Sunday, October 29, 2006

What do you want me to do for you?

Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. Mark 10:52 Amen.

This seemingly simple story about the healing of Timaeus, a blind beggar who regains his sight, is actually a very sophisticated literary and theological construct. Mark has carefully placed this story at a critical juncture in his narrative, between the account of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and execution in Jerusalem. We must pay careful attention to the location of this story in the overall context of Mark’s gospel if we are to understand it properly.

The healing of Timaeus sets up a series of contrasts that serve to illustrate what it means to follow Jesus “on the way.” This healing story concludes a significant section of Mark’s gospel that began in chapter 8 with the healing of another blind man. These two stories about “sight” bracket and underscore a series of stories that reveal the “blindness” of the disciples. The disciples repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ identity and mission. They refuse to accept his predictions of his death and resurrection. They misconstrue his practice of healing, hospitality, and service, still consumed as they are with their own hunger for power, prestige and status.

The disciples, especially Peter, James, and John, assume that they are privileged members of his inner circle. Not unlike some Christians in our own day, they believe that following Jesus guarantees worldly success and reinforces their sense of entitlement. They hope to ride his coattails to power and, in so doing, reveal how blind they are to the truth of the life he lived and the reality of the death he would face.

How ironic then that Timaeus, a blind beggar, a “nobody,” demonstrates a far greater capacity to “see” than Peter, James, or John. Jesus calls Timaeus, just as he called the disciples, responding to his insistent and persistent cry. By his faith, Timaeus was able to truly “see” Jesus. By faith he regained his sight and followed him on the way. It is this outsider who really “gets it,” while the insiders remain blind.

Remember Jesus’ words to James and John when they were jockeying to position themselves as his right (and left) hand men: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” In his usual reversal of the order of things, Jesus tells us plainly that he has come to stand in solidarity with those who are in bondage, to offer his life in payment for their freedom. The Son of Man, the fully Human One, comes to give his life so that others may have life.

Timaeus, which literally means “one who was purchased or bought,”[1] sees Jesus clearly and follows him willingly because he knows that he is one of the many whom Jesus has purchased from slavery. He has been ransomed, set free from degradation and oppression, by the mercy of God in Jesus. Peter, James, and John represent those who are unwilling to accept their vulnerability, their need for God’s mercy. They remain blind to their true condition and to the compassionate way of Jesus. Timaeus, in contrast, knows who he is – one whose freedom has been secured by an Other – and sees clearly that Jesus, the Compassionate One, was willing to pay the price for that freedom.

By following Jesus “on the way,” Timaeus truly becomes his disciple; one who in turn is willing to give his life over to compassionate service so that others might be set free. And so we have these sharp contrasts: between the sighted disciples who are really blind, and the blind beggar who really sees; between the disciples who think their inner-circle status is secured by their own merit, and the blind beggar who knows that his freedom, his dignity, is based on the mercy of the Compassionate One.

There is yet one more contrast for us to ponder in this story, one that moves us from the text to its wider cultural context. Any reader of Mark’s Gospel in the early Church would have immediately recognized Timaeus as the philosopher and protagonist after whom Plato’s great dialogue is named. Plato’s Timaeus was the most widely read Greek work in antiquity after Homer, and has had the longest continuous influence in the West of any of Plato’s dialogues. It is, perhaps, no accident, that Mark should name this blind beggar, Timaeus.

In fact, Mark’s blind Timaeus, appearing as he does at the juncture between the two main sections of his Gospel, calls to mind a speech of Plato’s Timaeus that occurs at the juncture between the two main sections of his dialogue, and which also takes up the metaphor of sight:

The sight in my opinion, says Plato’s Timaeus, is the source of the greatest benefit to us, for had we not seen the stars and the sun and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years have created number and have given us a conception of time. And from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man. This is the great boon of sight, and of the lesser benefits why should I speak? Even the ordinary man if he were deprived of them would bewail his loss, but in vain. This much let me say however. God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence . . . and that we, learning them and partaking of the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries.

As Gordon Lathrop notes, the “ordinary man” of Plato’s Timaeus is literally in the Greek text a “blind man,” unable to attain to the heights of vision accessible only to the philosopher.[2] There is more than a hint of disdain here for the ordinary person, who is unable to attain the good life due to his or her limited capacity to imitate God by exercising the power of reason. Plato’s Timaeus ignores the wailing of the blind man, the ordinary person, who has nothing to contribute to the philosopher’s project. In the cosmology of the Timaeus, there is no room for compassion, no recognition of our need for divine mercy.

Thus Mark is engaged in an imitation and reversal of Plato’s Timaeus. According to Mark, it is Timaeus who is blind, of no account, incapable of seeing the world rightly. It is only as he becomes willing to acknowledge his blindness and accept his need for healing that his vision is restored. And unlike Plato’s Timaeus, Jesus refuses to ignore the wailing of the blind person who desires to see. In this story, Mark develops a final and telling contrast between the worldview of Jesus, the Son of David, the servant Rabbi whose compassion brings true vision, and the worldview of Plato, the Son of Timaeus, the privileged philosopher blind to the suffering of humanity, the dignity of ordinary people, whose blindness can only be healed by recognizing his need for God’s mercy.

The blindness that afflicts us is our blindness to human suffering and to our complicity in that suffering. The remedy is the practice of compassion. This spiritual blindness is universal, according to Mark: it afflicts both Jew and Gentile, Christian disciple and pagan philosopher. Its root cause is our tendency to make invidious distinctions between insiders and outsiders, the pure and impure, the worthy haves and the unworthy have-nots. Whether we are the disciples trying to tell the blind beggar to shut up and leave Jesus alone, or the arrogant philosopher simply ignoring him as if he were invisible, or the blind one who refuses the mercy offered us, we are all blind until we are willing to follow Jesus on the way of compassion.

We will not be saved by our insider states, by our purity, or by our success. We will not be saved by science, or technology, or human reason, which frequently turn a blind eye to the reality of suffering that they themselves create and legitimate. We will not, alas, be saved by religion or religious observances either. We will be saved by accepting the mercy of God and sharing it with others. That is how Timaeus regained his sight. Jesus invites us to be made well by a similar act of faith and then follow him on the way.

In this regard, I think our bishop, Marc, wisely reminds us that authentic communion, Christian or otherwise, is a union of persons with each other and with God, who are committed to the healing of global human suffering and the mending of the earth that sustains us. If we wish to follow Jesus, then we must cultivate compassion as the cure to our spiritual blindness, and become engaged in the work of healing and mending.

What we discover as we follow Jesus on the way is that this work, far from being drudgery or depressing, is the source of great joy, because through it we come to be in touch with the very life and love of God. As a congregation, I believe we will come to experience such joy as we continue to cultivate a relationship of mutual, loving service with Mission San Lucas in El Salvador. I believe, too, that we must develop a similar project locally, so that we can share the joyful work of compassionate service with our neighbors near at hand. Here is a great mystery: it is in healing that we are healed. It is in giving that we receive. It is by dying that we are raised up into life. It is in acknowledging our blindness, that we become able to see.

We are afflicted with spiritual blindness, yes. But the remedy is at hand. This morning, Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” May we have the courage to reply, “My teacher, let me see again.” Amen.

[1] See Theodore Jennings, Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto, pp. 174-175 for his discussion of this passage.
[2] Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, pp. 25-32. The quote from The Timaeus is on p. 28 of Lathrop’s text.

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