Thursday, October 25, 2012

Blind Bartimaeus: A Disciple Who Recognizes and Follows Jesus with the Eyes of Faith

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 10:46-62, October 28, 2012

AT FIRST BLUSH, the Gospel would seem to be a miracle story.  Mark tells us of a story of a miracle in which Jesus healed the blindness of a beggar of Jericho, Bartimaeus by name, because of his persistent request.  However, the manner in which the pericope is situated in the whole Gospel, as well as the way in which it is narrated in Mark, makes it clear that the Evangelist uses the story to teach us a lesson on what it means to follow Jesus.  He placed it on the section on the teachings on discipleship that Jesus imparted to his followers on the way to Jerusalem, after having been given the revelation that he was the Messiah.  Mark holds Bartimaeus as a model of Christian discipleship.  To appreciate this point, we might well compare Bartimaeus with the disciples of Jesus.

            The disciples were not blind; their eyes could see.  Bartimaeus, on the other hand, was blind; his eyes could not see.  But it is he whom Mark holds up for imitation.  James and John, for example, were not blind, yet they could not understand who Jesus was.  Even though they have already heard of Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, yet they betrayed their spiritual blindness in requesting to be seated at the right hand and at the left hand of Jesus (Mark 10:37).  Jesus in fact told them they were ignorant of—blind to—what they were asking.  In other words, though they saw physically, yet the disciples continued to be spiritually blind (Mark 8:18.21).  Even Peter was not an exception.  Of course, it was Peter who made the solemn declaration that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 8:29).  It is clear, however, that in Mark’s story, Peter was likewise spiritually blind, though he could see physically.  When Jesus spoke openly about the implication of this messianic title, Peter took him aside and rebuked him.  Jesus in turn rebuked Peter’s spiritual blindness by saying: “Get behind me, Satan.  You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33).  Physically blind though he was, Bartimaeus was different from the disciples.  Although he called Jesus only by the title “Son of David,”(Mark 10:47—a fulfillment of 2 Sam 7:12-16), yet he requested Jesus to heal him (Mark 10:51).  Unlike the disciples, he knew what he was asking—that the Messiah came to save him from blindness: “Master, I want to see” (Mark 10:31).

            What made the difference?  Bartimaeus was different from the disciples because he had faith (Mark 10:32).  The disciples, on the other hand, are described in the Gospel as having no faith at all, or having only little faith.  In the story of the calming of the storm, for example, Jesus asked them: “Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?” (Mark 4:40)  That is why, they could not recognize Jesus with the eyes of faith, and therefore unable to understand the Lord, his word and his work.  In the story of the walking on the waters, Mark remarked that the disciples “were completely astounded.  They had not understood the incident of the loaves” (Mark 9:52).  Lacking in faith, their hearts were hardened, like Jesus’ enemies (Mark 3:5-6), and could not comprehend what he disclosed to them:  “Do you not yet understand or comprehend?  Are your hearts hardened?  Do you have eyes and not see” (Mark 8:17-18b).  It is therefore not surprising that when Jesus was arrested, all of the disciples abandoned him and fled (Mark 14:50).  Even Peter denied him not only once but three times (Mark 14:72).  Because they were blind, they could not understand God’s revelation to them, even though their eyes could see.  That is why they did not follow him on the road to his death.

            How different was Bartimaeus!  He had great faith.  Despite the effort of many to discourage him, his faith did not waver.  He persisted in calling out the name of Jesus (Mark 10:48).  His faith was so great that he was too ready to put aside his old life, symbolized by his cloak (Mark 10:50).  Because of his faith, he never doubted the healing word of Jesus.  And abandoning himself to him, he was cured of his blindness—he received his sight.  With eyes now open, his faith having the ability to know the power of God working in Jesus, he followed Jesus on the way—which is the same as the way of discipleship (cf Acts 9:2; 19:9.23).  As Jesus’ way was to Jerusalem, Mark wants to say that Bartimaeus was ready to follow the footsteps leading to Calvary and to embrace the cross (Mark 10:52b).  And once he is crucified with the Lord, he would be able to make an offering to God for others (Heb 5:3; 2nd Reading; see Lev 9:7).  In other words, for Mark, Bartimaeus is a model of discipleship. 

