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The other day, I got an email from a friend of mine who is currently serving in mission overseas. He is working with local denominational leaders and questions about full inclusion of LGBT persons arose in their conversations. My friend, though straight, is a staunch ally to the LGBT community and wanting to be prepared for the meeting, he reached out to several colleagues here in the States, myself included, whom he knows to be gay or trans to ask advice. On the day of the meeting, he sent back some pictures of the scene that was unfolding just outside the building – there were protesters. Translating the signs of hatred for us, he remarked that the haters seem to be everywhere. And, my reaction was two-fold – I felt compassion for him that he was exposed to such vitriol but I also felt frustrated that he, in turn, exposed us to that hatred – even though his intentions were to stand in solidarity with his LGBT friends and colleagues. Blinded by his privilege as a straight ally, he was able to share news of the hate without being the recipient of it. He intended it as a vehicle to express his support for the LGBT community. But in doing so, he reminded us once again of the homophobia that still exists throughout the world.
I share this story because it is an example of how best intentions can still be wrapped up in privilege. My friend had the best of intentions – just as James and John do today in our scripture text. And, what we’ll also see is how Jesus came to upend this very system of privilege. Jesus life, death and resurrection reflect God’s intention for the world to be made whole, for broken selves and broken systems to be healed and for all of God’s children to know that there is no status that can draw us closer to God.
Our text today is another long one. The Narrative Lectionary really seems to like long passages that encompass several scenes. As I was reading through it, I noticed that Jesus asks a single question over and over – perhaps you’ll pick up on it too. But, what I found to be interesting is that he asks the same question in response to two very different requests. One request is for privilege and the other is for healing. All week, I have tossed around in my head – privilege or healing? Privilege / healing? How would I respond if Jesus asked me the question he asks the disciples and Bartimaeus? So, I invite you also to reflect on that question as we read the passage and to listen for God’s love in response.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, open our hearts. Open our minds. Open us to your Word. You ask us a question today – may we take serious your question and ponder with greater creativity and hope the possibilities of your presence in the world. Amen.
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
The Gospel of Mark is a rapid-fire exposition with a one-track mind toward the cross and resurrection. But, as readers of this Gospel, we have the benefit of reflection. So let’s not hasten to the end lest we miss out on the lessons learned along the way.
In the middle of the Gospel, Mark uses stories of the blind being made to see as book-ends to three resurrection predictions. Starting in the 8th chapter, a blind man approaches Jesus and seeks to be healed. And then “[w]hat follows for the next two chapters is an assortment of revelatory events, like the transfiguration, and teaching moments on topics like Elijah, divorce, and riches. But the structure of this centerpiece is a threefold pattern repeated three times. There are three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection, immediately followed by three blundering missteps by the disciples, culminating in three repetitious lessons by Jesus” (N. Clayton Croy). And finally, we have today’s story of Bartimaeus, a blind man, calling out to Jesus, meeting him face to face and being made to see again.
Taking a birds’ eye view of the text, we can see the motion and momentum of Jesus’ ministry through this unique organization as well. In the opening story, the blind man is unnamed and is located in Bethsaida. The concluding story tells of a man with a name – Bartimaeus in Jericho. From Bethsaida to Jericho, Jesus is moving physically closer to Jerusalem, closer to the cross. And as the story progresses, Jesus moves from healing an unnamed person to a named person, reflecting the growing discipleship of Jesus, that despite the missteps of the twelve, more and more people are joining the tradition of following Christ. Through the movement of the story, we become more aware of the growth and progress that is made along the journey with Jesus. We witness that learning is taking place, that growth that is happening. Though the disciples have been with Jesus for three years, learning, journeying, and witnessing – there is much more to Jesus yet to understand.
So, Jesus asks this question: “What do you want me to do for you?” The refrain of Jesus’ servanthood begins to emerge in our text this morning and we, like James and John and Bartimaeus, are posed with this question from Jesus too – “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t know about you, but I would need a minute to answer Jesus if he asked me this question. But in the text, we see that James and John and Bartimaeus knew exactly what they wanted and they responded immediately. James and John, they say to Jesus that they want to sit with him in glory on his right hand and on his left. They want to be close to Jesus – they ask for privilege. And, Bartimaeus – when he is asked, he requests healing – to be able to see again. The two responses couldn’t be more different – but, they’re not entirely unrelated. So, let’s unpack this for a bit.
Let’s start with the disciples and their request. We learn from the text that the other ten disciples were angry at the impertinence of James’ and John’s request. And at first blush, it might be easy for us to sit here and agree with the other disciples. We might feel like James and John had quite a nerve to ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand for all eternity – one reason being that if James and John were given the two places of distinction, it would mean that everyone else was excluded from that privilege. But, when we put ourselves in James’ and John’s shoes, we can also relate to their desire for privilege.
