This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
The testimony of a ‘seeing’ blind man
Read Mark 10:46-52
The story of Bartimaeus is one of the great testimonies of faith recorded in the gospels and Mark uses it to form a transition from his ‘discipleship course’ (see comment on 8:22-26) to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem. Here, as in Mark 8:22-26, the contrast between different types of blindness and sight reinforces the conviction that only faith can discern who Jesus is within God’s saving purposes.
Note how spatial imagery communicates the truth of what is unfolding. Initially, blind Bartimaeus is by the roadside (v. 46); but this is no ordinary road, for it is the route of Jesus’ final journey and one which he predicted would embrace suffering, death and resurrection. This road, then, symbolises for Mark the way of the cross, which is also the way of authentic discipleship. Bartimaeus hears of Jesus’ approach and faith perceives God’s anointed one who can deliver his people from oppression (‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’). It is probable that ‘Son of David’ would have been recognised as a title for God’s Messiah in Jesus’ time (cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:21).
Like others who discern God’s hand upon Jesus (cf. 10:13-15), Bartimaeus’ access is prevented by the spiritually blind; but Jesus will tolerate no gatekeepers as he invites Bartimaeus to approach him (v. 49). The ‘seeing’ blind man throws off his cloak, which as a beggar would constitute the sum of his worldly possessions; and, leaving all behind, he draws near (v. 50). Jesus’ question (‘What do you want me to do for you?’) seems absurd for surely the answer is obvious – but faith only becomes truly liberating when exposed to the vulnerability of personal encounter and invested in the realisation of concrete hopes. Bartimaeus’ faith, then, leads him to Jesus in a way that physical sight never could – a paradox that is underlined when the eyes of the ‘seeing’ Bartimaeus are opened. And, finally, once Bartimaeus has experienced freedom from the dehumanising effects of illness, destitution and despair, he chooses to become a disciple as he follows Jesus on the way.
No doubt the story of Bartimaeus has its roots in an historical incident, but Mark’s skilful retelling of it creates a vehicle for divine encounter as faith enables us to draw near to Jesus and experience God’s liberating presence – ‘Go, your faith has made you well.’ (v. 52)
Great expectations as Jesus enters Jerusalem
Read Mark 11:1-11
The so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the secrecy of the previous chapters. The portrayal of Jesus as the long awaited Son of David, riding in majesty, acclaimed by his subjects and in fulfilment of messianic prophecy (cf. Zechariah 9:9) as he claims his father’s kingdom, appears to put an end to the rumours surrounding Jesus’ identity that have circulated from the beginning. And yet even here not all is as it seems for there is much misunderstanding and pathos in these verses: hailed as God’s anointed deliverer by those who would soon call for his execution, accursed of God (15:13-14; cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23); a king of the Jews and yet without political or military aspirations; a dramatic entrance into God’s holy city and Temple which proves to be no more than a reconnaissance exercise.
The historical core of this tradition is difficult to recover. This is the first time Mark records Jesus going up to Jerusalem, although it is unlikely that the substance of chapters 11-15 all took place in the final week of Jesus’ life; perhaps, Mark has combined two or more visits to create a single episode (cf. John 2:13; 5:1; 12:12). Waving branches and shouting ‘hosanna’, as part of the recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-18; vv. 8-10), were characteristics of the autumn Feast of Tabernacles (harvest festival) and, possibly, the winter Feast of Hanukkah (rededication of the Temple), rather than the Feast of Passover (deliverance from Egypt). And whilst Mark clearly understands ‘hosanna’ as a cry of praise and adulation, the Hebrew actually means something like ‘save now’ (cf. Psalm 118:25). Then, there is the matter of the colt (vv. 2-7). It was expected that pilgrims would travel on foot and, from what we can gather, this was Jesus’ preferred means of travel; and yet he purposefully enters Jerusalem on an animal. Even a colt was considered a suitable ride for a king and it may well be that the requisitioning of the beast in the manner recorded is an example not so much of Jesus’ supernatural knowledge as his royal prerogative.