What does this mean for us?  Though, unlike Bartimaeus, we may not be physically blind, and so we can even go through the usual practices expected of a Christian, yet, we can be blind spiritually.  We may continue to profess Christianity, but our being Christian does not go beyond the boundaries of the nominal.  Brought up in a secular culture that hardly recognizes God, we are simply unable to see beyond the superficialities.  Money, power, self-interest, honor and glory blind us to what is real.  But our life need not be without hope.  What we need is faith.  If we have the faith of Bartimaeus, then, we can allow Jesus to heal us.  He will give us spiritual sight.  With our ability to see spiritually, we will be able to recognize who Jesus really is in our lives, and having known him, he will enable us prefer him and the kingdom of God to all those worldly values that deprived us of our vision.  We will put aside values that secular society clings to.  With the power of the Spirit working in us, empowering us to listen to his words and act of them,  we will follow him on the road to Jerusalem, accepting suffering and even death for the sake of the Gospel.  Our journey of discipleship will culminate in the offering of ourselves for others, and for the good of the community of faith.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Leadership as a Form of Discipleship

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 10:35-45, October 21, 2012

IN A CULTURE that is characterized by inequality, people tend to think and accept as given that to be a leader always implies being at the top, to be admired, kowtowed to, honored to high heavens and enthroned like a demigod.  And like any temptation that is often faced by giving in to it, very many people aspire to become leaders and thereby become second to none.  In the political arena, many covet the position of president, governor, mayor and barangay captain.  The dog-eat-dog competition among businessmen indicates the ambition to be number one in the business sector.  That one sends his sons and daughters not to local schools but to London, Paris or New York reflects one’s belief that he must be ahead of others in terms of cultural achievement.  In our present culture, no one probably wants to be the last in politics, business and culture.  If one could have his way, he would like to make it to the top.

            In today’s Gospel (Mark 10:25-45), the disciples of Jesus, who had yet to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, showed the same secular values.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had the same aspiration.  They wanted to be ahead of the other disciples by asking Jesus to have them seated beside him, one on the left, the other on the right (Mark 10:37).  Already in Mark 8:29, the disciples recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, and since they thought of his messiahship in political terms (cf Acts 1:6), their request was to be seated in a position of honor and power—this is what right and left hands means--which they would share with the Lord.  They would be like two political supporters of a president-elect, wanting to be appointed Secretary of Finance and Secretary of Defense, as a reward for their work.  Not only would they have the honor of sitting with the political messiah; they would also possess power, and imitate political rulers who lorded it over others (cf Mark 10:42)

            Of course, one aspires to be number one not simply on account of the honor it confers on the one who sits on the throne.  Political power is convertible to economic power.  One is not so much interested in the salary, which is meager, but in the money involved that comes with the exercise of political power; unexplained wealth goes with it.  He profits in almost all business transactions.  Also, being at the top gives one the psychological satisfaction that he is a very important person.  He enjoys bossing around, and making his importance felt.  In fact, a man of secular values loves seeing other people at his beck and call, and depend on him for their needs and survival.  It is really amusing when a secular man is put at the top: projects he has not done are credited to him, and words of wisdom he could not have uttered are ascribed to him.  People around him laugh at his jokes, even if they are not really funny.

            In a secular culture that stresses social differences and inequality, who would not want to be number one?  On the other hand, to be at the last is to be reduced to a hewer of wood and carrier of water.   To be at the bottom of the social ladder is to be ignorable and expendable.  No wonder, the rest of the apostles, having learned of the request of James and John, became indignant at the two brothers  (Mark 10:41).  They are like so many of us who are so envious because we ourselves covet the position of honor and power, and we do not want others to outmaneuver us.  That is why we hide anything that could help in their promotion, and we even resort to characterize assassination just to bring them down, and put them on our own level.  We oppose them.  And it is a psychological insight that one’s opposition is not always from moral motives, but from personal frustration that we were not able to achieve what others have gotten to their own honor and advantage.

            In a Christian culture, however, this should not happen.  This is not to say, however, that there should be no leader in the Christian community.  Leadership can be, nay, must be exercised in a Christian ministry, but it cannot be exercised in the way secular leaders do.  The leader cannot look at himself as above others, much less lord it over them.  Jesus was emphatic on this: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones make their authority felt.  But it shall not be so among you.  Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:42b-43). 

            In this pericope, Jesus made three requirements for those who wish to assume the ministry of leadership, and those who are in positions of authority, in the Christian community.  First of all, leadership is a call to share in the suffering of Jesus.  They must drink the cup that Jesus drank, and be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with (Mark 10:39).  If the members must suffer, so should the leader.  This means that leaders are to be exposed to the hurt of others, carry their burdens, and even suffer their anguish, even if for many that is none of the leader’s business.  They are to be baptized by putting themselves in conflict with evil powers (Eph 6:12) which oppress, discriminate against, and take advantage of the community members. 

