Posted tagged ‘Jerusalem’

Mark 12:35-13:2. Hungry for houses.

January 22, 2011

And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

 

 Ever since Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, all the action in Mark’s Gospel has focused on the Temple. Jesus has come to the Temple looking for fruit, and has found only green leaves. The place looks alive, but it is dead inside.

Jesus has spent a great deal of time in the temple, teaching the crowds who have come to worship. He has publicly criticised the Jewish authorities who run the Temple, telling them they’ve made God’s house into a hideout for criminals, and comparing them to wicked tenants trying to steal a vineyard. Group by group, these authorities have come to Jesus and tried to humiliate him by asking him questions, grasping for control of the Temple. Jesus has defeated them all. At the end, Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions.

Now, having taken questions from the chief priests, scribes, elders, Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees; Jesus asks a question of his own.

 1. What is Jesus getting at? Is he claiming that the Christ isn’t supposed to be descended from David after all? What is his beef with the scribes’ teaching?

 2. Why does the question about the Christ become a warning about the scribes?

 3. What is the central point of Jesus’ teaching about the widow? Is it to do with a Christian attitude to money? Look at the immediate context.

 4. How does this passage fit into the wider context of Mark’s Gospel from chapter 11 onwards?

 5. Have the disciples understood anything Jesus has said about the Temple over the last few chapters?

 

 1.      What is Jesus getting at? Is he claiming that the Messiah isn’t supposed to be descended from David? What is his beef with the scribes’ teaching?

The most recent of the questions asked of Jesus through chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel seemed to be different in character from the others. The scribe who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment seemed to be genuinely seeking an answer, not merely trying to trip Jesus up. The final question is different again. It is not asked to Jesus, but asked by Jesus.

Mark says in 12:34 that nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions. Having faced all comers and defeated all those who dared to challenge him, Jesus now takes the role of questioner himself.

Back in chapter 8, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, and they replied that he was the “Christ”. The word simply means the “anointed one”, being a Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah”. Jesus then repeatedly tried to correct their misunderstandings about Messiah and his kingdom by talking about his coming sufferings and death and drawing out the implications for his disciples and the way they should think and act. The question in this chapter is in the same vein, attempting to correct popular misunderstandings about the Messiah.

Jesus takes up the common teaching of the scribes that the Messiah will be the “son of David”, and suggests that this may not be the whole truth. It certainly is true that the Messiah will be of David’s line, but there is more to it than that. The teaching is firmly grounded in the writings of the prophets. In this instance, the scribes have got their teaching spot-on. God told David that he would raise up seed from David’s own body, and establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12). Isaiah wrote (and you’ll find it just after the well-known “unto us a child is born” bit) that Messiah would sit on David’s throne and establish his kingdom with justice for evermore (Isaiah 9:6-7). Jeremiah prophesied about a righteous branch raised up for David who shall reign as king (Jeremiah 23:5), and about a time when Israel shall be freed from slavery to serve, “the Lord their God and David their king (Jeremiah 30:9). Ezekiel, while pronouncing woe on the selfish and greedy shepherds over God’s people, also says that God will set up over them, “One shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them” (Ezekiel 34:23). We could multiply examples. The prophets look forward to a time when David will rule as king over God’s people in peace and righteousness.

At first glance, the prophets may make little sense to us. Surely Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel knew that David had died and was buried with his fathers, didn’t they? Did they expect David to be raised from the dead and to rule as king again? Or are they just using metaphor- do they use “David” to mean “A king like David.”?

I think that the answer is “Neither of the above”. In a sense, the prophets are looking for a king like David, but they are talking about more than just similarity. The prophets knew well that David himself is dead, but they also knew of a sense in which David lived on in his children. If you take a look at Hebrews 7, the writer argues that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek. Levi wasn’t yet born when this happened. It was Abraham, Levi’s great-grandfather, who paid the tithes. But, says the writer, Levi was there in Abraham’s loins. Levi derived his life from Abraham. So if Abraham paid tithes, then Levi paid tithes in Abraham. And if you can look at Abraham and see Levi, then to work that argument in reverse, you can look at Levi, and say “There’s Abraham. Or at least, there’s something of him”. So with David and the Christ. If the Christ were descended from David, then it would be legitimate to look at the Christ and say “There’s David.”

The prophets longed for a king to come who would be descended from David physically, and who would share David’s spiritual life too, showing the same devotion to God. They looked for a time when this king would do what David did, under God’s blessing, and when Israel would be freed from the yoke of foreign oppression and would enjoy the sunshine of God’s smile.

Israelites in Jesus time had taken the prophecies to heart. Those in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles were looking for Messiah to come from Bethlehem, David’s city (John 7:42). When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, what did Bartimaeus cry out? “Son of David, have mercy on me”. When Jesus came into Jerusalem at the head of a great procession, what were the crowd shouting? “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”. They were looking for a Messiah like David, a national hero, a great warrior, to slay giants and deliver God’s people from all their woes.

And Jesus isn’t denying that the Christ has to be David’s son. That is taken as read- it’s what the Old Testament clearly says. But Jesus plainly thinks that the scribes haven’t got it 100% correct. From what Jesus says here, it seems clear that the scribes think of Messiah as somehow defined by David- limited by David’s example. The problem is that the scribes thought that a son couldn’t be greater than his father. Levi couldn’t outrank Jacob, Jacob couldn’t outrank Isaac, Isaac had to defer to Abraham, and so on all the way to Adam. Adam is the head of all of us. He was the first, and so he takes precedence.

There’s a great deal of truth in that. We derive our lives from Adam, not the other way round. God breathed life into Adam’s body. Eve shared that life, being made from Adam’s body. Cain, Abel, and Seth also shared that life, and we still share it today. The things Adam did affect all of us, because our life came from him. We can’t be something he wasn’t. We can’t make ourselves more than human, because we come from Adam, the man. And because he sinned, we are sinners. That only works forwards, not backwards.

The Jews were mindful of this, and it seems that the scribes had applied that principle where it shouldn’t have been applied. They took the prophecies about Messiah being David, and said that since a son can’t be greater than his father, Messiah could only follow where David had led. So Messiah couldn’t do anything David hadn’t already done- couldn’t be the sort of king David hadn’t already been.

