Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Twentieth Sunday and the Last Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my latest podacst for the Twentieth Sunday and the Last Sunday after Trinity.

The Last Sunday after Trinity 2021

Reading: Mark 10:46-52

When St Mark wrote his Gospel, there were originally no chapter or verse divisions. These were only added a long time after the Gospel was written. Indeed, if you look at an old manuscript of any New Testament document, you will see that not only is the text not divided into chapters and verses, even the words and sentences are not divided. There are no spaces between the words and no punctuation. This doesn’t mean that grammatically there are no sentences; there are. You just have to work them out from the grammar for yourself. The same is true when it comes to the structure of the Gospel. St Mark does have different sections to his Gospel, we just have to recognize them by paying attention to how St Mark orders his Gospel and puts it together.

St Mark begins a new section of the Gospel in chapter 8. We read in chapter 8 of how Jesus takes his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. It is here that Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. St Peter’s answer marks a turning pointing in St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus. Peter recognizes Jesus for who he is: ‘You are the Messiah’ (Mark 8:29), Peter replies to Jesus.

While Peter has recognized who Jesus is, Peter has not understood what being the Messiah means for Jesus and what, in turn, it should mean for the disciples. Jesus, immediately after Peter’s statement of recognition, explains that he will suffer and be killed, and after three days rise again. Peter cannot accept that Jesus as the Messiah can suffer and be killed, and says so emphatically. He receives from Jesus the famous rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ (Mark 8:33). Peter, Jesus says, is seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.

Immediately before going to Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). It is an unusual healing. Jesus first heals the man so he can see partially, but not clearly. Jesus then heals him so he can see completely. The healing serves as the conclusion to the first part of the Gospel, and it is a metaphor for where the disciples are at this point in Jesus’ ministry. The disciples can see that Jesus is the Messiah, but they cannot see clearly what this means either for Jesus or for themselves. They can only see things from a human point of view. In the section which follows, from chapter 8 verse 27 to the end of chapter 10, Jesus seeks to open the ‘eyes of their understanding’, so that they can see things clearly from God’s point of view.

After then rebuking Peter, Jesus goes on to explain what things look like from God’s point of view. Not only must Jesus suffer, anyone who wants to be his follower must also deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34).

Jesus will speak of his death two more times in this section of the Gospel. In Chapter 11, St Mark starts a new section by describing Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and with it the beginning of the events of Holy Week that Jesus has been predicting. In his three predictions of his death, Jesus also speaks of his resurrection, but the disciples are unable to get past Jesus’ words about how he must suffer and die.

Each time, after Jesus’ prediction of his death, Saint Mark shows how the disciples not only do not understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, they also do not understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Each time, they only understand things from a human point of view.

St Mark, throughout this section of the Gospel, describes how Jesus has to teach his disciples what being his follower involves. Jesus’ suffering and death are not only about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, but also provide the pattern for all who would follow him.

The second time Jesus tells his disciples he is going to be killed is as they are travelling back through Galilee from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum. Again, not only do the disciples not understand what Jesus is telling them about himself, they argue over who among them is the greatest.

Jesus explains that they have got it all wrong. Jesus tells them:

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)

Jesus then to make his point takes a child in his arms. If the disciples are to represent him, they have to be like this child. Becoming a follower of Jesus and being like a child means giving up all rights and status. Using graphic imagery, Jesus tells them that it also means being prepared to sacrifice anything that gets in the way of following him (Mark 9:42-48).

After this, when Jesus and his disciples are in Judea, people there bring children to Jesus. The disciples ‘rebuke’ them (Mark 10:13). Children weren’t seen as important, and the disciples consider Jesus giving his attention to children a waste of Jesus’ time. Jesus, however, is indignant. The children must be allowed to come to him. Jesus uses the children coming to him to teach about the Kingdom of God. Unless a person receives the Kingdom of God as a little child, they will never be able to enter it. If a person wants to enter the Kingdom of God, they must do so as one in no position and with no power to do so.

Immediately after this, Saint Mark illustrates Jesus’ message about what it means to be his follower and enter the Kingdom of God by describing the meeting of Jesus with a rich man.

The rich man who comes to Jesus is genuinely living a good life and keeping God’s commandments. Jesus doesn’t question either his sincerity or his obedience. Jesus tells him, however, that he lacks one thing. The rich man must sell all that he has, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus (Mark 10:21). The man has many possessions, and he is clearly attached to them. He goes away shocked and sorrowful. Jesus then shocks the disciples by telling them that it is hard to enter the Kingdom of God and particularly so for those who are rich. Jesus concludes his teaching with the words:

‘But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ (Mark 10:31)

The third time Jesus speaks of his approaching death is immediately after the rich man has gone away shocked and sorrowful (Mark 10:33-34). St Mark describes how Jesus and his disciples are now on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus spells out even more vividly the fate that awaits him there. Jesus will be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed. But still, the disciples do not get it. And still they don’t understand what being a follower of Jesus is all about.

