesn’t hinge on it. Our salvation hinges on God alone.

Nothing else is the essential thing – not our doctrine, not our denomination, not our determination to live the right kind of life, not our wealth, not our lack of wealth. None of that saves us, none of it fixes us, none of it heals us, none of it puts us right with God. Only God can do that.

A Jewish midrash records: “The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?]” In other words, God only need us to open the door of our hearts just the tiniest crack – the size of the eye of a needle is enough – and God will come pouring in to set up room for an oasis.[i]

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. Not one thing. There is nothing you can do, nothing I can do, to save ourselves or fix our lives or heal our heats. The only thing we need is to realize our need.

The hardest news Jesus has is the best news we could get – our salvation is impossible. “But not for God; for God all things are possible.”

[i] - Biblical Hebrew and its New Testament Application: Hebrew idioms buried in overly literal Greek. “The camel and the eye of the needle.”