But when Messiah comes onto the scene, the principle of physical descent can’t govern everything. The scribes were inconsistent here. Jesus and the scribes both agree that David wrote Psalm 110, and that he wrote it about a Messiah figure. David probably had Solomon in mind when he wrote. And so the point Jesus wants to make, from Psalm 110, is that David himself called one of his own descendants, “Lord”. David owned the Messiah as his master. And if Messiah was David’s Lord, greater than David, then Messiah can’t be constrained by David’s limitations. Yes, the Messiah will be a king, like David was. David was pulled up out from obscurity and anointed by God. David inflicted amazing unexpected defect on God’s and Israel’s enemies, led the armies of Israel to victory, slew his tens of thousands, and ruled wisely, establishing a golden age. And Messiah could do likewise. But the scribes’ Messiah is too small. They don’t expect a cosmic Messiah, merely a national hero. They had never grasped the greatness of the Messiah. They looked to his coming, but thought of him as less than he actually was, subordinate to David. Jesus is pointing out to them that Messiah is not defined by David. In fact, the reverse is the case. David himself looks up to Messiah. The point is that Messiah can be David’s son, and can still be greater than David, and if you want the authority for a claim like that, then, well, David himself knew it, and he said so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 The people hear Jesus gladly. Perhaps for some of them, it was as though they were vaguely aware that the teaching they had from the scribes was not very good, that there was something important missing, awry. But when they hear Jesus, it makes them glad. They hear him explaining so clearly what has been dark and perplexing to them before. Things begin to fall into place. They feel as though they are getting somewhere, finally.

Maybe for others, they’re just glad to see the scribes knocked down from their high horses.

For us, we should be glad to see Jesus in this way- the eschatological king.

 

 2.      Why does the question about the Messiah become a warning about the scribes?

Jesus asked the question in order to correct the teaching of the scribes. It then naturally moves into a warning about the scribes themselves. Jesus tells the people to watch out for them, and he gives reasons why they shouldn’t be trusted. All of those reasons point to the same basic problem with the scribes- they are hypocrites, outwardly concerned with God’s honour, but really concerned about their own honour.

The scribes are keen religious men, acknowledged teachers. They wear the teacher’s long robe, so that everyone will know about their qualifications, and too many of them take an unhealthy pleasure in the sense of importance that they get from knowing and teaching the scriptures. They like to be greeted in the marketplace- people honour them and take notice when they walk past. People rise respectfully to greet them in the streets, and address them with titles like “Rabbi”, “Father”, even “Master”. They sit in special seats in the synagogue, facing the congregation, because they consider themselves more important. They like to have the best seats at banquets. We’ve seen from other parts of Mark’s account how complicated Jewish social protocol was, how when you held a party, you would consider very carefully who to invite, and where to seat them according to how important they were. Scribes were given top seats.

And these scribes devoured widows’ houses. There were old poor women who felt an obligation to support the scribes, because they were the teachers of God’s law. The scribes sponged off them heartlessly, exploiting them until all their money was gone. The scribes pray, and pray at length- but their long prayers are a pretence. They seem to be directing their words to God, but their real audience is the bystanders. Instead of directing men to God, they want attention for themselves. They ought to encourage Israel to serve God humbly, but they can’t do that properly, because they are not humble themselves. The scribes care more about their own reputations and the esteem they receive from men, than they care for God’s name. Their pompous self-serving attitude obscures the God they are supposed to serve.

Notice that here, Jesus tells the people to beware of the scribes. He’s not telling them to beware of the leaven of the scribes, as he tells them elsewhere to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod (Mark 8:15). Immediately, the warning isn’t to beware of the scribes’ teaching, but to beware of the scribes themselves, as men. The scribes are dangerous enemies to have. They will bitterly oppose the followers of Jesus, will persecute them and try to have them killed. Jesus isn’t directly warning his hearers to beware of scribal attitudes creeping into their own hearts. We should certainly beware of those attitudes in our own hearts, and we should endeavour to kill those sins before they grow, but that isn’t exactly what Jesus is saying here. We could infer it, but it would be an inference.

Jesus’ warnings still stand for us. We see the same sort of religious rulers around today. The scribes devoured widow’s houses; and we have televangelists, unscrupulously asking for money from people who can ill afford to give, so that they can have flashy cars and big houses. The scribes were fond of their long robes, and loved the adulation they received. We are not short of spiritual healers and gurus who dress in gleaming white suits, and who obviously love standing in front of the crowds and being looked up to. God is not interested in that sort of religion, and it only serves to give God a bad name. Theirs is the greater condemnation, and we should be very wary of them.

 

3.      What is the central point of Jesus’ teaching about the widow? Is it to do with a Christian attitude to money? Look at the immediate context.

The short answer is that no, it isn’t. The slightly longer answer is that yes, it is, but it’s about so much more than that too.

 We may be used to hearing sermons from this text on the topic of whole-hearted giving. Those may be very good sermons, but to get to any application, we first need to go back and see the context.

Jesus and the disciples are sitting in the temple opposite the treasury. They are looking at the offering boxes, against the wall of the court of the women. According to Jewish tradition, there are 13 boxes there, with trumpet like funnels going into the boxes. People would come with their coins- no paper money then, just coins- and would pour them into the trumpets. If you were making a sizeable offering, then the coins would ring out as they hit the trumpets, and would clatter down noisily into the boxes. So if you were wealthy, you could afford to put on quite a show for the onlookers. It would be very obvious that you were giving a large sum. And conversely, if you were poor, and couldn’t afford to give an awful lot, everyone would know about that too. They would hear only a few coins going in.

As Jesus and the disciples watched, a poor widow came up to the boxes, and threw just a few small coins in- these were the lowest denomination of coins in circulation, and historical sources say that you weren’t allowed to throw in any fewer than two coins. So this woman is making the smallest offering it was possible to make. But she wasn’t doing that out of carelessness for the things of God. Jesus could see that she gave as much as she was able- that her offering cost her.

The widow is pious, of course, and that is a good and lovely thing. But in context, the point isn’t about her- it’s about the scribes. Jesus has just accused the scribes, who are associated in some way with the Temple authorities, of devouring widows’ houses. Jesus has been condemning the Temple ever since chapter 11, and one of the things rotten about it is that instead of providing food for widows and orphans (as required under the festival laws of Deuteronomy),  the Temple system sucks the life from devout widows, eating away all their substance instead of feeding them. This widow is plainly meant to be identified as one of the widows who are having their houses devoured. She has just given all she had to live on to the bloated vampire Temple. It is beautiful in a way, although it can’t be all that heart-warming to watch a widow having her house devoured. It’s lovely of her, but it’s a disgusting spectacle overall.

Jesus called his disciples to him, sitting there, and told them that God did not value the money pouring into the coffers as much as he valued the gift of this poor widow. She had shown real, albeit undiscerning, devotion to God. And to Jesus, who had come to the Temple wanting to find fruit, her love for God was worth more than all the rest of it put together.

