Throughout Lent, we’ve been talking about two journeys: the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land; and the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross. This week, both those journeys reached their penultimate moments. In the former, the Israelites camp on the eastern side of border of the Promised Land, the Jordan River across from Jericho. Moses goes to the top of Mount Nebo to see the other side and he dies. In the latter story, Jesus crosses the Jordan River and enters Jericho. Many of the stories we have looked at have provided images of success and failure on the Way. The Israelites grumble and complain, but God saves them – from bondage, from thirst, from starvation. The dumb disciples are always contrasted with others, outsiders, who understand. At every point on the journey, there is a temptation to go back into bondage; there is also an opportunity to demand liberation.
The reason Moses was not permitted into the Promised Land is a good example why we should be careful about “what the Bible says.” When the Israelites run out of water at Meribah, they complain, so Moses strikes a rock and water comes out. As this story is told in Exodus, God told Moses to strike the rock, so all is good. As related in Numbers, God told Moses to command the rock, but instead took it on his own initiative to strike the rock. According to this version, God punished Moses for not following directions. Seems like a pretty strong punishment to me. It’s probably no coincidence that Numbers received an edit from the Priestly school in the 5th century BCE. They felt an explanation for Moses’ death was needed. I, of course, have a different proposal.
The end of Deuteronomy praises Moses. In particular, it notes that he knew God face to face. Perhaps that is the Promised Land. What can really top that? It is said that seeing the face of God will kill a person, so maybe Moses died long ago, died to himself and his ego and followed on the Way. When Jesus entered Jericho, he met another such person.
First, a little background on Jericho. Jericho is located at a critical place for human habitation. There are numerous springs that have flowed for as long as humans have inhabited the area. It is also right next to a ford in the Jordan River. Thus, it is perfect as a stop on a trade route. Twenty different cultures are buried in the mound of detritus that is Jericho. Right after Moses dies and turns over the reins of Israel to Joshua, the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Jericho is the first place they come to and the first place they destroy. Viewed from the perspective of the Deuteronomist, it is a grim sign of God’s favor and an image of what God’s Way is like.
As Jesus crossed the Jordan and entered Jericho, he must have known that the Promised Land had lost its promise. Jericho was a massive and massively wealthy palatial compound for Herod, the Jewish client-king of Judah, ruling on behalf of the Roman Empire. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to confront the powers, but this was a glimpse of what lie ahead. All the social stratification that had driven him here was on display: the very wealthy living very well and the desperately poor without hope. Crossing the Jordan is symbolically restoring the people of Israel – the enslaved, impoverished, oppressed people – into God’s way of liberation and justice.
Just before this in our story the disciples showed yet again that they did not understand the point of this journey. James and John asked places alongside Jesus in his glory, apparently still thinking he was going to Jerusalem for victory. Then the other disciples get mad, not because they think they are wrong, but because they want a piece of the pie. Jesus reminds them that this journey ends in suffering and that the world he is trying to create is one of equality and justice. There are no prized places in the world of his dreams. Instead, he is there to serve and to be a ransom for many.
Much has been made of this word “ransom,” but William Placher, in his commentary on Mark, warns that might be a mistake. Mark is telling a story, not writing theology. He is drawing on language in the Hebrew tradition, but even in that tradition, the meaning has shifted a bit. In Leviticus, the next of kin is responsible for buying an indebted family member’s property out of hock. In Isaiah, the prophets tell the people that the reason they are exiled in Babylon is because of their sin. God ransoms them both from exile and from the consequences of their sin. In the story of the Maccabean revolt, seven sons are said by their mother to be a ransom for the sin of the nation and an atoning sacrifice that brought about their rescue from their oppressors. How exactly this ransom works – Who is paid? What’s it for? – is not specified by the author of this gospel, but the clear result is in view: those who are suffering are rescued.
In the time of Leviticus as in the time of Jesus, one of the ways people could be relieved of debt was to sell themselves into slavery. This would certainly be a circumstance where that person’s family would ransom them. It is no coincidence then that Jesus meets Bartimaeus, which means something like “son of one who has been bought.” He’s the son of a debt slave and he needs help.
Blind beggars were near the bottom of the social ladder. Then as now, the culture took care of people with infirmities. It was a shame on their families if they were not able to. We know his father was in debt, so he had no means of support. This man and his father are exemplars of the subjects of Jesus’ mission. Instead of the wealthy and powerful caring for them, they accepted them as slaves, took their possessions, and left their children on the street to beg. As Jesus walks by, everyone tries to quiet him down, to keep him from the rabbi of great renown, to maintain the system of status and power that has benefited them.
Bartimaeus cries out and Jesus, for the first time since he called his first disciples, calls him. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak – a blind man throwing away his only possession in a crowd, sure to lose it forever. (This points back to the rich man and forward to the Triumphal Entry.) He calls him “Son of David,” a Messianic title; the blind man sees a lot! Jesus asks him the same thing he asked James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus doesn’t seek power or prestige; he only wants to see. He wants to be saved from his terrible situation, redeemed out of tragedy. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well. Everything he needed, he already had within himself.
Is it possible that we have everything we need to be whole, to be at peace? After watching the disciples get it wrong over and over again, this blind man saw everything and he followed Jesus on the Way. Bartimaeus found healing, gained his sight, and, instead of running the other way, he followed. Given how much he seemed to understand – and in contrast to the disciples – he signed on for the worst part. Jesus will suffer and die and those who follow him will be thrown into despair. Unlike Peter, who denies knowing Jesus, I have a feeling that Bartimaeus was crying out, shouting the Gospel of liberation and justice and peace, demanding to see the Promised Land.