Homily October 28, 2018
Homily for the XXIV Sunday after Pentecost B - October 28, 2018
Hebrews 7: 23-28
Mark 10: 46-52
The healing encounter between Jesus and Barthimeus takes place in the city of Jericho. This was the last stop of most pilgrimages to the capital city. And here Jesus and his disciples rest, just before his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey like a peaceful king. Before meeting Barthimeus, Jesus walks toward Jerusalem talking to his disciples about his suffering and death, which they refuse to acknowledge or understand; after meeting with Barthimeus, the events leading to the death of Jesus pile up very rapidly. So we are at the cusp of the life of Jesus. And in this very tense situation, the story of Barthimeus functions as a respite and as a symbolic summary of the teachings on discipleship that Jesus has been delivering for quite a while.
As you might remember, in the Gospel of Mark the teachings of Jesus about discipleship are organized around the notion of “letting go”. To be a follower of Jesus one must let go of success, of preconceived notions of group identity, of family ties, of wealth (material or symbolic), and finally of one's own life. Hard stuff! To the point that just the first of these teachings could occupy us for a while. What would it mean to lead one's life without being preoccupied at all with the notion of success? Don't we all want to be successful in what we do? To conduct one's life on a basis different than the attempt to be successful is contrary to all that we have learned since a very young age. It sounds impossible and unreasonable. Was Jesus unreasonable? Jesus meant to transform human life quite radically. Even back then, people thought that the purpose of life was acquiring more honor for oneself and one's group, to the expense of others. The notions of success and honor have surely changed, but they still dominate human consciousness. Competitiveness is so invasive that it can harm even intimate relations. I cannot say if Jesus was unreasonable, but I can say that his plan has not been, indeed, very successful. This is indeed the core of the paradox that his teachings and, indeed, his person represent. He came to announce that the “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mk 1:15) and the first half of the Gospel of Mark is all about seeing and tasting the coming of the kingdom. And, yet, the second half of the Gospel is about the need to let go of all plans to be successful, to the point that Jesus allows himself to be killed. We do not know if there was a shift in Jesus' consciousness; if he first believed that the kingdom could be brought about through his preaching, and later he realized that his call was that of not opposing resistance to violence. But if we pay attention to the effects of his teachings on “letting go” we can learn something important. In those whom we call “saints” the letting go of worldly success, of family ties, of wealth, and so on and so forth, triggers an experience of enlightenment and liberation. Until we reside on this bank of the river, this letting go sounds hard and strange, and we are legitimately suspicious that we are putting ourselves at risk. But once we have crossed the river, we experience an alternative kind of success. Individually, we are not bothered any more by the enormous pressure of competition, especially when we compete with an ideal image of ourselves that we want to match. Collectively, we realize that our call is to become one of those rare pockets of society where the savoring of connections and the pleasure of sharing, rather than competition, are at the center of life. We still go about our business of making a living, and hopefully of having creative lives, but we are free from the frenzy of success and all that comes with it. We might become marginal, but maybe we already are.
Barthimeus is a marginal. A beggar that people are trying to silence, until Jesus notices him. Jesus offers: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus, the one who came not to be honored, but to honor the dispossessed and the marginal, is at his disposal. Notice that James and John were asked the same question, and they answered that they wanted power. Surely, power that they intended to exercise wisely and for the common good, but still... Barthimeus instead does not ask for honors, or wealth, or power, or success. He asks to be able to see, and after his enlightenment he becomes a disciple. He has already left on the ground his coat, a very necessary possession for a beggar, when he jumped to be in front of Jesus. The coat represents all his attachments. He is the one disciple who gets it. The one who is ready to let go and follow. He understands that all those things that people crave, from success to wealth, are ties and limitations to his freedom and fullness of life. He is the last-minute disciple, when Jesus is almost at the gate of Jerusalem, and the most marginal of them. But he gets it.
I have been preaching for a while about exiting from “cultural Christianity”. Preachers sometimes exhort their congregations to leave their denominational Church and become independent, mainly because their denomination has become too progressive or is still too conservative. But that seems to me “same old, same old”. Jesus, after all, never asked his disciples to leave Judaism. The novelty that he wanted to bring was about the inner quality of the fulfillment of the commandments. Following our Master, we can ask ourselves what does it mean for us, individually and collectively, to be Christians, once we stop to think that going to church is simply what you do. The conversation between Jesus and Barthimeus ends with Jesus saying: “Your faith has made you well”. A sentence which deflects attention from Jesus himself, focusing it instead on the inner process of the one who is healed. We need to ask ourselves if our faith does indeed make us well, it is heals us and makes us free and whole. If it makes as free from excessive cares, if it makes us joyful and attentive to others. If it doesn't, perhaps it's just “cultural Christianity”, whose days are counted and it's boring anyway. Jesus stands in front of us asking: “What do you want me to do for you?” What is most important? To be successful, or rich and powerful, or even to keep one's life intact, or rather to live dangerously and freely, marginals welcoming other marginals? We can be on the road to our own sanctity, which is nothing else than our full humanity. Amen.