What, then, are we to make of all this? Firstly, Mark’s presentation of this incident, with a partial lifting of the veil of ignorance, is consistent with his overarching plan in which Jesus’ meaning for faith is reached through participation in the journey of discipleship, from beginning to end. From now on, we may share the faith of Bartimaeus (cf. 10:46-52) and acclaim Jesus as royal Messiah and saviour; but what these categories mean and whether they are sufficient is yet to be seen. Secondly, if Jesus did actually enter Jerusalem as Mark narrates, riding in majesty, with the people preparing his way with their cloaks, and to shouts of ‘save now’ (i.e. Hosanna), then this would unquestionably have been interpreted as a messianic act with political implications. As prophesied and long-expected, God’s anointed one has come to deliver his people from oppression and to re-establish the throne of David.
Faith, rather than sacrifice, gives access to God
Read Mark 11:12-26
These verses provide us with another example of Mark ‘sandwiching’ technique. In this case, the cursing of the fig tree (vv. 12-14 & 20-25/6) encloses Jesus’ action in the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 15-19). Whatever gave rise to the former, Mark clearly interprets the cursing in a symbolic way reflecting God’s judgement upon the worship of his people, which Jesus executes when in the Temple.
Taken literally, the observation that Jesus’ hunger could not be satisfied by a fig tree when out of season is no cause for surprise. His unprecedented action in cursing the tree, however, is extraordinary and invites a more spiritual or symbolic interpretation. From this perspective, it is significant that God’s chosen people, Israel, are referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as barren fig trees when they are unfaithful to God and bring judgement upon themselves (Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1). It seems likely, therefore, that Mark is drawing upon this background here in presenting the cursing as a form of prophetic act symbolising God’s judgement.
But what exactly has brought about God’s judgement? There are a number of possibilities, including, the corruption of the temple priesthood, the commercialisation of the Temple, and the hypocrisy of exterior religiosity without a corresponding moral commitment. One would expect Jesus’ action in the Temple to point us in the right direction, but this is difficult to assess for the moneychangers and sellers of livestock were all part of the sacrificial system as defined in the Jewish Law. By venting his righteous indignation against those who service the ‘system’ and by quoting a passage from Isaiah which affirms the universal compass of God’s grace and favour (‘for all people’, v. 17; cf. Isaiah 56:7), it seems probable that Jesus’ concern was principally about access to God. Namely, that the sacrificial system, restricted to one place in Jerusalem, controlled by a religious élite and open to commercial exploitation, was an inappropriate vehicle for establishing and maintaining relationship with God.
Certainly, this is how Mark interprets the happening, for faith in God (vv. 22-24), hope-filled expectant prayer (v. 25) and a life reflecting God’s forgiveness (v. 26) are the channels for divine encounter and for realising God’s sovereign presence. Interestingly, Jesus announces that faith will precipitate the levelling of the spiritual landscape and a corresponding opening up of access to God with the destruction of ‘this mountain’ (v. 23) into the depths of the sea. ‘This mountain’ can only mean the Temple Mount, the gateway to God; and its demolition would have the effect of the earth becoming ‘full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11.9).
Who is able to speak for God?
Read Mark 11:27-33
The setting for this controversy between Jesus and representatives from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders is the Temple. These groups constituted the principal religious authorities in Jerusalem at that time and comprised the supreme Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin. Not surprisingly, the manner of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem (11:1-11) and his subsequent conduct (11:15-18) had precipitated a crisis over authority and, in particular, over who is able to speak for God. Further, it is conceivable that Jesus’ entire ministry is under scrutiny at this juncture as he is challenged to defend his self-assumed position as a religious leader with a reputation for teaching, healing and associating with those on the margins of society.
The practice of responding to a question (v. 28) with a counter-question (v. 29) is characteristic of Jewish debating technique. Jesus’ allusion to John the Baptist here may simply be a skilful side-step to shift attention from himself; however, a more likely explanation is that he wished to come under the auspices of John’s reputation as a man of God. The implication being that if John was authorised by God, so was he.