 Does God need our money? Of course he doesn’t. God is already the owner of everything. He needs nothing. He can accomplish whatever he wishes with or without money. He doesn’t need us to give back to him what he has first given to us out of his limitless treasury- and we can only give to him what is his already. The reason for our giving to God isn’t primarily economic, but rather relational. Of course we know that God ordains means to accomplish his chosen ends, and we know that money is therefore useful, and used by God. But we can also be sure that a lack of money doesn’t ultimately prevent God from achieving his purposes. We are like children giving a parent a Christmas present. The child can only give the parent something bought with the parent’s own money. But the point isn’t in the gift itself, as much as it is in the giving. The gift matters because it represents devotion.

It’s not what you give, it is what you keep. What you keep shows more truly how much you love God. This widow loved God with all her heart, because she gave him everything she had. The rich men who made a show out of giving sums far larger than this widow had given in all the offerings of her life put together, were actually giving less. They could give a lot, and still afford to buy for themselves whatever they wanted. They did not have to make any sacrifices to give. And so their giving did not show much love for God. God doesn’t care for money or offerings as things in themselves. He cares for love. So in that sense, the passage is about real religion, humble devotion of everything to God; versus pretend religion, which uses God’s name as a cover for pride and self-importance. It’s about what real fruit looks like, compared to useless leaves.

 

4.      How does this passage fit into the wider context of Mark’s Gospel from chapter 11 onwards?

 This passage fits into the structure of Mark’s Gospel as part of a frame. The opening scene Mark gave us in the Temple was back in 11:11, where Jesus was looking around at everything, like an inspector gathering evidence. The closing scene in the Temple is this one, where Jesus sees the widow throwing money into the box, calls the disciples over to have a look, and teaches them. In-between those two scenes, we have had the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the Temple, and the long string of questioners trying to embarrass Jesus in the Temple. Jesus has come to the Temple as to his own house, confronted his enemies on what they think of as their territory- although it is nothing of the sort- and they have grown to hate him more and more. After Jesus has spent the better part of a week in the temple, seeing everything that goes on there and talking to the men who think they run the show, we close the drama in the Temple with the section about the scribes and the widow. This scene represents Jesus’ final verdict on the Temple and all its works.

We started off with the comparison of the temple to the fruitless tree, which was cursed for its lack of fruit. The scribes, the chief priests, the elders and all the others are just like the temple they love so much. The temple too is outwardly impressive, looks great, and makes people honour it. But it is empty to God. He finds no pleasure in it, because those who run it are no longer interested in him. In fact, it is redundant, and will be destroyed. With the background of the rest of the section, the key thing in the story is the comparison Jesus makes between the widow and all the other givers. What she has done is the only thing Jesus has seen worth seeing in all his time at the Temple. Everything else has been empty and without value.

 

5.      Have the disciples understood anything Jesus has said about the Temple over the last few chapters?

We’ll come to chapter 13 next time, but it is worth, very quickly, seeing the connection between that chapter and the previous section. Chapter 13 is confusing, but whatever we make of it, it needs to be rooted in the conversation Jesus and the disciples are having about the Temple. Mark wants us to see that the disciples haven’t understood anything that has been going on around them. Where Jesus has seen barrenness and a sterile empty façade of religion, the disciples have seen great impressive godly stuff. They need to open their eyes.

They leave the Temple with Jesus’ words about the widow still in their ears- “See her? She’s the most real worshipper in this place.” But they walk out saying “Oh, I love it here. So impressive and solid and holy. When you come to the Temple, you just know you’ve been in God’s presence, know what I mean? Oh, the history of this place, the significance in God’s great purposes. It’s wonderful”

We can walk into a big cathedral, and it’s impressive- dizzying, even. But where there’s no justice and righteousness, God isn’t bothered about the buildings.

Mark 11:1-10. They think it’s all over.

July 15, 2010

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

    Jesus comes to the final stage of his march on Jerusalem. He has gathered followers as he has come, and he is now at the head of a procession.

    1. What time of year is it in the Jewish festival calendar?
    2. Jesus has clearly made detailed preparation for this journey, making sure that a colt is available for him. Why does he think it important that he should ride into Jerusalem like this?
    3. Which Old Testament passages undergird the crowd’s reception of Jesus in Jerusalem? What do they tell us about how the crowd is thinking?
      • Why do they throw garments on the road?
      • Why do they cut leafy branches from the fields?
      • Why do they sing out in the way they do?
    4. Look at Jesus’ own choice of OT passages to evoke. What is it about Genesis 49 and Zechariah 9 that make them appropriate for this occasion?
    5. How does this scene round off the story Mark has been telling us from chapter 8 onwards?
    6. What should we take from this?

     

    1. What time of year is it in the Jewish festival calendar?

    It is Passover time. Worshippers from all over the land of Israel would have been gathering at Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover festival at this time of year. Jerusalem would have been swollen with huge crowds, as it was three times every year. Back in the time of Moses, while the Israelites were still in the wilderness, God had said to them that when they were in the land, he would choose a place to set his name. There would be one place in the land where God would dwell among his people, and the people should gather at that place to bring their offerings and tithes (Deuteronomy 12 and 14).

    So three times every year, the whole people gathered in Jerusalem for the appointed festivals. There were actually seven festivals. You can read about them in Leviticus 23. Falling earliest in the year, in the springtime, on the 14th day of the first Jewish month, was Passover. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the following day, and lasted for seven days. Later in the year, whenever the first of the crop was ready for harvesting there was the Feast of First-fruits. Seven weeks after that was the Feast of Weeks- the feast for the full harvest. At about this time, there would be the Feast of Trumpets (on the first day of the seventh month), Yom Kippur- the day of atonement, on the 10th day of the seventh month, and finally, on the 15th day of the seventh month, the week-long Feast of Tabernacles.

    Though there were seven festivals, many of them fell together- in the same way as our Christmas and New Year festivals run into one another, and Good Friday and Easter Sunday come together. And only three times a year- for Passover/Unleavened bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles, were all the Jewish males to appear before God in Jerusalem (Deut 16:16).

    We’ve seen in Mark’s Gospel that as Jesus and his disciples have journeyed to Jerusalem, they have gathered followers. Jesus has set out on this journey with determination, knowing that it will end in his death. The disciples have come with him, and as they have been travelling up, more followers have joined Jesus’ retinue. As he left Jericho, it was with a “great crowd” (Mark 10:46)- and that’s not a great crowd as in “ No, thankyou, I mean, really, you’ve been a great crowd, a wonderful wonderful audience”. Mark means that it was a very big group of people. One of the reasons why the crowd would be so large is that it was Passover time. Streams of pilgrims would have been heading to Jerusalem anyway, and could have attached themselves to Jesus’ party without going out of their way.

    So Jesus arrives at Jerusalem when it is heaving with people at Passover time, as is made clear later on in chapter 14. We’ll look at why that matters in a little while. First, we’ll look at the manner of Jesus’ arrival.

    2. Jesus has clearly made detailed preparation for this journey, making sure that a colt is available for him. Why does he think it important that he should ride into Jerusalem like this?