Instead, two of the disciples, James and John, approach Jesus and ask him to grant that they sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory. Jesus tells them they don't know what they are asking. Can they drink the cup he drinks? Can they be baptised with the baptism he is baptised with? They say they can, and Jesus says they shall; but, he tells them, it is not for him to say who will sit next to him when he comes into the glory of his Kingdom. These positions, Jesus tells them, are for those for whom they have already been prepared.

All this severely annoys the other disciples, who are jealous of James and John, and so, yet again, Jesus explains that anyone wanting to be his disciple needs to have a different perspective to that of the world around them. Jesus says to them:

‘… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’ (Mark 10:43)

Three times Jesus speaks of his death and three times Jesus tells them that following him must mean there is a complete change in a person’s attitude and behaviour. His disciples are to become like him in their service of others. As Jesus says:

‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:44)

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has told them they must deny themselves; at Capernaum, that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all; in the region of Judea, that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first; and on the way to Jerusalem that whoever wishes to become great among them must be their servant, and whoever wishes to be first among them must be slave of all.

Jesus’ teaching about what it means to his follower is absolutely clear. Following Jesus means denying oneself; becoming a child without power or position; removing anything in their life that gets in the way; accepting the cup and baptism of Jesus suffering and dying with him and for him.

At first, the healing story with which St Mark closes this section of the Gospel seems not to be related to what we have been reading in chapters 8-10. Indeed, we haven’t read of Jesus healing anyone for a while. Why does St Mark include this story here?

Jesus and his disciples are now at Jericho. Jericho is a famous city in the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the oldest cities in the world (dated by some to 9,000 BC). Jericho is some 825 feet below sea level and more than 3,300 feet below Jerusalem. It is ten miles northwest of the northern shore of the Dead Sea and, most importantly of all, just twelve miles east of Jerusalem. This is Jesus’ last stop before he gets to Jerusalem.

As Jesus and his followers are leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, hears that Jesus is passing. Bartimaeus starts crying out, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mark 10:47). He may not be able to see, but he recognizes who Jesus is. Many tell Bartimaeus to be quiet. Beggars who have nothing are nothing but a nuisance. Jesus, however, tells them, ‘Call him’ (Mark 10:49). Children and beggars are precisely the sort of people Jesus wants to come to him: ‘the last shall be first’.

Those with Jesus say to the beggar:

‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ (Mark 10:49)

Jesus asks him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10:51). Bartimaeus replies, ‘My teacher, let me see again’ (Mark 10:51). Jesus says simply, ‘Go, your faith has made you well’ (Mark 10:52). Bartimaeus does go. He goes with Jesus. He has become a follower.

All of which is all very heartening. It’s a story with a happy ending before the horror that awaits us in Jerusalem. St Mark, however, wants us to pause for a moment here outside of Jericho and think on what he has been telling us. The fact that St Mark chooses to close this section of the Gospel with a story about Jesus healing someone, especially when there haven’t been any stories about healing for a while, ought to alert us the significance of this story beyond the description of a physical healing.

St Mark uses this story to conclude this section of the Gospel. This story connects with what has gone before and links to what Jesus has been trying to teach the disciples in this section of the Gospel about the Kingdom of God and becoming his follower.

That St Mark intends us to read the story in this way is to be seen in some of the verbal clues he gives us. Let us look then at the story in the light of the events that precede it and the clues that St Mark gives us. We will do this under three headings.

1. The Children and the Beggar

When people bring children to Jesus, the disciples ‘rebuke’ them. When Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, those with Jesus ‘rebuke’ him. The word St Mark uses in Greek is the same. This is the first verbal clue that St Mark uses to link the healing of the beggar with a previous event. In both cases, Jesus overrules those who stop the children and the beggar coming to Jesus. This, as we have seen, has been Jesus’ constant theme: the ‘first shall be last and the last first’. Children and beggars were on the last rung of the social ladder, and anyone wanting to become Jesus’ follower must become like them.

Anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must enter it as a child with no rights or status and as a beggar with nothing to offer. Children and beggars have to receive everything they need to live. We have to receive the Kingdom of God as children and beggars. The Kingdom of God is given to those who come to Jesus knowing that they have nothing to give.

This is good news for children and beggars. When Jesus tells those with him to call the beggar to him, they say to Bartimaeus:

‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ (Mark 10:49)

At every Eucharist Jesus speaks these words to us. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the first of the ‘comfortable words’ is:

‘Hear the words of comfort our Saviour Christ says to all who truly turn to him: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden …’

Many of us do feel like we are labouring and are heavy laden. Many people feel crushed and overwhelmed by life. Life is demanding, and we daily face many challenges in it. The technology that is meant to make our life easier often only serves to complicate it further. Many, not sure where to turn, turn to life coaches, counsellors, and the ‘experts’ of the self-help industry, all of whom advise us to turn to ourselves. ‘You can do it’, they tell us.

The Gospel tells us, ‘You can’t do it’. The Gospel tells us that if we want to receive eternal life, abundant life, life with meaning and purpose, then we need to receive it as children and beggars. We need to see ourselves as those who are powerless and helpless. The world tells us to turn to ourselves. The Gospel tells us to turn to Jesus.