The shrewdness and dexterity of Jesus’ answer is spelt out in verses 31-32, where his opponents find themselves facing a dilemma revolving around two major issues. Firstly, the standing and relative importance of, on the one hand, charismatic and, on the other, institutional authority. John and Jesus stood outside the established religious authorities of the day. As far as we know, they hadn’t been formally trained and, consequently, hadn’t been authorised to speak on behalf of any group; however, they claimed divine authority as those commissioned directly by God, rather than indirectly by religious bodies claiming divine legitimation.
Then as today, this is a extremely difficult area, with the excesses of unfettered religious enthusiasm and the capacity of structures for corruption and for stifling the divine Spirit etched onto every chapter of religious history. But controls exist and this was the second problem. For unless those in authority possess the power of enforcement, their ability to influence is dependent on the permission and co-operation of others. And given the Roman occupation, Jesus’ opponents could not afford to ignore popular opinion which recognised the charismatic authority of John (i.e. a prophet; v. 32). Faced with the alternative of either endorsing John’s ministry, thereby undermining their own power base and opening themselves to the accusation of failing to heed the Baptist’s call for repentance, or risking disapproval and worse at the hands of a volatile and greatly enlarged pilgrim population in Jerusalem, they attempt to sit on the fence. Their silence may reflect a genuine uncertainty over John and Jesus or it may communicate most eloquent rejection; for Mark, it is the latter.
A window into Jesus’ self-understanding?
Read Mark 12:1-12
This parable affords us one of our closest insights into how Jesus viewed his relationship to God, his ministry and his fate. We need to remember that interpretations of Jesus emerging after his death are likely to have influenced the evangelists’ presentations, making it difficult to distinguish between Jesus’ self-understanding and later assessments of him. And whilst there are signs of such re-interpretation in this parable, notably, with the inclusion of Psalm 118.22-23 (vv. 10-11) to explain Jesus’ rejection by fellow Jews and, presumably, to vindicate his followers (cf. Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7), the remainder has a ring of authenticity about it.
The parable of the wicked tenants, of all the parables, invites allegorical interpretation. We know that the vineyard was a recognised symbol for Israel and in Isaiah 5:1-7 we find a similar allegory, with the prophet condemning God’s people by likening their disobedience to the fruitlessness of a vineyard. Jesus’ parable also suggests a controversial setting, possibly over authority (cf. 11:27-33) and the continued failure of the religious hierarchy to be open to the Spirit of God (cf. Luke 19:41-44).
What, then, does this parable tell us about Jesus’ self-understanding? Firstly, it suggests that Jesus associated himself with those Spirit-inspired messengers (i.e. the owner’s slaves) who were rejected by the leaders of God’s people, Israel (i.e. the vineyard tenants; cf. 6:4). Significantly, however, Jesus does not characterise himself as a ‘slave’, but, constituting the final initiative, as the owner’s only son and heir (vv. 6-7). Here, it is not so much the intimacy of sonship as the authority it bestows upon Jesus that is in view. It appears that Jesus believed himself to occupy a unique and final role within God’s initiatives to save his people.
Further, the parable suggests that Jesus recognised his ministry would end in rejection and death. No doubt, the fate of John the Baptist will have forced him to confront this possibility and stories of the martyrdoms of the great Hebrew prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) were current and plentiful. In addition, Jesus may well have known of Honi, a Galilean charismatic miracle worker, who was stoned in Jerusalem a few decades earlier. What is equally significant, however, is that verse 8 suggests a death within the walls of the vineyard; yet Jesus was executed outside of the walls of Jerusalem! It is difficult to think this detail would have been introduced if the parable was a product of the early church.
Jesus and the two kingdoms
Read Mark 12:13-17
These verses contain the first in a group of four questions (also vv. 19-23, v. 28 and v. 35) that Mark presents together. There purpose was to trap Jesus into error and so to undermine his authority and influence. Significantly, however, the quality of his answers shifts attention away from the suspect motivations of his inquisitors onto Jesus as a man of wisdom and a teacher of truth.