    Jesus and the crowd come to Bethphage and Bethany. Here, Jesus gives two of his disciples very precise instructions about a colt. This seems to be some kind of a pre-arranged deal. Jesus has made some sort of agreement with a man who owns a colt, so that the animal will be available in an agreed place, tied at a door, for his disciples to untie and bring to him. This wouldn’t be unusual- Jesus made a similar arrangement regarding the availability of an upper room for the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-16). Some commentaries suggest that there was no pre-arrangement, and that Jesus simply had supernatural knowledge that there would be a colt tied up where he said there would, making this a kind of miracle. I suppose that’s possible, but I really don’t see the miracles as functioning that way. The miracles are called “signs” and “wonders”. The point of a sign is to signify, and the point of a wonder is to be wondered at. The miracles are publicly, obviously, supernatural occurrences. When Jesus walked on water, or fed 5000 people, he was publicly demonstrating that he was God’s king, and that his kingdom would be a place where he ruled over the dangerous chaotic forces of nature, and where he provided plenty for his followers. When he was tempted to turn stones into bread, Jesus refused to do a miracle in private to make life easier for himself. Perhaps the closest we have to a hidden miracle is at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and even there, many people could see that it was a miracle that the water became wine. On this occasion, if it was a miracle, we’re not told that it was, and nobody else could have known that it was, so I think we can assume it wasn’t.

    Another detail in favour of pre-arrangement is that the question “Why are you doing this” is asked not by the colt’s owner, but by some bystanders. We can’t say for sure, but it looks as though the owner of the animal is well aware of what is going on, has left his colt tied there deliberately, and won’t himself be asking questions. Alternatively, the owner of the colt may actually be present in the crowd following Jesus- in which case, this is an arrangement made on the spot, and “the Lord” may refer to the master of the colt.

    Whether it was already arranged or not, but especially if it was, it is clear that Jesus has gone to considerable trouble to make sure that he rides into Jerusalem on a colt that has not yet been ridden. Why would he go to that sort of trouble? And why does Mark underline this episode at all? In Hebrew, things are emphasised by repetition, and Mark underlines the instructions by more-or-less repeating them. He records them once as they are given, and once again as they are completed. The execution of the commands are set in terms identical with the instruction (“Go”/ “they went”; “untie”/ “they untied”; “if anyone says to you”/ “and some of those standing there said to them”). Why would Mark want us to notice this arrangement about the colt? Why does it matter?

     It was not customary for pilgrims to ride into the city. Pilgrims walked the last leg, whether rich or poor. By riding, Jesus is making a tremendous gesture. He is setting himself apart from the other, run-of-the-mill, pilgrims. Many want to make the point that the choice of a colt as a mount shows humility and un-warlike character. That’s true, but the choice of any kind of a mount at all sets Jesus up as a grand figure. And the donkey is not an unroyal beast- David and Solomon rode donkeys. Horses and chariots were forbidden to kings of Israel. They were commanded to rely on God for their deliverance, and not on their own armaments. It was the corrupt kings who went to Egypt to get horses. So although a full-grown stallion may look more impressive than a young donkey, this is a refusal to follow the lead of unfaithful kings. It is a statement of trust in God rather than of peace and humility per se.

     By riding an animal that had never yet been ridden, Jesus is making another statement. It was a common cultural concept in Israel that animals for sacred purpose were not for normal usage- so we have it laid out as a requirement in Num 19:2 that an animal designated as a sacrifice for purification must never have worn a yoke. Again, the same requirement is made for a sacrifice of atonement for unsolved murder in Deut 21:3. And in 1 Sam 6:7, the Philistine oxen pulling the cart on which sat the ark of the covenant, had never been used for other things. The point here is that this colt is for holy purposes. The double gesture Jesus makes is meant to tell people that he has come to Jerusalem not simply as a king, but as God’s king. This is a holy donkey.

     Of course, this is all stemming from Zechariah 9, where the king comes to Jerusalem, “righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. Jesus has deliberately and consciously chosen to fulfil Zechariah’s prophecy. He wants to paint himself as the king who comes peaceably. “Having salvation” in the prophecy is not something the king brings as a gift to bestow on others, but as something given him- the Hebrew is clear about that, say the commentaries- he has been saved. This is the king (of Psalm 118), who has been battered and bruised, and is now delivered from his enemies. He comes humbly, not to make war, but to make peace, to cut off the chariot and battle bow, and to speak peace to the nations, and to rule from sea to shining sea.

     The crowd quite clearly understand (at least on one level they understand) and respond to these symbolic gestures from Jesus. They spread garments and branches in his path, and shout for him as he enters Jerusalem, acclaiming their king. They chant words from Psalm 118, which leads us on to…

    3. Which Old Testament passages undergird the crowd’s reception of Jesus in Jerusalem? What do they tell us about how the crowd is thinking? 

     There is a necessary distinction to be made between the scriptures quoted and echoed by the crowd, and those called to mind by Jesus himself. Both are accurate in their application of the Old Testament, but the crowd has seriously misunderstood the current situation, and we can see that from the OT passages they echo.

     There are many of these, but some loom especially large.

    a) Garments on the ground.

    Firstly, the crowd strew their garments on the ground for Jesus to trample on… just as the followers of Jehu had done for that man of blood in 2 Kings 9:12.  This may tell us something about the ideas of the crowd concerning what Jesus has come to do. They think he’s a king in the mould of Jehu. So who was Jehu? What was his role?

    Jehu was the man anointed to destroy the corrupt ruling order in Israel. When God told Elijah to anoint him, God said,

    Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)

    So Jehu was appointed as one of God’s three executioners along with Elisha and Hazael. But where Elisha refused to be appointed to this task, Jehu took it up with relish. Elijah never actually anointed any of the three men. He had a peculiar interview with Elisha in which Elisha refused to take over from him, and he never seems to have taken matters any further. When Jehu is anointed, it is after Elijah’s passing from this world. It is Elisha who does the anointing, and he does it by proxy. Elisha sends one of the sons of the prophets to do the job, and warns him to get out of the vicinity as soon as he has done the deed. Elisha understood very well what role Jehu had to play, and how enthusiastically he would play it. Here’s how it happened:

    “And the young man poured the oil on his head, saying to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the LORD, over Israel. And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her.” Then he opened the door and fled.” (2 Kings 9:6-10)

    Jehu was then proclaimed king by his friends, who put their garments under him, and he lost no time in laying waste to Ahab’s dynasty. He saw his blood-letting as demonstrating his zeal for the Lord. When the crowd do the same for Jesus as Jehu’s friends had done for him, it’s a sign of their enthusiasm for him. But it’s probably also a sign that they expect him to start shedding the blood of the present Jewish leadership, and that they think he has been appointed by God to do so.

     b) Leafy branches.

