Back (I think) in the 1920s, the famous German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, invented a new approach to live theatre that he called the ‘alienation effect’. At the time, this was radical stuff – course, if you’ve seen a play in the last 50 years or so you might not think Brecht’s approach was all that brilliant for the simple reason that ever since Brecht everybody has been doing it that way. His invention was just that stunning. The ‘alienation effect’ just means you use various tricks to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to create a sort of psychological barrier to make it a bit harder for the audience to just slide uncritically into the illusory world of the narrative. Brecht wanted his audiences to actually think about what was going on. It might be as simple as a few abstract stage props or lighting techniques, or else an actor that all of a sudden steps out of the role and starts talking directly to you in the audience, but the idea is that when you’re watching the play, you have a little bit of emotional distance, a bit of objectivity so that you get to see familiar realities in a new light.
Mark’s Gospel, I think, does exactly that.
One of the reasons I just love this Gospel is that it is so compact and concise. Not just because you can read it through in a spare hour or two – in fact quite the opposite. You’ve got to slow down. It’s like reading a telegram, you’ve got to slow down enough to really think about why the person who wrote it chose this word instead of that word. Mark doesn’t dress it up with poetic bits or fine literary descriptions, there’s not a single piece of useless information. Mark would also have agreed with the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who used to say to his students, ‘pay attention! If you see a shotgun hanging over the fireplace at the beginning of Scene One then you know it’s going to get used before the end of Act Two’. With Mark you’ve got to pay attention to the details. So, for example, in our story today, the name Bartimaeus literally means "son of Timaeus" but just we don’t already know that, Mark tells us. Which means you’ve got to figure that the name has got some significance. Son of Timaeus, literally, it means the son of worthiness. Someone to emulate.
Mark tells us that Jesus was just on his way out of Jericho. He’s come to Jericho for some reason that Mark doesn’t tell us, and now they’re off again. They’re an in-between place; on the way somewhere else – which, when you think about it, when we least expect it, is often when the most significant things happen. Jesus has been trying to get the disciples to "see" what it was that he is about, but they’re not getting it. So this is the first significant thing, the irony that this man who physically is blind can actually see better than anyone else. He can’t see, but he has insight. This blind man, this "son of worthiness" calls Jesus ‘son of David’ which we know is a code word for Messiah. The one who is anointed to lead God’s people out of the darkness. So this is the first thing, that there’s none so blind as those that won’t see. Mark is playing with metaphors here, he is asking us, in effect, whether we have really got the point like Bartimaeus or whether like the disciples we can’t see the wood for the trees. Are we so dogmatic about the Christ of faith, for example, that we fail to actually see that, in Jesus, God is revealed to us as the God who is actually with us all the time. Are we so caught up in our own preconceptions, so wrapped up in ourselves, that we fail to see God’s splendour in creation, God’s image in one another, God’s beauty in ourselves. Being blind means we don’t see clearly what’s all around us, we don’t see one another clearly and we have a distorted image of our own selves. This is a very common form of blindness – not seeing ourselves as God sees us – in our competitive, throw-away society men and women learn to see themselves as commodities and judge themselves to be ugly, or useless or past it. Instead of seeing themselves as God sees them, as beautiful, as capable of love, as open to the transformation of grace. Blindness like this, of course, is the result of sin – sometimes our own sin, sometimes the sin of a whole society.
But here’s the second thing. Bartimaeus really is blind. He’s not just a convenient metaphor. We don't know how he became blind but we’re told he wants to see ‘again’ so we can assume he wasn’t born that way. Like people everywhere who live with disabilities, but even more so in the very, very non-PC 1st century, Bartimaeus is living on the edges of society. Being blind meant being marginalised, pushed out, being told he must have been a particularly bad sinner to be in such a state. Bartimaeus is (or at least he should be) the pin-up boy of anyone who has ever felt that their disabilities are what define them, because he is persistent. He doesn’t give up. A child of God who has faith that this other child of God can make a difference in his life, and so he doesn’t hesitate to make a nuisance of himself. And Jesus shows us – as he does time and again – that God’s agenda is always to be interruptible, always to be available.
The action-words in this story tell us a lot about Bartimaeus. When Jesus speaks to him, acknowledges his presence and calls him over, Bartimaeus "springs up” and "throws off" his cloak. This is what he’s been waiting for, and he doesn’t hesitate – yet, strangely enough, Jesus stops and asks him what he wants – see, here’s an alienation effect, it gets us, the audience to pay attention because the gospel writer has in effect stepped up to the front of the stage and looked us in the eye and said ‘well, what about you? What are you after?’
I think this is the crux of it. What do you want? What do you really want in your life? What are your priorities? This is what Mark is asking us here. And this is where he is playing with his metaphor again because Bartimaeus says ‘I want to see again’ – but when Jesus tries to send him on his way with just the gift of physical sight he isn’t having a bar of it. Instead, this guy is following Jesus on the Way – a word that in the 1st century was a code word for the Christian movement itself – in other words, if you really see, then you have to act on it. Seeing means commitment.
Now you know, and I know, because by this stage we’re two-thirds of the way through the gospel, that where Jesus is headed next is Jerusalem, and an ignominious death on a Roman cross. That’s what happens next in Mark’s story. What Mark is saying is that to truly see who Jesus is, is to understand that his way isn’t the way of being smart, or cool or successful, it’s the way of the cross, what the world sees as powerlessness and vulnerability. Is that what you really want?
It is no accident that the words we use for the physical senses of touch, taste, hearing and sight are also the words that the Gospels use to speak of deeper spiritual realities. The things that are the most real to us are those things which are tangible, touchable, taste-able, see-able, smell-able. The point is that the spirituality of the cross is just as tangible, just as earthy as that. You either get it or you don’t.
The way Mark tells it, Jesus’ disciples can’t see because they’re caught up in their preconceptions that Jesus’ agenda has to be other-worldly and triumphal. The people who get the point are the blind and the lame, the oppressed and the downtrodden; the ones society has given up on. And what they understand is that Jesus is showing them that God doesn’t identify with the powerful and the rich, God identifies with them. So Bartimaeus not only gets the point, but he understands the next step which is to follow Jesus on the way that he’s actually going: the way to Jerusalem.
So, here’s the other point – that there’s a connection between being on the receiving end of Jesus’ healing touch, and being propelled on your own journey of costly love. What we most desire also points us in the direction of how God wants us to change and what God wants us to give. Bartimaeus wants to see, and what he sees is the way of the cross. What he sees is that the way of the cross isn’t just a spectator sport, it’s a journey that we’re being asked to sign up for.
‘So what do you want?’ That’s Mark’s stage-whisper to us, the audience. It’s the same stage-whisper we hear 16 centuries later, from St Ignatius who pads it out a bit for us. ‘What’s your desolation?’, he asks us. ‘What’s your unhealed wound or you secret shame that holds you back from giving and receiving the joy that God made you to share?’ ‘What do you, really, most want in the whole world? Be honest! What’s your secret hope that you wouldn’t dare speak aloud? Because that’s where God is calling you to be whole, that’s where God is daring you to change and to grow, and to join in the dance of love that God calls the way of the cross.’