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The Crucial Encounter: Bartimaeus

 

Mark 10:46 – 52

Several years ago William Nolan, an American surgeon, wrote a bestseller, The Making of a Surgeon. The book describes in detail the financial cost of a medical education, the sacrifice one has to make in order to acquire surgical expertise, the disruptions in family life as emergencies have to be dealt with, the low pay of the intern and the resident. Part of the purpose of the book is to justify to the public the staggering incomes that American surgeons enjoy, and to improve the public image of MDs.

Mark the apostle has written a bestseller too. His book could be called The Making of a Disciple. Mark probes the matter of discipleship more thoroughly than any other gospel writer. Unlike Dr Nolan, however, Mark doesn’t write to justify the huge incomes of disciples. (Disciples, he knows, are promised anything but riches.) Neither does he write to improve the public image of disciples. (It’s impossible to improve the public image of those who follow a bedraggled Jew soon to be executed between two terrorists at a city garbage dump.)

Then why has Mark written his book? For two reasons. In the first place he wishes to encourage those who are disciples now. He wants to remind them of how they became disciples in order to given them fresh heart in view of the savagery that emperor Nero has recently visited upon them. In the second place he’s confident that God will use his book, The Making of a Disciple, to enlist yet more disciples of Jesus Christ.

Mark wrote his gospel for Christians in Rome in the year 65. There were five “house churches,” five small congregations, in a city of one million. Think of it: one hundred Christians approximately in a city of one million. Obviously discipleship wasn’t very popular. In fact, dreadful persecution had descended on these five house churches. Mark wrote his gospel to encourage these people and to enlist others who weren’t disciples yet but who would become such as God himself owned and used Mark’s brief book.

Then how does one become a disciple? What characterizes those who’ve enlisted? In other words, what distinguishes disciples from onlookers? Today we haven’t time to examine the entire book, but we will examine one small section of the book that encapsulates the process whereby disciples are made. The small section has to do with Bartimaeus.

 

I: — Bartimaeus was blind. Since there was no CNIB in the first century world, no social assistance, blindness always entailed poverty. Bartimaeus was blind and poor: symbolically, he lacked both illumination and resources. Yet he had heard that the man from Nazareth , Jesus, was in the neighbourhood. He called out, hoping that this man could relieve him of his darkness and his resourcelessness. The first moment in the making of a disciple, then, is the transparent admission that however much we may know about however many matters, and however much expertise we may claim in however many fields, when it comes to the profoundest issue of life we haven’t a clue: we’re blind, poor.

Be sure to notice one thing: Bartimaeus doesn’t have the profoundest understanding of Jesus. He doesn’t call out “Son of God” or “Saviour” or “Lord.” Any of these terms would mean that he has recognized the deity of the Incarnate One. He can only affirm that Jesus is related to Israel ’s greatest king, David. Now “son of David” means “Messiah.” Then was Bartimaeus possessed of unusual prescience? I think not. I think it more likely that in his desperation he called out to the reputed wonder-worker, hoping Jesus might be God’s agent in remedying the world’s wrongs and vindicating the victimized and even granting sight to the blind. While he thinks Jesus might be God’s end-time agent, he hasn’t yet apprehended that this Messiah is also ‘Emmanuel,’ God-with-us, the Incarnate One. For this reason he makes no theologically definitive confession of faith. He simply calls out, “Help me; help me.”

We should note, then, that discipleship doesn’t begin after we’ve achieved theological sophistication. Discipleship begins when we recognize the murkiness and impoverishment of our lives. We simply ask for help. Discipleship begins before we can hang the correct theological labels on Jesus, sometimes a long time before. Like Bartimaeus, of course, we must persist with our plea – “help me” – even in the face of an unsympathetic crowd that tells us to be quiet. As fledgling disciples we must want what we are looking for so badly that we are going to persist despite others’ scorn or belittlement or apathy. We can’t be deflected by those who maintain that Jesus has been dead for 2000 years, or by those who maintain that faith is merely a crutch for the immature and the inept, or by those who maintain that discipleship is a throwback to killjoy Victorianism. Bartimaeus heard it all, yet called out the more persistently.

Discipleship is in truth much simpler than people imagine. It’s simpler because our slightest admission of our own need and Christ’s availability will render us disciples-in-the-making. At the same time it’s more challenging than people imagine because we have to persist despite detractors.

