Pentecost 21 Mark 10: 46-52
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As some of you are aware because you are fans, St Matthew’s has a Facebook page where bits and pieces about our parish life are posted and people can make comments. While on holiday one of our fans, Ali in Vancouver, Canada, asked if I was going to continue my Wisdom for Dummies series. While gratified by this “overwhelming” demand for more such sermons, I haven’t answered her. I have no idea if there will be more or not.
What I do know is that after reading Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Jesus, I feel like the two young fish who while swimming along happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and asks, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"[i]
Jesus, the wisdom teacher has brought me up short. By asking about the water, he changed my beliefs. I no longer believe I am the absolute centre of the universe as we were all hardwired at birth to think. I now believe Jesus’ intent was to wise us up; not to become our personal saviour. He wanted to challenge our assumptions about reality. He wanted to raise our consciousness to a level where we see the falseness of “otherness.” The idea that life is all about us versus everything else. He wanted us to discover that we are part of a greater whole: one with each other and our environment, and all is divine love.
I now believe this, so now I see it. It colours everything for me. It alters my response to the challenges of daily life. It impacts how I relate to others. In essence it shapes my experience. And Ali, I suspect it will filter how I read the Gospel and nuance how I preach it as I continue to explore it’s meaning and live into its reality.
That was certainly true when I read the story of Bartimaeus this week. While I’ve read it many times before, this time I couldn’t stop laughing. Mark is a masterful storyteller, but I hadn’t fully before appreciated his capacity for humour.
Blind beggars are not exactly at the top of the social ladder in Jesus’ day or ours. Bartimaeus was not on the “must invite” list of the social climbers in Jericho. In fact to the upright moral folk in the town he was invisible, at least until he starts yelling for attention. Nice twist Mark! They try to shush him, but then the guy who can’t see tells those with sight but no vision that Jesus is the Son of David. You have to love the irony.
Since the poor can’t afford good manners, Bartimaeus keeps yelling. All he has is his need, so he keeps on yelling. And yelling. So Jesus takes a deep breath and does what he does best. He asks Bartimaeus a question. The same question he asked the rich young man two weeks ago, “OK, relax mate. What do you want?”
Biblical scholar John Dear wrote a book called The Questions of Jesus. It turns out that while the powers that be want there to be known answers to difficult questions, common answers that bind the people and quell dissent, Jesus had a different idea.
Jesus was about helping us live life abundantly; not parceling out answers. He was not the answer man. He wanted people to think things through for themselves.
Jesus only directly answers three of the 183 questions that are posed to him in the four Gospels. Only three! In contrast, Jesus, the wisdom teacher, the guide; the respecter of persons is recorded as asking 307 questions of others.[ii]
To Jesus’ question, Bartimaeus who had little to lose asks for the seemingly impossible, “I want to see!”
Now Mark is really twisting the ironic knife. The only one in the crowd who has the wit and wisdom to see that Jesus is the Messiah, says to this same Messiah, “I want to see.”
In essence, Jesus tells him he does see. His faith in the possibility of a new reality has been realized. This new consciousness that exceeds even the disciples’ has done the trick. He believes so he can see. Then unlike the rich young man and the crowds swarming Jesus, his belief changes his experience. He moves from sitting and being by the Way to being on the Way-- living into this new reality.
While Bartimaeus’ belief gave him the vision to see that healing love was within reach, beliefs can easily cause us to become blind to the obvious as well. Research has shown that even minor tweaks to one’s expectations can cause a form of blindness. A simple experiment developed by University of Illinois psychologist Daniel Simons provided a dramatic demonstration of this effect.
Simon’s experiment consists of a twenty-five second video clip of six people playing a basketball game. Three are dressed in white T-shirts and three in black T-shirts. The white team is passing a basketball amongst themselves, and the black team is doing likewise. During the game, a person dressed in a black gorilla suit calmly walks into the middle of the game, beats its chest, and then walks off. The gorilla is not understated or camouflaged – it’s blatantly obvious. And yet the majority of people viewing the clip do not see the gorilla provided they’re asked a simple question: how many basketballs are tossed between the members wearing white T-shirts? [iii]
While asking questions can lead to improved vision, clearly not all questions are equally good. Some invite us to miss the obvious.
There once was a man who wanted to know all about the creatures that lived at the bottom of the sea. So he created a huge net with weaving that left openings of only three inches wide. He laid it down upon the ocean floor, let it set awhile, and then pulled it up, capturing all in its grasp. Then he examined the contents and prepared a report on his meticulous research.
It was all fascinating, he said, so many different creatures and varieties. The thing he found interesting though, was that there are no creatures smaller than three inches that inhabit the ocean floor.
There are all kind of questions I ask with gaping three-inch holes in them. They tend to be unfocused, mild, eclectic, even harmless and entertaining. But mostly I know them because I already have an easy answer for them. Why don’t I ever win the Lotto? Because life is unfair. Why does he or she act like that? Because they are (fill in the blank) …a woman …a man …gay …straight …an American …naïve …nasty …a jerk. Since I already have an answer they require no further thought or action.
Jesus’ questions are different. What do you want? What are you looking for? What’s holding you back? What will you risk? These are the kind of questions that try to net what is essential to our lives. They are deep and probing. Seemingly simple, they are focused and threatening to the status quo of the familiar. These are the questions that are the work of faith. There are no quick and easy answers to them but they move us along the Way. But there are roadblocks.
As we grow in our awareness, we become clearer on what is essential, more centered on the simple power of our oneness and less subject to manipulation. But our change can be a threat to others who sense the change and react in irritation and dis-ease. It seems we can stand almost anything except a loved one’s new life that requires us to examine our own.
As the diffuse potential of being on the Way comes into focus, we begin to see what we might lose—the illusion of control over our lives, the comfortable quilt which has excused so little transformation, the identity of victim, half-competent, or cripple which has left us sitting by the Way irresponsibly lost in our blindness.
Our hope is to have the courage of Bartimaeus. To go forth trusting in the divine love that surrounds and infuses us like fish in water. If we believe it we can see it. Better yet we can experience it.
[ii] John Dear, The Questions of Jesus, Image Books, Doubleday, 2004, p. xxi