We truly turn to Jesus when we come to him as children and beggars. We come to Jesus as those who are spiritually blind and who can’t see the way. Those who turn to Jesus don’t know all the answers, but they believe that he does.

So, if you are seeking for the answers to life’s questions, if you are looking for help and guidance so you can see your way, Jesus says to you:

‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ (Mark 10:49)

2. The Rich Man and the Beggar

Unfortunately, there are many who want to come to Jesus, but who want to come to him on their own terms. They are perfectly sincere and even keen in their desire to be religious. Like the rich man in the Gospel, they run to Jesus and even kneel before him. They have kept all the commandments; they do all the right things. Their life is not a mess; anything but. They have a nice partner, nice family, nice home, nice job; they are holy and happy. But they want to stay that way. How can they be certain that they will be OK after death in the way they are before it? What must they do to be sure of eternal life?

As the saying has it, ‘You can't take it with you’. No, you can’t; death takes everything from us. Jesus, however, goes further and tells the rich man to give away everything he has now. Jesus doesn't tell everyone to give away everything they have, but he does tell everyone that they need to break their attachment to everything they have. We all have to leave behind our love of wealth and material possessions. We all have to come to Jesus as beggars who have nothing.

There is a detail in the story of the beggar that it is easy to miss. When Bartimaeus is told that Jesus is calling him, he throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus (Mark 10:50). His cloak is all he has, and he abandons it to come to Jesus. There is more. Those following Jesus as they leave Jericho are afraid at where the journey is going to lead. Jesus doesn’t ask Bartimaeus to follow him to Jerusalem, but Bartimaeus doesn’t have to be asked. He is going to follow Jesus come what may. His faith has saved him, and he follows Jesus without having to be asked. The rich man is asked but chooses to go away.

Jesus told the rich man he lacked one thing and invited the rich man to follow him. The rich man refused because he wouldn’t let go of his wealth. The rich man came to Jesus searching for answers, but went away shocked and sorrowful because he didn’t get an answer he liked. It’s a warning to us that meeting with Jesus can leave you worse off than you were before.

The disciples were shocked. If a rich man can’t enter the Kingdom of God, who can? Bartimaeus provides the answer to their question. Those who are willing to receive the Kingdom of God as a beggar. Those willing to leave behind even the cloak on their back.

We may not express ourselves in the same way as the disciples, but we think like them. Who, for example, do we look up to? Who do we choose as role models and for the leading positions in the Church? We don’t invite children and beggars to give talks in church, chair our committees, write books, or star in videos. However, the moment a celebrity appears in church or someone successful and powerful comes along, everyone soon knows all about it. What we are saying by our attitude to those who rich, powerful, and popular is that it is those who are successful in this life who are the ones that we trust to lead us into the next. Think about that for a moment and think whether that’s what Jesus teaches.

Jesus, St Mark told us, loved the rich man, not because he was rich, but in the hope the rich man would sell all he had and become a beggar. We don’t today know the rich man’s name; we do know the name of the beggar: ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ (Mark 10:31).

3. James and John and the Beggar

It appeared as if James and John had left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28). They had certainly given up their day jobs and their possessions. They are not far from the Kingdom of God, but they are not quite there yet. The question that Jesus asks the beggar is the same question he asked them:

‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10:36; 10:51)

James and John know exactly what they want Jesus to do for them. James and John want to share Jesus’ glory as they sit on his right and on his left in his Kingdom. They think sharing Jesus’ glory means position and power. Jesus knows it means suffering and death. Jesus tells them that if they want to participate in his glory, they must drink his cup and share in his baptism. Jesus’ glory is inseparable from his crucifixion. Jesus comes into his glory, not after the Cross, but as he is nailed to it. And who is it who gets to sit at his right and his left when he is nailed to it? Two bandits, one of whom enters paradise with him: ‘the last will be first.’

Many want what James and John asked for. They want prosperity, promotion, and for life to be pain free. Jesus instead asks us his followers whether we can drink the cup of sacrifice, service, and suffering.

James and John want glory; Bartimaeus wants mercy. Bartimaeus, the beggar, knew his need. James and John, the disciples, had yet to discover theirs.

We need to discover our need. When we pray our prayers are rarely for eternal life and an increase in holiness, but for a better life and an increase in happiness. God does answer our prayers, and he gives good gifts to his children. The sick are healed and miracles still happen. But what we want is not necessarily what we need. Our need is for mercy; our need is for Jesus.

Our Church is to be a place where people find mercy, where the blind receive their sight, and where people hear Jesus’ words to them, ‘Go, your faith has saved you’.

And so, Jesus asks us: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

The Blessed Virgin Mary said God ‘fills the hungry with good things, but the rich are sent away empty’ (Luke 1:53). Not sent away because they are rich, but because they refuse to admit their need and let go of their wealth on earth, so that they may have treasure in heaven.

If you come to Jesus confident in yourself, certain of your own abilities, and looking for glory in this world, you will go away empty. But if you come to Jesus as a beggar looking for mercy, for forgiveness, and for strength to live your life to the glory of God, you will go away full of good things.

So again, Jesus asks us, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’


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