I was a nobody

Proper 30, October 25, 2015

Job 42:1-6,10-17;   Psalm 34:1-8;   Mark 10:46-52

In today’s readings we hear no less than three different stories of healing and redemption, three stories about God’s power to save and redeem us in suffering.

First, from the book of Job, the last chapter, which tells of the end of all Job’s sufferings. The greatest of all the why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people stories gets its happy end, and Job gets back all the things he had lost at the beginning: thousands of sheep and donkeys and camels, making him an even richer man than he was at the beginning; a new set of children, apparently even better looking than the first set; and a long and happy life. So even if bad things happen to good people, it all comes out in the end.

Except, of course, that it is hard to take this ending seriously.  It is, actually, simply bizarre when you think about it.  If we were to read through Job, we would have just gone through 35 chapters of the most tough-minded and profound meditations on human suffering that has even been written, an argument that again and again rejects easy answers to put us back before the dark questions we would prefer to avoid.  And when an answer comes at the end, in God’s voice from the whirlwind, it is a strange and unsatisfactory answer, a beautiful yet coldly impersonal meditation on the wildness and power of God’s creation, written in some of the most intensely poetic language anywhere in the Bible. And now all of this is wrapped up in this naive fairy-tale of a happy ending, as though there were any answers to the hard questions of human sufferings in a story of a man getting a thousand donkeys. As though a new set of children could ever make up for the loss of the other ones – as though it’s any comfort that the new ones are better-looking. Even the names of the daughters betray that this is not a serious story: Keren-happuch apparently means a small box for eye make-up, what I gather we call a “compact”. Clearly this strangest and most tough-minded of the books of the Bible is messing with us again: it gives us the happy ending we long for, but in a way that we can’t really take it seriously.

Then we have the Psalm.  A typical psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from evil – there are a dozen of them or more in the bible. It is the prayer of someone who has suffered affliction – whether illness or persecution or financial trouble or depression or whatever, it is not made clear.  This person has prayed to God in his or her distress, and God has answered them. They have been heard despite their suffering, their insignificance – one translation reads, “I was a nobody – and the Lord heard me.” The experience of receiving healing and restoration, of being delivered out of terror, is understood in an elemental way in terms of faith. This person feels heard, and valued, and cared for, and that is the miracle that calls forth thanksgiving and joy and love towards God. “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are they who trust in him” A few verses later the psalmist speaks in more general terms, about how God will always take care of the righteous, and deliver them from their afflictions.  Coming to this psalm from the book of Job, we may be a bit sceptical of these generalities – sometimes bad things do happen to good people. But the personal experience of redemption, of being heard in one’s terror and affliction, remains. That God saves is not a general philosophical proposition, it is not to be got at by logic – it is always an experience: the experience of trust when one is in affliction, the experience of having been heard when healing and relief come.

And then there is Bartimaeus.  This is one of the more detailed and interesting of the stories of Jesus’s healings.  It is in fact the last of his healings in the gospel of Mark, happening at Jericho just before he enters Jerusalem for the last time. It is an unusual story for a number of reasons.

First of all, it is one of the few healings where we learn the name of the person who is healed. Usually the person is presented as simply a generic leper or blind person – here he is an individual with a name.  Perhaps the clue to this is found in the last line: when Bartimaeus is healed, he does not go his own way, but follows Jesus. It may be, then, that Bartimaeus went on to join the Jesus movement that would become the early church, and that he was in fact a well-known person in the church, and so is remembered by name.

I say that we know his name – but I should add that it is a particular kind of name, a name that is not really a name.  Bartimaeus means simply the son of Timaeus.  That, apparently, is what people knew him as.  Whatever name his parents gave him, the name he grew up with, has apparently been forgotten. People just know him as Timaeus’s boy, the blind beggar.  And that fact says everything about his role in the town. People see only his outer appearance; they do not see the person who he really is. His very name has been forgotten.  He is a nobody, as the psalm says.

He was a nobody, and he cried out to the Lord.  He has heard that Jesus is in town; a large crowd has gathered around him, there are rumours flying about the streets.  At this stage in his ministry, Jesus is something of a celebrity.  And as they pass by on their way out of town, passing Bartimaeus by as so much of the life around him simply passes him by, he cries out to the Lord. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And what happens? They try to shut him up, they sternly ordered him to be quiet.  They want to put him back in his place, the blind beggar whom we pass without noticing, whose real name we don’t even remember. But he won’t be shushed, he calls out again even louder, he is determined that for once his voice be heard. And Jesus hears him, stops, calls him over. The very people who tried to shut him up now call him over.  He gets us, throws off his cloak, and hobbles out into the middle of the street, into the middle of the crowd, where Jesus is waiting for him.  And Jesus asks him: “What do you want me to do for you?”  He doesn’t assume, doesn’t just go ahead and heal him. He gives him a voice, lets him call out his need, and then he responds.  When the healing comes, it is simple and instantaneous.  No hocus pocus, no messing about with dust and spit and touching his eyes. Simply the words, “Go, your faith has made you well.”  Jesus has given him his sight; but more than that, he has given him a voice.

Three very different accounts of healing and redemption: diifferent in tone, different in detail, different in the conclusions we might draw from them. From the ironic fairy tale of Job, to the heartfelt experience of the psalmist of being heard in distress, to the story of restoring dignity and voice to a nobody – what conclusions might be draw from such diverse approaches?  That human suffering is real, and undeserved; that healing and redemption are not automatic, do not always come to the righteous; but also that people again and again have experienced what it is to be heard, to be given a voice in their affliction to name what is on their hearts, and sometimes, to experience relief as the gift of a loving God.  The Bible offers us no neat overall philosophy of suffering and redemption. It offers us the experience of being a nobody and still being heard.  It invites us to trust that experience.