    This links in to the time of year. The phrase “leafy branches” is to be found in Leviticus 23, concerning the feast of tabernacles or booths. This was a feast of thanksgiving, in which Israel were to celebrate the full harvest God had given them, and to remember that God had given them the very land itself, after a long spell in the wilderness where they had no harvests at all for a generation. To recall their wilderness years during this feast, Israel were to live in tents or booths, made of branches. They were to cut leafy branches and celebrate before the Lord (Lev 23:40). Israel cut branches to pay before Jesus, partly just because they’re excited, but partly because they see this as the time of full harvest. It is the time of the fulfilment of promises. The long slog of ploughing and sowing and watering is over. It is tabernacles time. Messiah has finally come. There’s been a long and hungry wait, but finally, the blessing has arrived. They think it’s all over; the time has arrived for the kingdom of God in all its fullness. They expect the end of history. Jehu will destroy the wicked rulers, and God’s harvest blessings will flow.

     c) Psalm 118.

    Finally, and far more explicitly, the crowd quote Psalm 118. They first say “Hosanna”, the literal meaning of which is “Save now”, but we all know how words shift in their meaning according to usage. Through liturgical use, “Hosanna” had become sufficiently disassociated from the original meaning that it could be used as a greeting addressing pilgrims. Then they say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9, a straight quote from Psalm 118:25), and, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11:10, which appears to be commentary on the quotation from Ps. 118).

    What is Psalm 118 about? The psalm itself is a victory song to be sung by the king and others as he makes his way up to the temple in Jerusalem. From the content of the psalm we can tell that the king has suffered opposition, but is now coming up victorious over his foes to take his place in the capital city. The psalm is sung in parts, with different voices taking their proper parts. We can’t be too sure about who sings exactly which part, but it is certainly that sort of psalm. A possible outline is in the table below.

    Verse What’s going on
    1 The worship leader addresses Israel
    2-4 Different groups in Israel join him
    5-7 The lone voice of the king cuts in
    8-9 The choir/ everybody sings
    10-14 The king again
    15-16 All sing
    17-19 The king sings
    20 The gatekeeper’s big part
    21 The king
    22-26 The choir or crowd
    27 The priests invite the crowd to join the procession
    28 The king
    29 All join the final shout

     The central voice is clearly that of the king. He is a man who has been through the wars, who has appeared to be dead, but who is now triumphant. It may well have been written by David after Absalom’s rebellion. But although each psalm was written for a particular occasion, they didn’t stay there. They were added to the national hymnbook, and became part of the religious life of the whole people. This would have been sung in the temple at certain times- notably of course at the Feast of Tabernacles. Again, the crowd are saying, “Messiah is here, and it is time for the full harvest. The king has come. He has triumphed over his enemies” They are singing about Jesus as though his work was done and he was entering into his rest. And notice in verse 10 that they’re not just welcoming a king who comes in the name of the Lord. They’re welcoming a coming kingdom. They really think that this is the end of history. There will be a coronation, and Jesus will reign. The cornerstone has arrived, and the whole building will now fit together.

     4. Look at Jesus’ own choice of OT passages to evoke. What is it about Genesis 49 and Zechariah 9 that make them appropriate for this occasion?

      Zech 9:9-17 is very obviously in Jesus’ sights when he chooses to ride in on a colt. It’s plainly a royal and messianic image, and also a peaceable one, as we’ve said.

     Genesis 49 is also in view though. In Genesis 49, the old patriarch Jacob is at the end of a long and weary life. Just before his death, he calls his sons before him, and tells them that he’s going to prophesy about them. Jacob had twelve sons, but we’re only interested in one of them here. Judah is the son whose tribe gave rise to the kings. David was from the tribe of Judah, and so, of course, was Jesus. Jacob, in Genesis 49:8-12, identifies Judah as the king. All the other sons shall bow to Judah. In fact, the nations shall bow to Judah. Jacob looks far into the distance, and sees that Judah shall be king forever- the sceptre shall never depart from him. And what will Judah’s kingdom be like? It will be one of unparalleled beauty and fruitfulness. The king himself will have dark eyes and pearly white teeth. Wine will be as common as water- he will wash his clothes in the stuff. The earth will bring forth vines that are so strong and plentiful, that the king can tie his donkey to them. The donkey can eat all the grapes he likes- they won’t be missed. And the vine will be sturdy enough to hold the beast.

    Wine and grapes are tremendously important in scripture. They’re a sign of peace and prosperity and rest and celebration. In a world where sugar isn’t found in kilogram bags in the dried goods aisle, grapes are among the sweetest things you can eat. And wine is something to drink when you’ve finished all your work and can afford to rejoice and relax. When Noah gets out of the ark, the re-settler of the new earth, his first (and symbolic) act is to plant a vine. He wants to enjoy rest and blessing and sweetness. Of course, he then gets drunk, and that’s symbolic too- it turns out that after the earth has been cleansed by the flood, we’re still not ready for the re-uniting of heaven and earth after all. Israel couldn’t enjoy grapes in the wilderness, but to show the blessings of the land God promised them, the spies bring back a bunch of enormous grapes. When the ark of the covenant comes to Jerusalem, and David is overjoyed that God will dwell with him in his capital city, he hands out cakes of raisins. When Jesus wants to lay down a marker to show what his kingdom is all about, he turns water into wine as his first miracle. And here, Judah is going to be a king whose reign is one of such blessing that there are vines like oak trees. He’ll rest, and tie up his colt. He fought like a lion in v8-9, but now the fight is over. If his clothes are bloody, it’s not the blood of his enemies, but the blood of grapes.

    That’s Judah’s future kingdom, and Jesus is the final king from the tribe of Judah. But how does Jesus use this passage? In Jacob’s prophecy Judah is going to tie his donkey up and enter into his rest. Jesus isn’t doing that. Here, the donkey is being untied, not being tied up. Maybe that’s an over-subtle distinction. But it’s abundantly clear from the rest of the gospel that Jesus’ work is far from done. In one sense, it’s only just about to begin. So Jesus isn’t tying his beast of burden up, he’s letting him loose. The crowd have got it wrong. It’s not Tabernacles and time to enjoy the harvest. It’s Passover, and time to endure the wilderness. It’s not time for rest. It’s time for Jesus to take up his cross. This is what the disciples haven’t understood, despite very clear teaching on the matter. The crowd won’t understand it either.