Second, they assume the role of slaves in the service of others: “Whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:44).  Leaders cannot therefore exploit their members, or engaged themselves in seeking their own advantage or in self-aggrandizement.  On the contrary, the quality of their leadership is to be seen in the amount of service that they render.  Finally, leadership may even call for martyrdom:  “For the Son of Man did not come gto be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  Time comes when leadership demands that the leader himself willingly gives up his life for the sake of his people (1 Macc 2:50; 6:44); he dies for them (Isa 53:11-12, 1st Reading).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Renunciation of Self--The Cost of Discipleship

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in OrdinaryTime, Year B, Mark 10:17-30, October 15, 2012

TODAY’S GOSPEL BEGINS with the most basic and decisive question: “What must I do to share in everlasting life?” (Mark 10:17).  Christians should not only ask themselves this question; even more important, they have raise it every day, so they will always have a right direction in their lives. Indeed, we ought to have a reason for living—and a correct one.  But in so doing, it is important to get the sense of the question.  The inquiry does not assume that eternal life is a reward for our work.  Both in Judaism and in Christianity, eternal life, life with God, life in the Kingdom of God—this is a gift.  We do not work for it.   But this offer of God requires our response.  How do we respond to his offer?

            It is unfortunate that many continue to hold false views on the relationship between God’s offer and our response.  For some, God is a God who is a heavenly bookkeeper.  He keeps a ledger in which good acts are entered on the credit side.  They think that as long as the trial balance shows that the credit side is weightier than the debit side, they will inherit eternal life.  For others, the relationship is basically concerned with the “As-long-as-I-do-not-harm-anyone” mentality.  As long as they do not offend their neighbor, they are of the belief that God will reward them.  It is like saying that a good driver is one who has never been involved in a vehicular accident, or that a good engineer is one whose projects have never been destroyed by earthquake.

            When we hold these or similar views, we are like the man in today’s Gospel.  At first blush, we would think he is an ideal man.  Because love of God is obviously expressed in the love of neighbor, all that Jesus asked him was about the second segment of the Decalogue (Mark 10:19; cf Exod 20:12-16).  And the man said he kept all these since childhood.  Nobody could be more ideal!  But before we venture to imitate him, we could probably ask: has it occurred to us that we fulfill the commands simply because we live in comfort?  Would it be different if we were living in deprivation?  Or, have we consciously made a decision to follow them, or we are able to follow them simply because we do not have the opportunity to do the opposite?  We do not steal, for example, simply because there is nothing to be stolen?  The truth is, we can follow many commands of the Decalogue by doing nothing. 

            But the Gospel is about doing something.  In Mark, a Christian must go beyond the Old Testament morality, and therefore we have to take a further step.  Not only that we do nothing against the commandments; even more important, we imitate Jesus, following his footsteps.  That is discipleship.  And that what is distinctively Christian.  (To follow the Ten Commandments is not distinctively Christian.  The Jews have them.  The Muslims observe them.)   But discipleship is about renunciation of our selves.  Eternal life is for those who are ready to lose their life: “Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will preserve it” (Mark 8:35).  And our Gospel, being like the previous Sunday’s, which is found in the Markan section of the instructions on discipleship, is a commentary on this text. 

In this particular periscope, the renunciation of self includes, for this young man, the renunciation of his possessions.  That is the price to be paid for following Jesus.  Possibly, Jesus saw in this man’s attitude to wealth a big obstacle to the challenge of discipleship.  In any case, there is always a need to give response to the offer of eternal life.  It is unfortunate that we have so many decent people who call themselves Christians but have not embraced discipleship.  They have not gone beyond the Old Testament ethics.  For them, not harming anyone else, or fulfilling the external signs of being Catholic—that is already enough.  They lack something: the renunciation of themselves to allow the Spirit to work in them.

            Of course, it is often argued that as part of our renunciation, we contribute something to the poor.  But often we do this in terms of our definition of what renunciation shall consist of.  Often enough, as long as it does not cost us much, we allow ourselves to be deprived of something—our spare cash.  Inside, however, we do not really want to let go of our comfort and fabulous lifestyle, even when these constitute a hindrance to our search for real life.  We are like the man in the Gospel who could not accept the challenge of discipleship because we really hold on to our possessions.  Not surprisingly, Jesus told his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23).  And to make sure that his disciples heard it correctly, he added:  “My sons, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24b-25). 

