Or how about a blind beggar? Did you grow up with a smelly blind beggar as your hero? Me neither.
Maybe we should reconsider our heroes.
I know it’s been a little while since my last post on Mark 10:32–45, but do you remember how two of Jesus’ disciples (James and John) were behaving? They were gunning for high positions in the kingdom that they were sure Jesus was about to set up. They wanted to be great, to be looked upon highly by others. Jesus told them that true greatness requires you to serve and to suffer; Jesus himself, as the greatest of all, would serve and suffer more than any man who ever lived.
So now that Jesus has shot holes in our grandiose ideas of what it means to be his disciples, we find ourselves confronted with a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, huddled in the roadside dust outside the city of Jericho. Now, this is a guy who knows he has a problem and isn’t ashamed to admit it. He hears that Jesus is about to walk past him, surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. So Bartimaeus decides to make a nuisance of himself. He begins yelling, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now, when he calls Jesus the Son of David, Bartimaeus is identifying him as the promised Messiah, the coming King descended from David. This pathetic beggar has the audacity to request help from the glorious King. Members of the crowd are annoyed by his boldness and his endless racket, so they start shouting back at him to shut up. But Bartimaeus just gets louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus decides to put a stop to the commotion. He says, “Call him,” and it’s like a switch is flipped in the crowd; they’re all smiles toward Bartimaeus and encourage him to come over. They suddenly realize that Jesus values useless people like this blind man. Bartimaeus leaps up and comes to Jesus, who asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Now, remember how James and John replied when Jesus asked them the same question. They said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v 37). They wanted great things for themselves. What does Bartimaeus want? “Rabbi, let me recover my sight,” he says. That’s all. He just wants to see.
So Jesus says, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Bartimaeus can see again. He leaves Jericho behind and begins following Jesus on the uphill way to Jerusalem.
The contrast couldn’t be greater between Bartimaeus and Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, the Twelve. They are confident in their abilities (see vv 38–39); he knows he is helpless. They want a promotion from Jesus; he just wants mercy. They want power and status; he just wants to see. They want authority to “lord it over” other people (v 42); he wants his sight back so that he can follow Jesus’ lead.
It’s funny how a blind man can see who Jesus is and understand his mission, while Jesus’ own disciples are still in the dark.
If what Jesus said is true—that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v 45)—and if Jesus truly is the King of God’s kingdom, then this means that lowly people like Bartimaeus are the people who are most like Jesus. They’re the ones who have faith in Jesus, because they don’t have faith in themselves. They know they’re needy, so they place every ounce of trust on Jesus as the one who can rescue them from their helpless state.
So what are you trying to get out of Jesus?
Do you want him to turn you into a great person? Do you want him to fulfill your life dreams for you? At times, I catch myself wishing that I could become a very popular and influential pastor someday. What dreams of greatness do you wish that Jesus would grant?
Let’s shift our thinking. Instead of requesting greatness and self-actualization from Jesus, let’s just ask to see. Let’s start asking him to open our eyes, to see him as the Suffering Servant who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Let’s ask simply that we may know and understand him, so that we can follow him on the way. That’s all you and I need to be his disciples.
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world!
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world!
Maybe you never stopped to ask why Jesus likes children so much. Well, today’s your lucky day.
Jesus is continuing his journey south toward Jerusalem. He has announced to his disciples that he will be betrayed, suffer, and die, and then rise again from the dead. His disciples are struggling to understand how someone who is God’s anointed Messiah could suffer and die like that. It doesn’t make sense to them. As a result, they’re not picking up on the way Jesus’ lowly mission should change their attitudes.
Yet another opportunity to show their spiritual dullness arises when some of the people around Jesus get it into their heads to have him bless their children. They recognize that this is a man sent from God, and they long for God to favor little Jonney and Susie. So they start bringing all their babies and toddlers for Jesus to touch and bless.
Now, this seems okay to us, but Jesus’ disciples didn’t think it was appropriate. At the time, children weren’t valued much in Jewish culture. Most people made just enough money to put food on the table; another child meant another mouth to feed. I’m sure there were many good parents who loved and valued their children, but for the most part, having a child was considered an unfortunate necessity if you wanted a future adult who could take care of you and pass on your family name.
That’s the way Jesus’ disciples are thinking of children, so it’s no wonder that they’re rebuking the parents for wasting the Rabbi’s time. But when Jesus sees their response, he gets ticked. He confronts them, saying, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them!” Rather than viewing children as a waste of time, he wants them to be with him. Why? He explains, “For to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
Apparently, Jesus believes that people who are childlike are the people who will be a part of God’s coming kingdom. So in what way must a disciple of Jesus be like a child?
Perhaps our first response would be that disciples should be good and innocent like children. We tend to think of children as being basically wonderful little creatures who are later corrupted by outside influences. However, any parent knows that you don’t have to teach your children to be corrupt; they learn that on their own. You have to train them to be good. No one is innocent from birth, as the Israelite king David wrote: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Besides, hasn’t Jesus invited wicked people like tax collectors to be with him (Mark 2:13–17)? It’s not moral purity that Jesus is looking for.
Neither is Jesus looking for a childlike naïveté. He doesn’t want his disciples to be unthinking and lacking in insight. On the contrary, he’s been frustrated at their dullness—“do you not perceive or understand?” (Mark 8:17).
No, there’s something about children that Jesus loves, and it’s the very thing that his culture hated about them. Children are helpless and useless. They seem to be a waste of time and resources. They tie you down and mess up your life dreams. They’re dependent and needy. That’s what Jesus loves about children.