Do you ever ponder the large number of people who join congregations and then slowly drift away, never to be seen again? Do you ever wonder about ministers who persuaded three levels of the church courts that they were called of God to the work of the ministry, and are now selling life insurance or teaching school or earning a living as parole officers? As much as we need to perceive our spiritual blindness and our spiritual poverty, we have to persist.

Bartimaeus persisted in calling out to Jesus, and persisted just because he knew that unless Jesus helped him he would always be blind and resourceless. His persistence, born of his unsatisfied craving, was enough to stop Jesus in his tracks and have Jesus say “Call that fellow.”

 

II: — The second moment in the making of a disciple is the exhortation to take heart. Someone in the crowd who hears his repeated plea and sympathizes with Bartimaeus says to him, “Take heart, Jesus is calling you.” But this is no fluffy suggestion to cheer up. While there’s only one reason why we can realistically take heart, the one reason happens to be the profoundest reason and sufficient reason: Jesus Christ is in the neighbourhood. Since Bartimaeus is blind, he can’t see just how close Jesus is. The truth is, Jesus is as close to him right now as Jesus can ever be.

Everywhere in scripture this exhortation “Take heart,” tharseite, “Be of good cheer,” “Courage!” is found in the imperative. It isn’t a suggestion or even a recommendation of our Lord as he utters it; neither is it wishful thinking on the part of hearers as they hear it. We are commanded to take heart, we must be of good cheer, and this only because the master has heard our sincerest plea, has turned to us and isn’t going to overlook us or pretend he didn’t hear us. We may and must take heart just because our Lord is at this moment pouring out upon us what we need most. He meets us precisely at the point of our pain or distress or confusion or fright. And we do take heart, for as he speaks, his word to us becomes his deed within us. “Take heart:” it means that he, our Lord, has lent us his heart.

Think of the situations in the written gospels where these words were spoken and welcomed. A man whose guilt has paralysed him is told to take heart, for his sins are now forgiven and his paralysis undone. A desperate woman who wants only to touch the fringe of Jesus’ prayer shawl, wants merely to make contact with him, is told to take heart, for through her simple faith she is now healed. Disciples who are frustrated as they try to row into a gale and who feel they are about to founder are told to take heart, for the one who quells chaos everywhere in life is now with them.

Jesus doesn’t come waltzing onto the scene with a camera-ready smile and ooze, “Cheer up folks, it’s the happy hour.” Rather just as we began to cry, “Son of David, have mercy on me,” because he had come into our “space,” so now that he has come even nearer to us (for has he not turned to us and called us, albeit through those already disciples?) his even greater closeness has rendered effective and believable the word that makes and sustains disciples, “Take heart.”

 

III: — And then there’s the third moment in the making of a disciple: Bartimaeus followed Jesus. More precisely Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way.” There is simply no substitute for following.

Like any skilful literary craftsman Mark uses several metaphors to speak of discipleship. But Mark’s favourite metaphor for discipleship is the Way or Road or Journey or Venture. Over and over Mark refers to Jesus walking on the road. The disciples are with their Lord on the road. As they keep company with him he teaches them. It is while they are walking the Way that their understanding of the truth of God, slender at first, is filled out and fortified. It’s on the Way, while the journey is in process, that disciples learn not merely the meaning of discipleship but more importantly how to live it. It’s on the Road that they learn what it is to make mistakes, stumble, get up again, press on after him who walks far enough ahead of them to be their leader but not so far ahead as to be out of sight. It’s on the way that they learn what it is to have their profession of loyalty to him collide with a world that ridicules such loyalty and mocks disciples who uphold it and snickers at all they hold dear and denies the truth that has seized them.

We should see immediately that what counts above all else concerning discipleship isn’t how much we understand; it’s what we do with even the little that we understand. Myself, I have long thought that many people think of discipleship in Christ’s company as something like going to school. The school curriculum has to be learned; discipleship has to be learned. The problem here, of course, is that while school learning is largely abstract – we have to learn historical concepts and scientific theories and mathematical manipulations; while school learning is largely abstract, discipleship is entirely concrete. When Jesus came upon some people who claimed to be his followers yet preferred the abstract to the concrete he rounded on them and said, “Why do you call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and yet you don’t do what I command you?” If we want to learn what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ we mustn’t think it’s like going to school. Instead we must understand it’s like being an apprentice. The apprentice auto mechanic or electrician or plumber doesn’t read 30 books and announce “I think I’ve got it!” Instead he learns from a journeyman auto mechanic or electrician or plumber. He learns on the job, learns while doing, learns by observing, learns through making mistakes that the journeyman can correct. To learn like an apprentice isn’t to read great wacks of information; it’s to absorb, almost unconsciously, a little today and little more tomorrow and still more another day until the apprentice eventually comes to know as much as the journeyman although he can’t exactly tell you how or when he came to know.

