What a strange little story for Mark to place just here! We’re all conscious of how high the stakes are growing as we approach Jerusalem, and then Mark brings in a little, ordinary miracle (think about those two words for an oxymoron!), apparently no different from scores of other blind people that the Messiah has healed.
My pattern in writing these devotions has been, that as I sit down to read the reading for the day (and when I first broke up the Gospel into the various sections for this Lenten series, too), I ask the Holy Spirit to show me particularly why Mark wrote this piece, in this way. I don’t consult other writers. It’s not the only way to approach scripture, but this has been my way for this series. Why, of all the words that could be chosen, of all the incidents that could be selected, why this one chosen, here, why this way told, now?
I am convinced, beyond any persuasion to the contrary, that part of the process of inspiration of scripture is the divine selection and placement of events in the various books of the Bible, while still allowing the writer some responsibility and freedom to write. The theory around inspiration of scripture is complex, but I believe it.
So here, we have this little cameo appearance of a man called Bartimaeus, who was blind, but came to see. Remember, we are not given the names of most of the people who are given miracles. In fact, all but two remain anonymous: Lazarus and Bartimaeus. Why does Mark give us his name?
Bartimaeus is not a typical Jewish name. Bar is like Mac at the beginning of Scottish and Welsh names or son at the end of English names. It just means son of. Macdonald: son of Donald; Davidson: son of David; Bartimaeus: son of Timaeus.
Timaeus is a Greek name. He is quite a significant character in one of Plato’s Dialogues with Socrates. In Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens, he portrays Plato carrying a bound book, labelled Timeo. In Plato’s Dialogues, Timaeus discusses the differences between the physical world, which he says is always changing and perishing, and the eternal world which is changeless. So, he argues, the physical world is not to be trusted, while the eternal world is best described using reason (Greek: logos, or the Word, as in John 1). The Divine Creator of the world, said Timaeus, was pure goodness.
What’s in a name? We can presume from his name, that Bartimaeus was the son of a Greek father and Jewish mother. That was not uncommon in the Israel of Jesus’ time.
Mark, the only Greek-named Gospel writer, wants us to see all this in this little story.
Secondly, we read that Bartimaeus was sitting by the road, begging, when he heard Jesus coming by. This Greek-Jew shouts using some very clear words: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!
This is what Christians have called, down the centuries, a Jesus Prayer. The usual form of the Jesus Prayer has seven words: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. This prayer has been prayed millions of times by Christians, especially in the East. I use it often, myself. Especially if I am lying awake at night, unable to sleep, I repeat it over and over in my mind.
Jesus stops walking ahead, and gives the simple command: Call him! Bartimaeus throws his cloak aside, goes to Jesus and says the simple words, Rabbi, I want to see.
In this exchange, we hear the collective cry of the Eastern and Western worlds. All the strivings for truth from Plato and Socrates, from Aristotle, Homer, Pythagoras and thousands more then and now who have sought for truth and light. Rabbi, I want to see. Jesus, the Son of David, brings the light of eternal, changeless truth to the Western world, in the form of a blind beggar who wanted above all, to see.
Unlike the wealthy Jew earlier in the same chapter, who would not give up his wealth despite his enormous privilege of clearly seeing Jesus and knowing the entire Torah which came before him, this Greek Jew left behind everything. He threw his cloak aside – his only possession. He left the money in his begging bowl. And he followed Jesus along the road to Jerusalem.
So why did Mark include this story? Here’s the answer in four short summaries:
A Greek man whose name recalls the greatest wisdom of the West, came to Jesus, in order to see, and in his coming, opened up the wisdom of Jesus, the eternal Word, to the Western world.
- The story follows immediately after two sad and surprising stories. First, the disciples who, despite walking with Jesus and hearing his teaching, were blind to what he was saying; and second, the rich, privileged young man with the full Jewish heritage, who walked away from Jesus, refusing to see him any more. A blind Greek-Jew was more open to the truth than either of these.
- A Greek man recognises that Jesus is the Son of David, that is to say, the Messiah. This was the first part of Mark’s introductory sentence in 1:1. The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah (Jesus Christ). We might wonder whom Mark will choose to give the truth about Jesus being the Son of God, the second part of his introductory sentence? Watch this space!
- This astounding coming-together of East and West is the final incident, and the only named miracle healing that Mark chooses to recount before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the great showdown of what we call Holy Week.
Mark’s Gospel structure: Accident? Coincidence? Or planning?
I cannot help but see two careful minds in this process.
First, a human mind, carefully crafting his book. And second, the mind described 350 years earlier in clumsy, groping half-truths by Plato in the form of his character, Timaeus. This eternal mind that Plato guessed at, we know to be Jesus Christ. Now Bar-Timaeus knew, too, that this Jesus was the Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, the One who enables the blind to see.
And so Western civilisation began.
 Plato is pointing up because in his philosophy the true reality is eternal and above. Aristotle, the second figure, is pointing down, because in his philosophy, reality is what we can see and experience.