Commentary on Mark 10:46-52
At a first reading this is simply another pleasant story about Jesus healing a blind
man. However, as we shall see, there is much more here than meets the eye. Although Mark’s gospel is the one which gives most details when telling a story, leading people to speak of his using the memories of an eyewitness (perhaps Peter), there is a lot more symbolism in his stories than at first seems apparent.
First of all, this story is strategically placed. It comes at the end of a long portion of the gospel beginning with the healing of a deaf man (8:31-37). This section includes the high point at the middle of the gospel where the disciples recognise Jesus as Messiah and Lord and also the three predictions of his passion, death and resurrection with their accompanying teachings. In between are several other episodes and teachings. Through it all we see the disciples stumbling along in various degrees of misunderstanding as they accompany their Master.
Today’s story brings all this to an end and, in a way, can be seen as a summing up of all that has gone before. Immediately after this, the final phase of the gospel begins with Jesus in Jerusalem for the last time.
We find Jesus and his disciples in Jericho, which lies just north of Jerusalem. They are journeying south on their way from Galilee. We saw yesterday how alarmed they were about Jesus’ determination to head for a place so full of danger for him (and them). As Jesus was leaving the city, accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd of people, there was a blind beggar called Bar Timaeus (son of Timaeus) sitting beside the road. Already we have in this apparently simple description a sentence full of symbolism, some of which we will discuss further on.
Jesus is not just leaving the city*; he is on the first stage of the final and climactic period of his mission on earth. He is heading for Jerusalem. Although he is surrounded by a large number of people, most of them are with him only physically but not in spirit, as we shall soon see.
When the blind man hears all the commotion he naturally wants to know what is going on and is told that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Immediately on hearing this he calls out, “Jesus, son of David, have compassion on me!” It is a form of what we now call the “Jesus Prayer”. A prayer we need to make constantly; a prayer we can only make sincerely when we are truly aware and accepting of our dependence on Jesus’ help and guidance, when we fully acknowledge the distance that exists between what we are and what Jesus is calling us to be.
In making such a prayer, the blind man is opening himself up to all that Jesus can and wants to give him. However, the surrounding crowd, smug in their (physical) closeness to Jesus and contemptuous of an irritating beggar, try to silence him. How often people have given up their approach to Jesus because of discouragements they have met! How often have we, perhaps, been a source of discouragement or scandal to people who were tentatively looking for Jesus and the meaningful life he can open up for us?
This man, however, is not discouraged. The more he is scolded by the crowd, the louder he shouts. Jesus has told us to ask, not once, but many times. This the man does. Then Jesus stops. If the man had not called, Jesus might not have stopped. He would simply have continued on his journey. Jesus constantly passes through our lives. Every single day. How often have we failed to recognise his presence? How often have we failed to call him? How many times has he passed on and out of our day?
“Call him over,” Jesus tells those around him. Notice that Jesus does not call the man himself. He tells others to call him. Again that is something that is the norm in our lives. If we believe that Jesus has appeared to us in a vision and directly called us, either we are ready for canonisation or, more likely, for a mental home! No, it is through others that we are constantly being called. In fact, we might reflect today on the huge number of people who have directly or indirectly brought Christ into our lives. It is because of them that we are what we are now. Without them, we would not know Jesus or the Gospel or the Church.
Notice, too, the fickleness of the crowd. Those who were just now scolding the man are now urging him to approach Jesus. “Courage, do not be afraid; he is calling you.” How many people need to hear those words! And how often they never do! Yes, there is no need ever to be afraid of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. And he is calling everyone of us, in some way or other. But perhaps many have never heard the call, because Jesus expected me to do the calling. But I was too absorbed in myself to do so.
“Get up!” they tell the man. Yes, he is being told to rise, the same verb that describes the rising of Jesus from the dead. He is not just being told to get on his feet but to enter a whole new way of living. He throws off his cloak, which presumably was all he was wearing, and comes to Jesus. He comes to Jesus encumbered with absolutely nothing. It is also reminiscent of the disciples leaving their boats, their nets and their family to follow Jesus. It is reminiscent of the early Christians stripping themselves of all their clothes, symbolic of their sinful past, as they go down into the baptismal pool. When we approach Jesus, we need divest ourselves of everything, get rid of everything we tend to cling to. (Remember the story of the ‘rich’ man earlier this week?)
Jesus now asks him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Isn’t this a wonderful thing to hear from Jesus? But he is asking the very same question of us every day. We often tend to ask what Jesus wants us to do for him but he is also asking us what he can do for us. And when he asks you that question today – as he will – what answer are you going to give him? What you say is going to reveal a great deal about you and your priorities in life.
In a sense, of course, Jesus does not need to know the answer to your question, but you do. And the answer comes from the asking. And have you noticed any changes in the way you would answer the question over the years? And what would today’s answer be?
By the way, did we not hear Jesus asking the same question before? Yes indeed. In yesterday’s Gospel when James and John came asking for a favour, Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Compare now the two answers. The disciples asked for a privilege, for positions of status and authority and power, to be one up over others. What did the blind man ask for? “Rabbuni, that I may see again.” Of course, in our present context he is not just asking for physical sight. He is looking for something much more important; he is looking for IN-sight, the ability to see into the meaning of life and its direction and its ultimate values.
In answer to the question that Jesus is asking us, we could hardly make a better response: “Lord, that I may SEE again.” When we truly see with our inner eye, it changes our whole way of looking at the world and our behaviour changes accordingly. We cannot ask for anything more crucial in life. Perhaps we feel all along that we have been able to see both literally and figuratively. But today we are asking to see again, to have a deeper vision that goes much further into the ultimate meaning of our lives.
Fr Tony de Mello speaks of this in his last book. He calls it Awareness, being wide awake and living with your eyes open. No wonder Jesus responds generously to the man’s request: “Go; your faith, your deep trust in me, has saved you.” “Saved”, that is, restored him to complete wholeness. Only a person with perfect sight (in the sense we have discussed) is truly whole. Only such a person knows where to go and how to get there.
And what happens then? The beggar receives the sight he asked for (“Ask, and you shall receive”) and what does he do? He does the only thing that a person with true vision can do – he follows Jesus on the road, that Road, that Way to Jerusalem and all that it means. He becomes unconditionally a disciple.
Going back now to the beginning of the story we were told that Bar Timaeus, a blind beggar was sitting by the road. This description is one that fits every person who discovers Jesus. We are, without Jesus, blind, we cannot see clearly although we may be very clever and highly educated. But, if we cannot see what Jesus sees, we are sightless, blind.
And we are beggars. We can only truly come to Christ when we realise that, whatever intellectual, social or material endowments we may have, we are basically poor. That was the problem of the rich man who came to Jesus. In his monetary wealth, he was not aware of his radical poverty. We have nothing that is really ours.
Thirdly, the man was sitting beside the road, not on it. And this indeed is the lot of everyone who sits beside the road, to be blind and a beggar in need. The road, as we have said, in the Gospel story is a symbol of the Way that is Christ. It is where there is Truth and Life. And so at the end of the story, the man having made his compact with Jesus, is now able to see, is no longer a beggar, and is accompanying Jesus on the road, on the Way.
This story has meanings going far beyond a mere miracle story. It is a beautiful summing up of how Jesus’ disciples learnt to see and walk with him along the Way. It is a Gospel in miniature, a vignette of the spiritually deprived person discovering where Truth and Life are and committing oneself to it totally.
*Luke mentions the same visit but describes Jesus entering Jericho. Here he has his encounter with the Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (Luke 19:1ff)