You see, the disciples lived in a society of hierarchical structures, just as we do. Although their cultural markers of privilege may have been different from ours today, they too had economic and political and religious elites. They too had “haves” and “have nots.” And, like them, we too, naturally seek out positions of privilege, positions that have higher status for the sake of what we believe that status means. We go to school for business and we work our way up the corporate ladder. We go to law school and we work our way to prestigious judgeships. We volunteer at the food bank and we end up chairing a presbytery committee. On a path to earn our status, we end up living according to the operations of privilege – whether it be economic privilege, white privilege, hetero-normative privilege, gender privilege, educational privilege, citizenship privilege – I’m sure each of us in this sanctuary has experienced this one way or another. When we are in the privileged position, we are blind to the fact that it doesn’t make us more valuable than others. And, when we see others reaping the benefits of privilege around us, we feel the sting of injustice or inadequacy. The nature of privilege is such that justice is understood only in comparison to injustice, that a person’s worth is only understood in comparison to others – and we operate accordingly.
Most of the time, we do these things with earnest intentions. We do them because our community is structured as such to define worth, to define privilege, based on our perceived achievements and status. And the same was true for James and John. They had been faithful disciples, beloved disciples, even. When Jesus called them to leave their fishing nets, their boat and their father behind to follow him, they did – without hesitation. For three years, they walked with Jesus, journeying from village to village with Jesus, healing the sick and witnessing the miracles. They sat around meal tables with sinners and saints alike and they were witness to the Transfiguration up on that mountaintop. Their relationship with Jesus means the world to them – their faithfulness to him is true and dedicated. In their minds, their request to sit at his side in glory was their confession of faith in him as the Messiah. It made sense to them to ask for the next step, to ask for the promotion, to be allowed to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus in glory. And, we can’t fault them for asking – we too desire to be closer to Jesus. But, Jesus, once again, draws their attention to the very brokenness he came to heal.
You see, the hierarchical system that dominated the culture of the time was the very thing Jesus came to upend. The system of hierarchy – the system that privileges some and oppresses others, the system that creates divisions among God’s people, that understands people’s worth in comparison to others, that excludes, the system that nurtures injustice – that system of hierarchy is the brokenness that God, through Jesus, entered into human history to mend. And, the Gospel of Mark lifts up how the framework of promotion and privilege blinds us to the bigger picture of God’s glory – the framework of privilege blinded James and John and it blinds us as well.
Now, just as we can relate to James’ and John’s desire to feel privileged by sitting at the right and left hands of Jesus in glory, we also can relate to their desire to be close to Jesus. As people of faith, we long to draw near to God. But instead of encouraging James and John to cling to him and keep him for themselves, Jesus draws their attention, and ours, to the larger picture of God’s love at work in the world. In his encounter with these two disciples, Jesus reminds us that earning a place in glory isn’t the goal of faithfulness. Jesus isn’t for our sake alone. Rather, Jesus’ presence in the world, the outpouring of a relationship with him, is a gift from God. Through Jesus, God entered into humanity to reveal the immense love God has for the world, that God is always with us and sitting at the right and left hand in glory gets us no closer to the love of God than this very moment on earth now.
In our text this morning, Jesus reminds James, John and us to consider again that his presence in the world is not to elevate us to glory – but that the whole world might be healed and that we might be made whole. Much to their surprise – and probably the surprise of many Christians today – the closeness to God that God desires for us is not is not something we achieve or prove through our goodness or faithfulness. There isn’t a path that allows us to earn closeness to God. Rather, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection usher in a new way of being where the fundamental question we ask one another is changed to ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ and not ‘what can you do for me?’ Wholeness is what God desires for us and for the whole world. Relationship, healing, wholeness – in laboring for these things for the sake of all of God’s children, we will discover the closeness of God is not found in some life beyond this one – but God’s glory will be known here and now, in all things and in all places.
And, the blind beggars – both named and unnamed, illuminate God’s desire for our wholeness. Bartimaeus, the one who sits beside the road and is dependent on the kindness of strangers to toss a crumb of food; the one who once could see and now suffers without the fortune of privilege – he is the one who asks for healing. He doesn’t ask to be singled out above others. He doesn’t ask to be rewarded for his faithfulness. Instead, Bartimaeus asks Jesus to open his eyes so that he can see. He asks to be healed. He asks to be made whole.
This collection of texts is the centerpiece of the Gospel of Mark, and it gives way to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Through it, we begin to see more clearly that Jesus came not to promote privilege but to heal brokenness – not to perpetuate belief that God’s love is for some and not others, but to make known to the world God’s desire for our wholeness.
Friends, we are children of God. We are created in the image of love, created to go out into the world to love God, to love ourselves and love one another – each of us, unique in our own abilities, unique with our own frailties – called to confess our sin and to bathe in the assurance of pardon as God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. Having faith in God’s love for us and for the world, living according to the upending truths Jesus teaches – this is where healing begins to permeate our broken places. This is where our blindness by privilege dies out and makes way for glorious resurrection of new life.
In this Lenten season, we have an opportunity to examine our own response to Jesus’ question. If Jesus posed the question to us today – how would we respond? What would you say if Jesus asked you, “What do you want me to do for you?” Amen.