    5. How does this scene round off the story Mark has been telling us from chapter 8 onwards?

     The disciples have persistently misunderstood Jesus’ purpose. They have, time and time again, thought that his kingdom will be just like David’s and Solomon’s, only better. They have sought the ministerial posts in this kingdom. They have argued over which of them will have the greatest glory. They have not expected suffering and death. When Jesus has spoken to them directly, telling them that he will die, Peter has told him not to talk like that. At least, he did the first time. The next two times, there was quite probably an embarrassed silence. They expected to fight, sure, but they expected to win. They didn’t think Jesus had come to die. But Jesus knew that that was the single greatest thing he had come to do. His work was just about to begin.

    6. What should we take from this?

    Simply that we should avoid the misunderstanding of the crowd. Too many Christians think that the Christian life is supposed to be easy. It isn’t. Jesus’ kingdom is one where you’ve got to die before you can start living. Before you can even see the kingdom of God, you’ve got to die to yourself and be born again. Die to sin, die to self, die to pride. And this is a cross which you are to take up every day. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. It’s not about victory and ease and rest. A rest remains for the people of God, but it’s not yet. There is a crown of glory, and a kingdom where the wine flows in rivers, and we have foretastes of it even in this world. But this world is a place for backbreaking work-  for donkeys and martyrs. That’s what we need in the kingdom of God.

Mark 10: 46-52. The assault on Jerusalem.

July 9, 2010

And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.”

Jesus is a man on a mission at this point in Mark’s Gospel. He has been striding out on the road up to Jerusalem, his disciples trailing in his wake. Now they’ve come to Jericho- the last staging-post for pilgrims travelling to the Temple. Jesus and his disciples stop there, and as they leave, they pass by a blind beggar on the road.

  1. Why are we told that a great crowd was with Jesus, and that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way?
  2. What is Mark’s purpose at this point of the Gospel?
  3. How does this miracle fit into Mark’s scheme? What is distinctive about it?
  4. Why is Mark concerned to tell us that this occurred on the road out of Jericho (rather than the road into Jericho), and that Jesus was identified as the “Son of David”?
  5. How and why is this incident linked in to the previous incident? What ought we to take from this passage?

 

1. Why are we told that a great crowd was with Jesus, and that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way?

When Mark tells us that a great crowd was following Jesus, and then that Bartimaeus joined this crowd and followed Jesus on the way, he is developing a scene that has already been set. He wants to show us something of the anticipation of the crowd, and of the developing sense that this is a big occasion, an event of interest to everybody living in Israel.

Already, we’ve seen something of the tension that surrounds this particular journey. Earlier, (10:32) we saw that those who followed Jesus were amazed and afraid. The atmosphere was pregnant. The crowd around Jesus feel the air crackle. It is plain that Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, and there is a sense that momentous events are just around the corner. This is Jesus’ final journey. He’s headed to his last destination. There is something about him as he strides out ahead of the crowds that makes them afraid.

Why is this so? Why should the crowds care about some Galilean preacher and miracle worker going on tour? Well, first because they all know where he’s going, and second, because many of them have some idea about what might happen when he gets there.

The crowd all know where Jesus is going- they’ve been to Jerusalem plenty of times on pilgrimage themselves. And Jerusalem is the centre of the nation. It’s not just the capital city- it’s the centre from which the life of the nation flows. London is an important city to Britain. It’s the place where our government resides. It’s where our TV producers, film makers, and newspaper industry, are based. It’s the cultural centre of the country. It’s where our big businesses have their headquarters. It’s a focal point for our history. Kings have been crowned here, and revolutions planned. Ideas that have changed the Western world have gone out from London. But to a Jew, Jerusalem was incomparably more that London could be to an Englishman. Jerusalem was all that London is and more. It was not only the financial and cultural centre, not only the place where the Sanhedrin met and deliberated; it was the religious centre of the nation. Jerusalem had many attractions, but the most important thing about it was that it was the holy city, the place where the Temple was built. Jerusalem was where God had his footstool. It was where heaven and earth met, where God’s feet touched the ground. If anything big was going to happen, then it was going to happen in Jerusalem.

And anyone who knew anything about Jesus could see that something big was about to happen. Jesus is well known through the whole land as a miracle worker and teacher. He’s a celebrity, a topic of bar-room gossip. Some say he is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old. Some say he is Elijah. Some say he is John the Baptist back from the dead. Whoever he is, he’s interesting. And now he is heading for Jerusalem. What will he do when he gets there?

Will he proclaim himself king, as the disciples seem to expect (James and John think he will soon be coming into his kingdom)? Will he do great miracles and blast idolatry, like Elijah? Will he preach against the sin of Israel, and call the nation to repentance, like John the Baptist? Whatever he does, the crowd expect it to be significant, important. They want to be there to witness it. There is an excitement in the air, a feeling that history is about to be made.

And now, Mark points out for us that there was a great crowd with Jesus. After Jesus has passed through Jericho and comes to the final leg of the journey to Jerusalem, he has managed to pick up a lot of followers and hangers-on. As he has gone along the way, people have joined him. Many of them were going to Jerusalem anyway- it’s nearly Passover time, and masses of people would be going to Jerusalem for the festival. But they attach themselves to Jesus because they’re curious. This is no longer just a journey by a group of friends, going to Jerusalem as a small private group. It’s no longer even a travelling preacher going with a sizeable group of followers. This is now a major public event. It will actually become a triumphant procession when it reaches Jerusalem, but even now it’s a “great crowd”.

Bartimaeus also follows Jesus. He ends up going with the crowd up to Jerusalem behind Jesus. Which is odd, because Jesus told him to go his way. Jesus said, “Off you go then”. But Bartimaeus didn’t go off. Instead, he joined Jesus. Again, we have the impression of an official procession. Bartimaeus wanted to join Jesus’ retinue. He wants to be part of this, whatever is going to happen. He wants to be with Jesus and see him do what he will do in Jerusalem. We’re given the feeling of a movement that gathers momentum as it goes along. These people are caught up in it. They are gripped by what is going on. They want Jesus to reach Jerusalem, and they want to see what he’ll do when he does

2. What is Mark’s purpose at this point of the Gospel?

The one great point Mark wants to make is that the first shall be last, and the last first. The big theme of the whole of the last few chapters has been the way Jesus’ kingdom works. His kingdom is one of humble suffering, because he is a suffering servant King. Jesus has revealed to his disciples that he is going to suffer and die. They think that he has come as a great warrior-king, to strike down God’s enemies and rule in justice and righteousness from Jerusalem. Jesus tells them that he will first be handed over, as though powerless, and will be put to death. Every episode Mark has recorded since the transfiguration has gone to underline this theme. We can see this if we travel through a painfully brief whistle-stop tour of Mark since the transfiguration.

9:14-29- The disciples and Jesus are like the father and his son. The disciples only get half the story- they believe and don’t believe. Victory over evil will come only through death and resurrection.

9:30-50- Jesus’ kingdom is one where the king dies. The most important person in the kingdom lays down his life for those less important. That is the whole ethos of the kingdom. Great ones must care for little ones more than they care for their own honour.

