Sunday, 25 October 2015

Last Sunday after Trinity: Throwing away the cloak

“Throwing off his cloak, [Bartimaeus] sprang up and came to Jesus.”  Sometimes there is a small thing in a Gospel story which suddenly stands out as you read it. It was the cloak that did that for me this week, a cloak that seems like a completely unnecessary detail. The thing is, though, that Mark doesn’t do unnecessary details. His Gospel is very short, just 16 chapters. There’s no room for waffle. If Mark includes a cloak, then we can be sure that the cloak matters.

I’m going to come back to the cloak later, so don’t forget about it, but before that I’d like to look at a couple of other perplexing details in this story, because they might help us make sense of that cloak.

The first is Bartimaeus’ name. The Gospel writers don’t usually name the people who come to Jesus for healing or help; they are usually anonymous, “everyman” figures – a woman, a rich man, a widow, a centurion. But Mark tells us Bartimaeus’ name. Why might that be?

There’s been a lot of scholarly ink spilled over this through the centuries. Some commentators have looked for meaning in the name itself. Bartimaeus literally means “the son of Timaeus” as Mark points out, “Bar” means son. But what does Timaeus mean. Some have linked it to the Greek word for “honour” – timao. They think it’s an ironic statement about this beggar, who is far from honoured. Others reckon it comes from a similar sounding Hebrew word which means “unclean”. That would fit. Sickness was regarded as a sign of God’s displeasure, and it made you ritually unclean. If you were sick or disabled they believed you must have done something to deserve it. Either way, these theories say that Mark is telling us what people thought of this beggar.

Well, maybe… But I’m a bit sceptical.  As I’ve said, Mark doesn’t normally name people who come to Jesus for healing, and he doesn’t tend to use names symbolically either. He is usually far more straightforward than that, and I think there’s a danger that we can try to be so clever that we miss another, more obvious possibility. The simplest reason for Mark to call this man Bartimaeus is that he knew Bartimaeus, or knew of him, and that he expected the Christian community he was writing his Gospel for to know him too. Mark wrote these words only about 30 years after the events he describes. Many of those who’d been there were still alive. These things had happened well within living memory, so this is an entirely possible explanation.

It wouldn’t be the only time Mark did something like this either. It is Mark who tells us that Simon of Cyrene, who helped to carry Jesus’ cross, was the “father of Alexander and Rufus” .Who were they? We haven’t got a clue. But Mark obviously thought his readers would recognise their names, otherwise there was no reason to mention them at all. 

Of course Mark did reshape his material, and relied on stories passed on orally which may or may not have been accurate. We don’t have to assume that everything we read was literally true – people didn’t write history the way we do today. But the fact that Bartimaeus is named is a lovely reminder that at the core of the Gospels are real people who had real life-changing encounters with Jesus.

The second detail I’d like to focus on in this story underlines that.  It comes right at the end of the reading. Mark tells us that after Bartimaeus had regained his sight, he “followed [Jesus] on the way”.

Long before Christians were called Christians they were called “Followers of the Way”. That is what Jesus had taught – a way – not a set of doctrines, but a way to live your life so that God’s love could be seen in it. It was all about action, not philosophy. That was obvious from the pattern of his own ministry. You literally had to be a follower if you wanted to learn from him, because he was always on the go, healing here, teaching there, meeting needs and challenges as he came across them on the road. His message propelled people into movement – physical and spiritual.

When Mark tells us that Bartimaeus  “followed [Jesus] on the way”, he isn’t just saying he walked along the road out of Jericho with him, he is saying that he  set off on a spiritual journey that day too, that he found a new direction and purpose for his life.  If Mark’s readers knew his name that implies that he had stuck to that journey, stuck to his commitment to “following the way” long after the day when he first started out from Jericho with Jesus.

This isn’t just a story about a miraculous healing – one of many in the Gospels. It’s a story about a real, living human being, whose life had been turned around by Jesus, and who was never the same afterwards. It is a story of a lifetime of discipleship, which all started at the moment when Jesus called to him, and he found the courage to respond.  

And that brings me back to the cloak. You hadn’t forgotten the cloak, had you, that cloak that Bartimaeus threw off when he came to Jesus?  As I said, Mark doesn’t include details for the sake of them. The cloak, and what Bartimaeus did with it matters, because without that moment, none of what followed would have been possible.

To understand why, we need to imagine a beggar today, sitting on a London street perhaps.  Sadly that’s a familiar sight. How do we know that they are begging, not just sitting there? We know it because they’ll have in front of them something to collect money in - maybe a hat, or a discarded coffee cup. In the first century, beggars spread out their cloaks as they sat on the ground to catch the cash people threw to them. Their cloaks were the tools of their trade – they needed them, and they also kept them warm when they were sleeping rough, but they also marked them out as beggars, just as the empty coffee cup with a few coppers in it marks someone out as a beggar today. My guess is that they had a bit of a love-hate relationship with those cloaks, probably rather stained and shabby garments – they symbolised their dependent status, but they couldn’t live without them.

When Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and leaves it lying on the ground he doing far more than simply casting away a bit of cloth so he can get up more easily. He is throwing away his old life to begin a new one, throwing away his shame and dependency, but he is also throwing away his security, burning his bridges. And we need to remember that he does this before Jesus heals him, before Jesus  has even asked him what he wants. He is still blind after all, and there’s no guarantee he will be able to find that cloak again once it has left his hands. But he throws it off anyway. Whatever it is that Jesus can do for him, the fact that he calls to him, that he recognises and cares about him is a sign that it will be better to risk life with Jesus and no cloak, than have the cloak, but let Jesus pass him by. Throwing off his cloak is a profound statement of faith and commitment.

His cloak is quite literally a security blanket. It has enabled him to get through from one day to the next, but what kind of life has it been? He throws it away because when Jesus calls him he realises he doesn’t need it anymore. Jesus has given him the security he really craved, the knowledge that he is known and loved by God, not cursed by him. Later he will also be known and loved by the community of Jesus’ followers, the ones who will remember his name and pass it on. They will celebrate the faith and courage that led him to throw that cloak away.

That cloak fascinates me because it makes me wonder what our security blankets might be. What do we cling to to keep out the cold, to protect us from the vagaries of life, to bring us comfort? They might seem like good things –possessions, money,  status, jobs, achievements – or they may be things we’re not so proud of. We can find ourselves lugging around old resentments, chips on our shoulders, dysfunctional patterns of behaviour and distorted images of ourselves. We don’t like them, any more than Bartimaeus liked his stained and worn out cloak - but we can’t imagine life without them either. How can we find the courage to throw them off and leave them behind, as Bartimaeus does?

Bartimaeus’ message to us might be that though it might seem impossible that anything could change in our lives, if we listen, we will find that Christ is closer to us than we think, that if we cry out, he will hear us and will call us to him. And his call won’t just be to find a moment of healing, but to set out on a whole new journey with him which will change us completely.

So three little details, but what a difference they make. This is the story of a real man, whose life is changed for ever by his meeting with Christ, and whose message to us is the same as it was to those who first knew him. Whether we can see the way ahead or not at the moment, Christ calls us to throw off our cloaks and head towards the voice of the one who knows and loves us, who will guide us on the way that leads to life. Amen.

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