Disciples live in the company of Jesus Christ. He is both the Way we are to follow and our companion on the Way; both simultaneously. Discipleship isn’t armchair acquisition of theories about the Christian life; discipleship is a matter of doing it in the company of our Journeyman who has done it all before us. It’s far more important that we live the little that we understand than it is to understand much and fail to live it.

Once Jesus had made Bartimaeus to see he didn’t say, “You’d better start studying for the exam.” Once Jesus had made Bartimaeus to see he summoned Bartimaeus to follow him. Bartimaeus was to follow up his deliverance from blindness with following after Jesus forever. There is no substitute for following.

While there is certainly no substitute, there are many evasions. There are many ways of avoiding the Way, of sidestepping the road, of declining the journey.

[1] One evasion is doing nothing while throwing around religious clichés, stock expressions, code words. If someone peppers his conversation with “saved,” “blood,” “the Almighty,” and so on, it’s often assumed he must be a long-time venturer on the Road, while if someone doesn’t use this vocabulary or can’t, it’s assumed she hasn’t even set out.

Both assumptions are false. Too often being able to toss out the Christian code words is a cover-up for evading the road. The test of discipleship isn’t what we say but what we do. That’s why the apostle Paul writes, “If you are children of the light, then walk in the light.”

[2] Another evasion is substituting the rites and rituals of the church for faith and obedience. For instance, we baptize infants as the sign that God in his mercy has made provision for this particular child in anticipation of the day when she owns, owns for herself, owns for herself in throbbing faith, the provision of grace and mercy that God has fashioned. But if we think that the sacrament of baptism is a substitute for the faith and obedience it anticipates then we are dabbling in voodoo. In the service of baptism the parents declare publicly that they themselves are at this moment walking the road they want their child to come to walk with them. If, however, the parents think that baptizing the child renders unnecessary both the child’s subsequent discipleship and their current discipleship then they are self-deluded twice over.

[3] Another evasion is an armchair preoccupation with a hypercritical orthodoxy. Too often the sign of discipleship is whether a person can assent to this or that creed, whether someone can finesse the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the Trinity.   Now I happen to think that the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Trinity are crucial to Christian understanding. I’m the last person to make light of theological adequacy. I’ll never be found promoting doctrinal superficiality.

But this isn’t where we begin. Jesus called many people to follow him; Zacchaeus, for instance. But Jesus never said, “Come down out of that tree; we’re going to bury the hatchet and eat together – if you first tell me you believe there’s something peculiar about my mother.”

When Jesus called disciples to follow him and thereafter urged them to follow even closer, he knew and they knew that they understood very little. In fact they likely understood only one matter: life in his company was going to be better than life not in his company. To be sure, their understanding grew. Mark’s understanding swelled until he could write a gospel narrative. Peter’s understanding swelled until he could write matchless letters. But they didn’t begin there. They began with a simple following that was riddled with incorrect assumptions, silly rationalizations, glaring mistakes, and sometimes a zeal which outstripped wisdom by far. All that mattered was that they were now on the road, undertaking the journey as apprentices learning from the journeyman himself.

If someone tells me he’s certain about very little of what the church says, even of what the church says about Jesus, and yet he feels that Jesus has light to shed and truth to impart and strength to lend; if such a person tells me all he can do for now is try to do the little he genuinely believes – that person is a disciple.

If we have received only enough light for one step, let’s be sure to take that one step. Does it ever occur to us that we can take only one step at a time in any case? Does it ever occur to us that if Jesus Christ is light enough for one step today, and we take it, then the selfsame light will be light enough for another step tomorrow? There is no substitute for following.

“The Making of a Disciple.” It begins when, like Bartimaeus, our need of illumination and resources for living bring us to cry to Jesus, “Have mercy on me.” It proceeds as we hear our Lord telling us to take heart, since help is around the corner. It matures as we follow him on the Way, every day receiving greater confirmation that he is the Way, but only because he’s also Truth, and for this reason will prove to be our Life.

 

Victor Shepherd

June 2004