10:1-10- The law in Jesus’ kingdom isn’t about exercising power and authority, but about loving and protecting the weaker members, and keeping promises made to them.

10:13-31- Those who have no possessions and no status, will find it easier to be part of Jesus kingdom than those who are accustomed to giving orders and being given respect.

10:32-45- Jesus came to die, in a humiliating way. His followers are obsessed with honour, but as events pan out, they will drink Jesus’ cup of suffering. They will account it an honour to suffer for his sake. The Gentiles love to lord it over each other, but it shall not be so among them, says Jesus- because even the great and glorious Son of Man, the shining eternal emperor of the whole world in Daniel 7, came to serve and to give up his life for others.

The disciples are concerned with power and authority and being great. Their master is willing to make himself of no account and to be the servant of all. And his kingdom will reflect those characteristics. The character of any kingdom is moulded on the pattern of those who rule it. Those who follow Jesus must be willing to serve and to suffer. They must be humble. We, as Christians, must be humble. We must, because Jesus came to die for us. He did not come to lord it over his people, to grind them down and oppress them like a Gentile king. He came to lay down his life for their sakes. He came to serve them. He humiliated himself for their good.

The disciples have not understood this. They think of the Messiah as a majestic victorious warrior, a leader for all men to respect and reverence. And they think of death and service as things not fitting for this Messiah. Their ideas about what deserves respect and reverence are out of step with God’s ideas.

3. How does this miracle fit into Mark’s scheme? What is distinctive about it?

This is Jesus last healing miracle in Mark’s Gospel, and we’ve moved a long way since the first healing miracle. It is now well established for Mark’s readers that Jesus is God’s king. And they’ve seen that his kingdom is ultimately going to be one where disease and suffering are no more. We can see that when Jesus does his miracles, he is showing everybody what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is a point we’ve made several times in previous lessons, that the miracles are signs. That’s what they’re often called in Greek- semeia- signs. Signs point to something. These are signs of the kingdom. They demonstrate what God’s kingdom is about. They are invasions of God’s kingdom into the fallen world.

But Mark now wants to demonstrate something more than that. So this miracle shows all that previous miracles have shown, and more again. It not only shows that God’s kingdom is a place where the blind receive their sight. It not only shows that the kingdom is received by faith in Jesus as the one who brings the kingdom in. It also shows that God’s kingdom is a place where the insignificant in the kingdom are cared for.

The distinctive thing about this miracle- the thing that sets it apart from all the others in the Gospel- is the setting of it. Mark gives us a few details, and details are always important. Mark tells us that Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. He tells us how the crowd reacted to the beggar. He tells us what how Jesus reacted, and he tells us that Bartimaeus leapt up and shed his cloak, and came to Jesus.

Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, and the crowd despise him for it. He is blind, which renders him helpless and useless. He can’t hold down a useful job- can’t plough or reap or make furniture, or even keep a market stall. He can’t walk along without feeling his way. And he begs for a living- he is totally dependent on the generosity of other people. This beggar is reckoned insignificant by the crowd. They’ll tolerate him, and give him enough money to stay alive, but they expect him to recognise that they are more important than he is. Bartimaeus is a loser- the ultimate loser in many ways. This is the culmination of a long string of incidents in Mark’s Gospel. Bartimaeus stands as the last in the line of losers. He’s like the children Jesus has set in front of the disciples, low-status and despised. He has no claim on God, no wealth or influence. All he has is a voice to cry out for mercy.

There is huge irony in the behaviour of the crowd. The crowd despise the beggar, and are dismissive of him because they reckon him unimportant- he is just a blind beggar and nobody of any account. Maybe on another day, some of the men here would have thrown him a coin or two as they went about their business. But not today. Today, they are too busy giving honour to the people they deem worthy. They are paying attention as the important person does important things. When Jesus came through town, a man on a mission, people dropped what they were doing and flooded into the streets to catch a glimpse of him. Jesus was the big man, the important one. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, was a nobody, a complete non-entity. Bartimaeus has been sitting by the roadside, as was his custom, asking for handouts, when this large excited crowd came by. He asked people what was going on, and somebody told him: “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He’s going up to Jerusalem. So this dirty blind beggar sitting by the roadside goes and interrupts it all. We can follow the crowd’s line of thought, “I mean, who does he think he is? Does he not realise that this is an important event happening here? Has he no manners? We give him money when he needs it- can’t he at least repay us with basic civility? We’re trying to watch Jesus. He should know better than to cause a fuss now.” So when this loser started trying to catch the attention of the big celebrity, the crowd became annoyed with him. They tell him to shut up and stop his yelling, to stop being a distraction. But Bartimaeus has more sense than to listen to that sort of advice. He only cries out the louder. Bartimaeus has nothing in all the world except a sense of his own need and a desire for Jesus to save him. But that’s all the qualification Jesus wants. Jesus hears him, and Jesus stops what he’s doing and calls Bartimaeus to come up to him.

The crowd are demonstrating the very behaviour which runs against the things Jesus has been trying to teach his disciples over the last few chapters. And Bartimaeus is showing us how it is the poor who inherit the kingdom of heaven. He won’t shut up. He wants help from Jesus. He is like a child, unable to do anything for himself, simply crying out, “have mercy”. Jesus responds to his faith. He stops, and gives orders for Bartimaeus to be called. And then of course the crowd’s attitude changes. If Jesus wants to talk to the beggar, well then, that’s different. They were rebuking him a moment ago, but now the beggar’s important- they speak to him kindly- “Take heart, he’s calling you”

The crowd rebuked the beggar, but by this miracle, Jesus rebukes the crowd. He shows that their attitude is not proper. They wanted to cut the weak loose for Messiah’s sake. They wanted to ignore the helpless in order to pay attention to Jesus. Jesus won’t have it. Even on his most important journey, the great journey of his life, he has time for the helpless. Especially on his most important journey, he has time for the helpless. He has come to save helpless sinners. Jesus has a brief conversation with Bartimaeus- short conversations are frequently a feature of healings by Jesus (2:5-11, 5:3-34, 7:27-29, 9:21-24). Maybe this is to establish the existence of faith sufficient to trust God for healing. Jesus asks what Bartimaeus wants from him. The question is meant to encourage faith. The response recognises Jesus as the one with power to make the blind see. And then Jesus heals the man.

4. Why is Mark concerned to tell us that this occurred on the road out of Jericho (rather than the road into Jericho), and that Jesus was identified as the “Son of David”?

Other details about this miracle also feed into the big theme of the first being last and the last first. There is the curious name by which Jesus calls Bartimaeus- the “Son of David”. Why should Bartimaeus call Jesus by this title? What is it supposed to mean?