Jesus isn’t looking for righteous people to be his disciples. In fact, he consistently rejects people who perceive themselves as “basically good people.” Neither is Jesus looking for naïve people. The truth is that Jesus wants useless, worthless, and lowly people. They’re the outcasts in this word, but when his kingdom comes, he will welcome them into it. Why? Because they recognize their need and cling to the one who became lowly for their sake. They are glad to identify with a lowly Messiah.
Jesus also delivers a warning to his disciples: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Anyone who claims to be a good person or who thinks highly of himself or wants approval from others will be shut out of God’s kingdom. Such a person doesn’t want to submit to Jesus’ authority. Such a person would never identify with a lowly Messiah.
Jesus shows his disciples what this looks like in practice. He welcomes the little children, picks them up, and blesses them warmly. He is not ashamed to be associated with the lowly.
Now, in Western culture, we do value children quite a bit. But we don’t value them for the reasons that Jesus did. We tend to value children because we perceive that they will be of some benefit to us. Typically, the child will become Mommy and Daddy’s little self-actualizing device. That’s why so many parents live their lives vicariously through their kids, obsessing over their soccer games and morphing into “helicopter parents” who hover over their children even when they leave for college. This also means that if a child is an inconvenience, he or she can be disposed of in a socially acceptable way. That’s why abortion is so common, especially in the case of mentally or physically handicapped infants. We hold the exact same attitudes that Jesus hated. We define people—even ourselves—by our usefulness.
You and I don’t want to be useless. We don’t want to be unpopular. We don’t want to be lowly. We want to be productive members of society. But Jesus is calling you to recognize your uselessness. You are weak; you are small; you are powerless. Embrace your true lowliness, and you will find yourself embraced by Jesus.
A woman cowers on the cliffs overlooking a deep mountain lake. An angry crowd has gathered to witness her terrifying death. Situated on the edge of the cliff, a massive disk-shaped stone stands on its side, a hole cut in the center. The executioners drag the trembling woman to the stone, force her head through the hole, and bind her in place with a rope. And then, with a single mighty push, they tip the stone over the edge. She tumbles end over end—sees sky, water, sky, water, sky—and then water.
In a dimly lit hut on the edge of a nearby village, a man drips with sweat as he studies a meat cleaver resting on a rough table. He sends his left hand toward the knife, forcing his fingers to close over the handle. Through a sheer force of will, he holds his right wrist to the table. The cleaver shakes in his hand; the man bites his lip; and a scream comes as it hacks through his wrist. Blood pools on the floor. And the man is not finished. Next will come his right foot, and then—he stares dully at the tiny sharp knife across the table—his right eye.
Sixty miles away, a garbage dump smolders outside of a city, the refuse slowly burning away. A naked man lies on his side, his eyes half open, his neck broken. His consciousness returns. How long has he been here? He sees well enough to know that his lower body is rotting away. And then he feels it. A small patch of skin on his hip swells, then splits, a handful of maggots emerging from the festering wound. He would scream in horror if his voice could be raised beyond a croak. A rogue tongue of flame licks across his arm, singing the hair and peeling the skin. He can’t move; his death will be long and slow and hideous.
These images are vivid and cruel, and I didn’t make them up.
Last week, we read how Jesus had predicted his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. His disciples thought that he would be a conquering political Messiah, Glenn Beck on steroids, who would restore his people to their Jewish heritage and drive out the corrupting rule of the Romans. That the Messiah would suffer and die didn’t fit into their paradigm of how the world works. It wasn’t a part of their “glory story.” So Jesus scolded them for trying to look the greatest and for excluding other followers of his who weren’t a part of their little clique. He modeled a concern for useless people and valued the contributions of those who weren’t a part of the Twelve.
Now, Jesus issues a series of warnings relating to this elitist attitude. We’ve seen several times in Mark’s gospel that often, people who think they are “insiders”—faithful disciples of Jesus—are in fact “outsiders.” Jesus brings this topic up again and counsels those who think they’re on the insider track to God’s kingdom.
His first warning is the story of the execution—the stone and the lake. It would be better to undergo this awful fate than to cause “one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble,” Jesus says. The punishment for such a person will be extreme and horrifying. Similarly, he lays out a series of three parallel proverbs. He tells his disciples to cut off their hands, feet, and eyes rather than permit anything to cause them to stumble. “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God” crippled or blind than “to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” He quotes the final verse of the book of Isaiah, where God subjects those who rebel against him to eternal torment. Jesus is not afraid to preach hellfire and brimstone—not even against his own disciples.
The point is clear. Jesus’ disciples must do whatever it takes to cut off and tear out the proud, elitist attitudes festering in their hearts. If they do not, it will lead to their own downfall and possibly the downfall of other “little ones.” And God will respond appropriately with righteous, unquenchable fury.
As he dwells on the imagery of the fires of hell, Jesus utters a cryptic statement: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” He’s probably thinking of the sacrifices that the people of Israel were commanded to make to God, sacrifices that were seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). Now, he says, each of his disciples must be “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). But if someone who claims to be his disciple becomes corrupted with pride, his “salt” will have “lost its saltiness” and be useless as seasoning. The sacrifice will be ruined. Such a person cannot honor God.
So Jesus tells his disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Their Lord will soon face suffering; they should not imagine that they are any better than he. They must do what the Holy Spirit commands through the apostle Paul: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited” (Romans 12:16). There can be no rivalry, no one-upping, no boasting, no cliques in God’s kingdom. So beware of pride, a nasty and despicable sin. If you treat the lowly as garbage, you’ll quite literally be thrown out with the trash.
Jesus was lowly in his suffering, and in his suffering he served the lowly. If you are united with him, you too are a servant of the lowly and a “little one” yourself. Be glad that this is where true greatness is found.