Clearly, discipleship is not about doing nothing; on the contrary, it is about doing something:  it requires the renunciation of ourselves, even including what we treasure most, so that our ultimate value will be none other than Jesus and his kingdom.  Only then can we walk in accord with God’s will, and, having truly responded to God’s offer in grace, experience eternal life.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Marriage: A Call to Discipleship

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 10:2-16, October 7, 2012

WHEN ONE IS joined in marriage ceremony, he is usually filled with hope and expectation, with joy and happiness.  In the weeks or months that follow, he continues to have the confidence that he had made the right decision; he thinks that he has chosen the best partner he could ever have.  Soon, however, that dream-world stage expires; he discovers that the woman he has married is not what he thought her to be.  Then, the trouble starts.  The crack in the wall of what seemed once a fortress begins to show.  And when the going gets tough, there is always the temptation to call it quits, without our realizing that after all the one he has married is a human being, full of imperfection, faults, warts and all.    Thus, he tends to assume as his very own the question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus: “Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2).

            Needless to say, when we, either as husband or wife, begin to ask that question, it is a tacit admission that we have failed to live according to God’s original intention.  “At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become as one.  They are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore let no man separate what God has joined” (Mark 10:8-9).  Instead of living according to God’s intent, we wish to follow the dictate of our hardened heart.  Probably under the influence of our day-to-day business, we tend to think that marriage is simply a contract between two individuals.  As in a purchase of a stereo or car, we want to have our money back, if not satisfied with the commodity.

            In today’s Gospel (Mark 10:2-16), Jesus clarifies to us something about marriage.  First of all, it is not simply a contract between two individuals.  First and foremost, it is God’s gift.  Like other injunctions in the Old Testament, it is an expression of God’s care for his people.  At the basis of it is God’s loving concern for each one of us.  Therefore, when God says that “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one body” (Gen 1:24), this was not given to make man unhappy or bind him in legalism.  Rather, this is connected with his observation in the 1st Reading that “it is not good for man to be alone.  I will make a suitable partner for him” (Gen 2:18).  God’s will is always our happiness.  But because it is a gift, we can only benefit from it if we live it according to God’s intention.  Therefore, in marriage we have to discern the will of God as we live it—namely, one has to make a gift of himself or herself  to his or her partner unconditionally and in love.  That is the essence of being constituted as “one flesh”.   If we do not act on God’s will for us in marriage, we can hardly expect to experience what God has promised.

  Moreover, precisely because it is God’s gift, marriage is not for every one.  When the disciples, having heard of their Master’s reply to the Pharisees on the question of divorce, observed that it was better not to marry, the Matthean Jesus noted that “not everyone can accept this teaching, only those to whom it is given to do so.  Some men are incapable of sexual activity from birth; some have been deliberately made so; and some there are who have freely renounced sex for the sake of God’s reign.  Let him accept this teaching who can” (Matt 19:11-12).  One therefore does not marry because tradition demands it; he must first of all discern whether he or she has the gift.  Certainly, there are people who are married but should not have married in the first place.  Some people should not marry because physically they are incapable of living a married life.  Others should not, because psychologically, they are unprepared to live it, even if they think they are.  Still others are too selfish to be capable of giving a gift of himself.  Being a man or a woman is not a sufficient qualification for marriage.  It remains a gift, and not everyone has it.  

            But there is another point that should not be missed in today’s Gospel.  It is to be noted that the pericope on the question of divorce, as far as Mark’s editorial hand is concerned, is placed within the section on discipleship.  In this section, Jesus taught his disciples what it means to follow the Messiah in his footsteps (Mark 8:27-10:52).  Mark’s point is quite obvious.  Marriage is a form of discipleship.  If this is correct, then whatever is said of discipleship must apply to marriage, because discipleship is expressed in it.  For this reason, it is in marriage that we can concretize the demands of denying ourselves, taking up the cross, following Jesus in his footsteps, and losing our lives.  Consequently, while marriage is intended for our happiness, it is, paradoxically, likewise a vocation to suffering.  In marriage we also undertake the journey to Calvary.  Therefore, when the going gets tough, we should all the more give expression to the cross of Christ.   

            It is not without reason that the marriage rite stresses that the bond is “for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in death.”  We can always expect negative experiences in marriage.  We shall experience difficulties and sufferings as we follow Jesus in discipleship.  But these sufferings and difficulties could be opportunities for growth and deepening of love and happiness.  For as the 2nd Reading assures us: the experience of suffering and death leads to glory.  It is through suffering that we perfect the work of happiness and salvation (Heb 2:9-10).