There is the context of the prophecy given to Nathan in 2 Samuel 7, where David is promised that God will make him a house, and his offspring will reign forever. The son of David then, was the one who would inherit the promises God made to David.  The son of David, in the first instance, was Solomon. Solomon was David’s chosen successor, his son who would reign after him in Jerusalem. But Solomon didn’t reign forever- he died and slept with his fathers. And Solomon’s children didn’t reign forever either. David’s line was cut short when Nebuchadnezzar killed the last Davidic king and tore the temple to the ground.

So was God’s promise broken? Would God not make David a house and give him a son to reign forever? The prophets knew that the scripture cannot be broken. So they knew that there had to be another son, one in David’s line. You can see that in Isa 11:1ff; Jer 23:5f; Ezk 34:23f. David’s line will be cut off, apparently barren, like a tree stump. But a shoot shall come from it. Jesus’ Davidic descent is put forward as an evidence of his genuine Messiahship. That’s the point of the genealogies, and the opening to Romans. (Rom 1:1-4; Matt 1:1, 12:23; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 3:7, 22:16). And Mark 12:35 indicates that it was a common scribal teaching that the Messiah would be the Son of David.

So maybe Bartimaeus was aware of the expectation surrounding Jesus. He’d have heard a thing or two about Jesus before this procession came past. Maybe he called Jesus the Son of David to show that he believes Jesus to be the promised shepherd and king.

But there is also some evidence that the title denotes a healer-figure. Solomon was renowned as a healer/ exorcist and the title “Son of David” was sometimes applied with this in mind- to mean a healer. The stronger meaning seems to be the Messianic, but the two imports are not mutually exclusive. If you know your “Lord of the Rings”, you’ll recall an episode in the houses of healing in Minas Tirith, as Faramir lay near death. Minas Tirith was once the city where the kings dwelt. But there has been no king for many generation now. Ioreth, eldest of the women who served in that house, mourns over Faramir and says, “Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of a king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known” And Gandalf replies “Men may long remember your words Ioreth! For there is hope in them. Maybe a king has indeed returned to Gondor; or have you not heard the strange tidings that have come to the city”. It’s a very Messianic book, LOTR, and Aragon is one of the main Messiah figures in it- the rightful king of Gondor, who lives among men who have no idea who he is. He lives as a ranger, his glory veiled. But there are ancient and mysterious prophecies concerning him. And one day, he will reveal himself as the king, and take his place at the head of his army, and defeat evil, and reign for a thousand years in peace and prosperity. Tolkein seems to have known his Biblical-theological onions. He based his Messiah figures on the real Messiah, one aspect of that being that the hands of a king are the hands of a healer. There are in the Old Testament, plenty of prophecies about the healing powers of Messiah- “Your God will come and save you… and then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” It is one aspect of the Messianic character.

So Bartimaeus could well be referring to the healing powers of the Son of David- he wants to be healed, after all. But he also sees a great leader, anointed by God to restore the nation. Jesus is God’s instrument of blessing and healing for the land. The two are the same figure.

But there isn’t only a comparison to David in the passage. Although Bartimaeus sees only a comparison- Jesus is the king, the healer, the anointed servant of God. I think that Mark sees a contrast also. That would fit with the thrust of the miracle.

Jesus and the disciples are going up to Jerusalem on the road well travelled by pilgrims from Galilee. Jericho is between Jordan and Jerusalem. There may be echoes of the conquest of the land- when another “Jesus” (Joshua’s name having the same meaning as “Jesus”) came into the land on a mission from God. But it’s more significant that this is the last stage of the journey- Jesus has been going to Jerusalem ever since the transfiguration, but now he going up to Jerusalem immediately. Look at 2 Sam 5:1-10. When David went up to Jerusalem, how did he see the blind and the lame? To David, the blind and the lame were enemies. Those who fought against him were described as blind men. They were problems, to be gotten out of the way. The crowd here see the blind man the way David saw the blind in Jerusalem- as a problem, an impediment, a nuisance. Jesus, however, stops the show and goes to heal him.

Jesus is the Son of David, but at this point he is very different from the warrior king who recognised only an obstacle in the blind and lame as he went in to Jerusalem. Not that David was a hard and harsh ruler, but Mark is drawing on David’s entry to Jerusalem and his language about the blind, to underline his point. Jesus is the Son of David, and he is a better king than David. His kingdom is good in ways that David’s never was and never thought of being. David went in to Jerusalem to slaughter the blind and the lame. When Jesus makes his assault on Jerusalem, his army at his heels, he stops to restore the sight of the blind. They join his retinue.

5. How and why is this incident linked in to the previous incident? What should we take from this passage?

We’ve just seen James and John come to Jesus and ask him to do them a favour. Jesus didn’t just agree without knowing what he was committing himself to do. Instead, he asked the brothers a question. He said, “What do you want me to do for you?” It is very striking that Jesus asks exactly the same question in this passage, to Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus to have mercy, and Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus himself is making a subtle point here, and Mark picks up on that point and makes it visible to us.

When Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question he had already asked of the sons of Zebedee, he was drawing attention to the very different answers he would receive to the same question. The answers given, first by the brothers and then by the beggar, are examples for us. The first is an example to avoid, and the second an example to follow. We are supposed to see that those to whom the kingdom of God is given, are those who come with empty hands, knowing only that they need help, and that Jesus is the saviour who alone can save them.

Bartimaeus is blind and wretched. All he wants is help, and he’s ready to give up all he has to receive help from Jesus. He jumps up, leaving behind his cloak, which was perhaps his only possession. He stands in contrast to James and John, who think they are worthy to have glory and honour.

James and John are real disciples. They too have given up everything to follow Jesus. But at this point, their attitude leaves a lot to be desired. Bartimaeus has the better understanding of what the kingdom is about.

There are many things for us to learn from Mark’s Gospel, but if we’re to take anything from this passage, we should take the central point. God’s kingdom is not for the proud, not for the self-sufficient, not for the rich. It’s for losers. It’s for blind beggars.

If you want to follow Jesus, then you need to have your sins forgiven and your filthiness washed away, and your blindness healed. And you can’t do that unless you can see that you are a sinner, that you are filthy, and that you are blind. You can’t come to Jesus thinking that you are pretty much sorted out, that you don’t really need much help from him. He’s not interested in those who think they’re rich.

And if you’re already following Jesus, then follow him in his attitude here. He has time for the poor and the blind. He’s on his way up to Jerusalem, and he knows he’s going there to die. He has plenty to occupy his mind without having to care for a blind beggar. But he is selfless, esteeming the needs of others more important than his own. That’s the nature of God’s kingdom, because it’s the nature of God’s king. Greatness in God’s kingdom isn’t about how high up the greasy pole you can climb. It’s about how low down you’re willing to slide to give others a hand.