Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
24 October 2021
[ video ]
Not seeing the forest for the trees
Sometimes we are so captivated by the details in front of us that we do not notice the large reality of which that item is but one part.
In everyday speech we say that someone cannot see the forest for the trees.
They are so concerned about the details that they do not see the big picture.
In today’s readings, the “tree” is the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar named Bartimaeus at Jericho.
I suspect many sermons will be preached today about this otherwise unknown minor character in the Gospels. But in talking about this one character in the story that Mark is telling, they may perhaps miss the forest which Mark has been carefully tending in the background.
Standing back from the tree to see the forest
We are now almost at the end of a year spent listening to the way Mark tells the Jesus story.
What have we learned?
The Gospel according to Mark was the first of those 4 gospels included in the New Testament to be written. He seems to have done something which no one else had tried before, and as best we can tell he was doing this during the last quarter of the first century after the Romans had suppressed the Jewish revolt and destroyed Jerusalem along with its fabled temple.
Mark provided the basic storyline for Matthew and Luke, when they each prepared their own versions of the Jesus story sometime later. But Mark is a very different story from theirs. It has no birth legends and no resurrection stories; just an empty tomb and some frightened women.
One way of reading Mark is to see him addressing two major questions:
- Who was Jesus?
- How do we follow him?
During the first half of his document, Mark develops the idea that Jesus is like some supercharged combination of both Moses and Elijah. Jesus, for Mark, unites the covenant legacy of Moses with the prophetic power of Elijah, and then more so. He is something else again.
The second half of the Gospel according to Mark has two very clear sections. In the final section (chs 11–16), we are in Jerusalem and Jesus is about to be crucified. The conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities is reaching its climax.
But before we get to Jerusalem, Mark has an extended section that teases out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: 8:22 to 10:52.
Two blind men see, while 12 sighted men fumble
That section begins and ends with Jesus healing a blind man. And in between times Jesus seems to be dealing with a bunch of disciples who cannot see even though their eyes appear to be working!
This middle section of Mark opens with a strange scene where Jesus seems to have trouble healing a blind man who is brought to him at Bethsaida. You may remember the story.
Jesus normally heals people with just a word, rarely even a prayer. But in this case Jesus makes a paste by mixing some dirt with own spit and placing it on the man’s eyes.
It partly works.
When asked, “Can you see anything?” (itself a strange question for Jesus to ask!), the man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
This time Jesus looks intently at the man and lays his hands on the guy for a second time.
Now the man’s sight was fully restored, he could see clearly; and Jesus sent him home. We are never told his name.
During the rest of chapter 8 and through chapters 9 and 10, the disciples seem to be a lot like that man!
They can see, but nothing is clear to them.
Over and again Mark collects stories where Jesus talks about the nature—and the cost—of discipleship. And the Twelve simply do not get it. Not ever.
Mark even has Jesus tell them no less than 3 times in two and half chapters that he is going to Jerusalem, he will be killed there by the authorities, but that after three days he will rise again.
Then they reach Jericho and Jesus encounters another blind man.
Bartimaeus is excited to hear that Jesus is passing by, and when Jesus asks what Bartimaeus wants from him, he is very clear: “I want to see again!”
No more mud paste this time, as Jesus assures him that he will regain his sight because his own faith has made him well.
But notice what happens next:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:52)
Can we see the forest?
Bartimaeus does not go home, but walks the way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross.
Finally, Jesus has a disciple who sees clearly and is willing to follow him.
We never hear of Bartimaeus again, but he is the archetype of discipleship.
He does not ask to keep his wealth. He does not seek a powerful role in the kingdom of God. He does not ask Jesus to wait while he buries his father or arranges his business affairs. He does not jostle for recognition and status. He does not criticise those who believe differently. He simply follows Jesus in the Way.
He sees what he has to do. And he does it.
That is the forest: to be a disciple, someone who walks the Way of Jesus.
All that we have experienced and learned during this past year is for this one simple purpose: Can we now see more clearly that the one thing which matters is whether we choose to walk the Way of Jesus?
As we come to the Table of Jesus in a few minutes we are saying, “Yes, I will walk the way of Jesus.”