BIBLE READINGS: Psalm 126 Mark 10:46-52
“Throwing off his cloak, [Bartimaeus] sprang up and came to Jesus.” Why does Mark mention Bartimaeus’ cloak? The Gospel of Mark is rather short - only 16 chapters - and Mark doesn’t have much space to tell Jesus’ story. The thing is, Mark doesn’t do unnecessary details. There’s no room for waffle. If Mark includes a cloak, then we can be sure that the cloak matters.
Before we reflect on that cloak - a few other details. The first is Bartimaeus’ name. Mark doesn’t usually name the people who come to Jesus for healing or help; they are anonymous, – a woman, a rich man, a widow, a centurion. But Mark tells us Bartimaeus’ name. Why might that be?
On this point there are several opinions. Some commentators have looked for meaning in the name itself. Bartimaeus literally means “the son of Timaeus”. “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 suggest 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.
But… 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. 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.
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 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 or theology. 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 – there are many of them in the Gospels. Rather, this is 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 asked him a question, and he found the courage to respond.
And that brings us back to the cloak. That cloak that Bartimaeus threw off when he came to Jesus. 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 the sidewalk in Sydney CBD somewhere. I’m sure you have all got a picture in your mind. How do we know that they are begging, not just sitting there? We know it because all their worldly possessions are there with them. Including a blanket or if they are lucky an old sleeping bag - 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. Sitting on their cloaks to give them some insulation from the cold
ground, their cloaks were the symbols of desperate situation – they needed
them, they 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 coins in it marks
someone out as a beggar today. Those cloaks, probably rather stained and shabby
garments – symbolised their dependent status, but they couldn’t live without
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, he is burning his bridges.
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 won't need it anymore. Jesus gives him the security he really craves, the knowledge that he is known and loved by God, not cursed by God. 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.
What are our security blankets?. What do we cling to to keep out the cold, to protect us from the worries 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 Jesus 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 forever by his meeting with Jesus, 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, Jesus 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.
Acknowledgement: Rev. Anne le Bas