Casting off the cloak

The powerful sculpture by Gurdon Brewster dramatically indicates how Bartimaeus casts off his coak. http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/gbbartimaeus.html

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel Mark 10.46-52

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe; clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

There’s a real appropriateness that Mark 10.46-52 – the giving of sight to Bartimaeus – should be the lectionary Gospel reading for the last Sunday in the church’s year before there is a shift in direction as the lectionary reorientates itself and turns to prepare for Advent. For these verses mark the final culmination of Jesus’ public ministry before he enters Jerusalem (which happens at the beginning of chapter 11), and they are clearly presented as something of a ‘finale’.

It is telling, and undoubtedly significant that the last word in the passage is a form of the noun odos  = ‘way’.  ‘Way’ is a fundamental word in the Gospel of Mark: it is of course used twice in the biblical quotation with which the Gospel opens, ‘my messenger who shall prepare your way… make ready the way of the Lord’ (Mark 1.2-3). It then reappears in a ‘loaded’ way at some key points in Mark’s story, ‘What were you discussing on the way? But they were silent for on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest?’ (Mark 9.33-34), ‘They were on the way going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going ahead of them, and those who followed were afraid.’ (Mark 10.32).

When ‘way’, therefore appears in Mark 10.52 it may indeed refer to the literal road that Jesus and his disciples would need to take from Jericho to Jerusalem, but it is also clearly loaded with the resonances of discipleship, which will involve those who ‘follow’ Jesus also being prepared to travel on ‘the way of the cross’. It is a deliberate marker of what will await Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Notice the echo of the word ‘David’ in Bartimaeus’s cry, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mark 10.48) in the words with which the crowds greet Jesus at his triumphal entry, ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’ (Mark 11.10). Yet as Jesus will later point out (Mark 12.35-37) can the Messiah really be described simply as ‘son of David’ – perhaps not least due to all the political resonances of the title? It would be such ambiguities that would lead Jesus on ‘the way’ from Palm Sunday so shortly to Good Friday.

One of the reasons that I especially enjoy the Gospel of Mark is that this Gospel seems to cherish what I call ‘the little people’ – those who demonstrate the antithesis of the ‘biggist’ attitudes of the inner core of Jesus’ disciples, displayed for example in last week’s Gospel reading (Mark 10.35-45). Bartimaeus is an example of these ‘little people’ and it is significant that his encounter with Jesus is given such a pride of place in Mark’s story.

There is a powerful short meditation on Bartimaeus and his encounter with Jesus by Jan Sutch Pickard as one of the six voices she offers in a short reflection ‘Follow me’:

‘Come,’

He said – and I did,

Following his voice

Through the crowd on the edge of town.

I needed wait no longer:

My voice had been heard

Calling for change,

Crying out for a fresh start –

Even though it meant

Casting off old ways,

No longer the needy person everybody knew.

‘Come,’ he said

And I saw what God could do.

‘Your faith has healed you,’

He told me, ‘Now go.’

He never said, ‘Follow me’ –

But, as I could see, there was no other way.

(from Dandelions and Thistles: biblical meditations from the Iona Community,edited by Jan Sutch Pickard, 1999)

One other significant aspect of Bartimaeus’ story is his cast off cloak. In several biblical books clothing, or the lack of it, becomes a vital symbol carrying the story, and visually demonstrating the attitudes of those who are involved. Genesis is certainly an example of this. The Gospel of Mark is another with its references to the garb of John the Baptist (Mark 1.6), Jesus’ own attire on the mountain of transfiguration (Mark 9.3), the young man who runs away naked (Mark 14.51) and then sits clad in a white garment on the right side at the tomb (Mark 16.5).  Indeed it is interesting to explore how the visual symbol of clothing can be used in a number of ways throughout the worship and liturgies of Holy Week.

Bartimaeus’ gesture with his now no-longer needed beggar’s cloak (onto which alms had been  thrown)  is a part of this tale of clothes, and his willingness to cast off his probably sole possession was, for Mark, a visible symbol, and example for others, of the ‘way’ of discipleship.

Cast off the cloaks that cling so heavily upon you,

Open your eyes and look upon the world with new vision,

and follow Jesus in the way of God, rejoicing in faith and hope and love.

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