Remember the Soil: the Rich Man and Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:32-52)by Fr. Daniel+ on September 23, 2021
One of the questions we return to every so often in our Wednesday bible study is, “How would Mark want us to read this passage?” A good way to answer that question is to look for other passages in Mark that might serve as a kind of ‘reading key’ for interpreting this or that story. To put it differently, sometimes it’s easier to understand this passage when we hold it up against that passage.
Recently, we’ve gotten two stories like that: the story of the Rich Man (10:17-22) and this week’s story of a blind man named Bartimaeus (10:46-52). These stories are good ones to hold together. Both involve a call to discipleship, and both happen while Jesus is traveling. The Rich Man approaches Jesus as Jesus is “setting out on a journey” (10:17), and Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus from the roadside while Jesus is walking from Jericho to Jerusalem (10:46). The Rich Man and Jesus have a conversation in which Jesus clearly loves the man, but when Jesus invites him to follow and tells him what it will involve, the Rich Man declines, leaving in grief (10:22). Meanwhile, Bartimaeus is separated from Jesus by a crowd, and it’s only by stubborn perseverance that he is healed by Jesus, who says to him “your faith has made you well” (10:52).
Something that doesn’t come through very well in English is how Mark describes the setting of these two call stories. In one, Jesus is “setting out on a journey,” and in the other, Bartimaeus is “along the roadside.” In Greek, however, both of these phrases use the word hodos, which means “the way” or “the road.” (The book of Exodus, for example, is the book of ex-hodos, or the road out [of Egypt].) The Rich Man meets Jesus while Jesus is on the way. Blind Bartimaeus calls out while sitting along the way. “The Way” is an ancient way of talking about being a disciple of Jesus: we’re folks who follow the Way.
What we see in these two stories, then, are little parables of discipleship: the Rich Man cannot bring himself to follow the Way of Jesus because he has so many possessions which he wants to keep. Blind Bartimaeus, on the other hand, throws off his cloak (10:50)—his one possession—so as to follow the Way of Jesus.
Now if you’re savvy to Mark’s project, all this talk of discipleship and the Way and possessions will remind you of an important passage early in the Gospel, one that in our bible study has emerged as our reading key for a lot of Mark’s stories. It’s Mark’s parable of the sower in 4:1-21. You may remember it: a sower went out to sow, and scattered seed on all kinds of soil. Some seed fell on the path, and birds came to gobble it up. This first image is literally “some seed fell on the Way.” The parable itself therefore imagines a sower who is traveling—just like Jesus is. As the sower walks, some seed fell on rocky soil, where it sprouted quickly but soon withered in the sun and died for lack of soil depth. Some seed fell amongst thorns, and when it sprouted the thorns grew around it and choked it out. Other seed fell on good soil, where it grew and grew and yielded abundantly.
In pairing these two call stories of the Rich Man and Bartimaeus, Mark is showing us two of these kinds of soil. The Rich Man is like soil full of thorns where the seed of Jesus’ word can’t really grow: “these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (4:19-20). Bartimaeus is like good soil for the seed of Jesus’ word: “these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (4:20).
That hundredfold from the parable is a powerful image of abundance. After the Rich Man declines, remember, Peter speaks on behalf of the disciples and says, “We’ve left everything and followed you” (10:28). Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age” (10:29-30).
Blind Bartimaeus, a poor and lone beggar who has thrown off his cloak for the sake of the good news, has entered a community of disciples. He has entered a community with a hundredfold cloaks he might wear, a hundredfold homes which might welcome him, a hundredfold brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not abstract spirituality; this is tangible care, tangible security for those like Bartimaeus who are, here and now, the most vulnerable.
The Rich Man, however, declined. His concern for his possessions has choked out the word. He has wealth to care for himself a hundred times over, and yet his only company is that of thorns. He could have gained a hundred brothers and sisters like Bartimaeus, and yet the cares of the world prevent him. We may hope for his eventual conversion, but in the story, he chooses to keep his worldly status intact. It’s a hollow power. As we will tragically see in the Gospel’s end, thorns are the only crown that worldly power ever really conveys.
When we read these twin stories of the Rich Man and Bartimaeus against Marks’ own parable of discipleship, we see clearly another of Mark’s favored themes: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31).
Bartimaeus is the last person Jesus heals in the Gospel, and he’s the last person Jesus encounters before entering Jerusalem, the seat of earthly power and Roman influence in Jesus’ community. He follows Jesus on the Way (10:52). It’s interesting that Mark actually names, Bartimaeus, which is odd amongst the many other nameless people Jesus heals.
Is this Mark’s way of suggesting that this last healing encounter is somehow first in importance? I don’t know. But this blind man crying out to Jesus for mercy is surely one from whom we are to learn.