So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
Compare Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) with the rich man (Mark 10:17-22). What do you find?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
We can learn a great deal by thinking of scripture passages not as atomized and independent stories but as (to borrow a phrase from Mark specialist Joanna Dewey) an interwoven tapestry. Sure, the individual threads are beautiful, but they combine to form something much greater than the sum of their parts.
The story of Batimaeus is a good one. But it does not exist in isolation. Rather, it lives cheek-by-jowl with the story of the rich man who wanted eternal life–but didn’t want it more than he wanted his stuff. It is likely that Mark intended for the audience to compare Bartimaeus with the wealthy man who refused Jesus’ call. The two men exist at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, with Bartimaeus as a beggar in contrast to the wealthy man. Both stories start with the men making a request of Jesus. The comparison may explain the unusual detail that Bartimaeus left behind his garment: this was his only possession, but he was willing to jettison it at Jesus’ call–in contrast to the wealthy man who was unwilling to abandon his own vast possessions. And while the wealthy man is specifically invited to follow Jesus—and refuses—Bartimaeus is not invited (in fact, the command to “go” may be read as precisely the opposite of an invitation to discipleship) and yet Mark narrates that he followed Jesus. In this light, Bartimaeus’ poverty is a blessing: it makes it easier to follow Jesus because he has much less to leave behind; his material goods exert a much weaker call on him. The symbolic lesson is clear: the rich man chose to be blind (or: revealed his blindness) by selecting wealth over eternal life. Further, Bartimaeus is shown to be more blessed that the rich man; this would have been a radical idea.
There’s another story to which it might be useful to compare the one of the blind beggar: In both the Bartimaeus story and the story of the request of James and John, characters approach Jesus with a plea. And Jesus responds with virtually identical language to both requests (Mark 10:36: “What would ye that I should do for you?” and Mark 10:51: “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” The Greek for both questions is also very similar.) But note that Bartimaeus asked for mercy while James and John asked for honors (after first asking for anything they wanted). James and John request honors as if that were their due, while Bartimaeus asks for mercy, which is framed as something he does not deserve. Mark places both stories in proximity to heighten the contrast.
So, again, be sure not to read the stories of Jesus’ mortal ministry as isolated incidents. Let them refract light through each other.