The first trap set for him concerns the payment of a poll tax that was imposed on the inhabitants of Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea when formed into a Roman province in 6 AD. As we can imagine, Jews viewed this tax as an imposition and objected to the erosion of their national identity by being parcelled together with alien peoples. Further, the Roman denarius, the legal tender for the payment of the tax, bore the image of the emperor. And, according to Jewish Law, the engraving of any human likeness was forbidden and the casting of one’s image on a coin idolatrous.
Jesus finds himself on the horns of a dilemma: to advocate payment would cost him popular support amongst his fellow Jews; to renounce it would cast him in the mould of a political agitator and probably lead to his arrest by the Romans. However, the profundity of Jesus’ answer transcends such constraints and communicates a timeless truth concerning the relationship between faith and life.
And yet we must acknowledge that Jesus’ meaning here remains a matter of debate. Some have seen in these words Jesus’ advocacy of a ‘two kingdoms’ theology where the demands of, on the one hand, the kingdom of God and, on the other, the kingdoms of this world are neither mutually incompatible nor impinge one upon the other. Even a superficial knowledge of Jesus’ message and ministry, however, highlights the implausibility of this proposal, for his vision was rooted in helping others to discover God’s justice, truth and mercy in this life and not just in the next. On the contrary, Jesus’ response clearly acknowledges the rightful demands of God and state; but there can be little doubt where his allegiances reside should there be a conflict of loyalties. The image of the emperor may have been stamped on each denarius, but the image of God is etched on every human soul.
Pause for thought
The readings of the past week witness the beginning of Jesus’ passion. For passion is about losing control, becoming vulnerable and being at the mercy of others. And although never free of expectations and other constraints, Jesus was largely able to pursue his ministry unimpeded when in Galilee. With his approach to Jerusalem, however, all this changed. Blind Bartimaeus signals the transition when he petitions Jesus in explicitly messianic terms, ‘Son of David’ (10:48, 49). Now Jesus is typecast as the hopes of the pilgrim people of God and, especially, their longing that God would raise up a saviour to perform a new Exodus by breaking the grip of Roman rule are projected onto him. How much Jesus encouraged such speculation is now difficult to determine; but one thing is clear, control of his destiny soon passed out of his hands. Then, as now, people made of him what they wanted and the pathos of Jesus’ predicament emerges with the Jewish and Roman authorities arresting and executing him on the basis of messianic pretensions that others entertained on his behalf. This is the anatomy of powerless as Jesus’ life is placed on the sacrificial altar of public opinion and political expediency.
Jesus, then, finds himself facing opposition on all fronts and needing to defend his vision of God’s kingdom against those feeling increasingly threatened by his unwillingness to conform to their stereotypes and by the authority he continued to possess after the bastions of power disowned him. And as we search for the flame that fires Jesus’ ministry, one phrase comes to mind, ‘Have faith in God’ (11:22). Perhaps it is here that opposites meet, as we encounter God in humanity and humanity in God. What kind of faith is this? It is a naked trust in God’s covenantal faithfulness and an overwhelming conviction that God is for us and can be found in relationships and patterns of life reflecting his ways. This is a faith unfettered by doctrinal controls and informed by the limitless grace of God – it is a ‘mountain-moving’ faith (11:23) that participates in the omnipotence of God. Little wonder that Jesus was celebrated as the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2; contrary to the NRSV, there is no ‘our’ in the original Greek!).
As we reflect on this dimension of Jesus’ life, we soon recognise here something that we need desperately. For without sharing the faith of Jesus it is impossible to find the radical freedom to live in the midst of the manifold pressures exerted by political, economic, social and religious authorities, seeking to conform and manipulate, and still take responsibility for own decisions and destinies. Without this faith we are unable to follow Jesus in the way of the cross – of passion and costly love.
This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part VII