I wonder what you think about the people who took to the streets yesterday to demonstrate. There were few signs if any of social distancing and even fewer masks being worn, but was this an expression of their personal freedom, or was it sheer foolishness to take part in what could turn out to be a super-spreader event in the midst of a pandemic?
And what do you think of those who believe the conspiracy theory that, regardless of the 126,000 who have died here in the UK, the pandemic is no more than a hoax.
And what you you think of those words of Jesus which tell us that we are to serve and not to be served? Are they an infringement of our human rights? Are they no more than a conspiracy intended to create more love and compassion in our world? Or are they a fundamental part of God’s plan and Christ’s message to us all?
In the Psalm that was read for us this morning it says:
“The Lord gives sight to the blind, and lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord loves the righteous.” Psalm 146:8
Now if we now turn to the reading from Mark’s Gospel, let’s continue by asking another question — “Who are the blind and who are righteous?” — because in this story which has just been read for us we have two contrasting demands from very dissimilar people with two very different outcomes.
Firstly, we have two of the disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who came to Jesus with a demand
‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ Mark 10:35 &37
Now I found out at a very early age that kind of approach didn’t work very well with my own parents and usually resulted in the response:
“Those who want don’t get”
And so it is here. But Jesus didn’t chastise or belittle them for trying to reserve the best seats in the house, he simply explained to them that the privilege of who sat where was not his to give.
Jesus was understanding and forgiving, but we are told that the other ten disciples were indignant that James and John had effectively tried to push them to the margins and it was Jesus who calmed things down again by explaining that if you want the best seats you have to earn them by serving others.
“Whoever wants to become great among you [he said] must be your servant,
and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And our second example shows Jesus putting those words into practice.
Blind Bartimaeus — this man without sight would not have been employable, and without a welfare state he was on the street begging. It would have been a struggle for him to even get enough to buy a crust of bread to stave off the hunger pains and he was certainly doing no more than simply existing.
He was probably despised by most and ignored by many and only a scarce few would have thrown a few coins in his direction rather than a stone and he had obviously heard of Jesus, and knew something about what Jesus had been doing. He also had faith that he too could be helped by this man from Nazareth.
But when Bartimaeus called out for mercy the people in the crowd told him to shut up, after all a lowly beggar was far too insignificant to be spoken to by a man who would eventually help them to stand up to the Roman occupation — or so some of them thought!
Jesus however, was there to serve: not just the landowners and the gentry, but also the poor and the rejected. He called out to Bartimaeus and when Bartimaeus responded he told him that he would be healed and see again because he had faith and it says that Bartimaeus then followed Jesus, possibly out of gratitude but possibly because he wanted to know more about this man who took the trouble to speak and had the grace to heal.
But what does this all mean for us?
There is an old proverb which says
“There are none so blind as thosewho will not see”
This famous saying has been traced back to a playwright, John Heywood, who is said to have written it back in 1546. But it’s roots are believed to have come from a passage in chapter 5 of the Book of Jeremiah which says:
“Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,
who have eyes but do not see, and have ears but do not hear:
Should you not fear me? Should you not tremble in my presence?”
At their root, those two stories that we have heard this morning, those two cameos, are both stories about blindness, not necessarily physical blindness as in the case of Bartimaeus, but spiritual blindness.
Those two disciples, James and John, two of the chosen twelve, had been by Jesus’ side for quite a while by now.
They had heard him teach, they had seen him heal people, they had witnessed amazing miracles. You would have thought that they should have understood the concept of ‘Service above Self’ by now, but they still wanted to be top of the pile. They wanted to be able to exude a sense of importance and lord it over others. But Jesus brought their ambitions crashing down with just a few simple words.
“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
James and John had been in the presence of a spiritual master but here, in their request, they showed a complete lack of understanding. They were behaving like foolish and senseless people, who had eyes but could not see, and ears but could not hear.
Contrast that with Bartimaeus. Here was a man who may well have been blind from birth but he had clear vision none-the-less. It was Bartimaeus, not James and John, who had an understanding of the power of Jesus and faith that he would respond to the requests of even a lowly beggar. He believed that through Jesus he could have his sight restored: what he didn’t realise was that he already had received sight, spiritual sight.
For Bartimaeus, his vision had no limits, while James and John, the seeing ones, were constrained by their own thoughts and desires. It is sad to say, there are times when each of us, myself included, behave far more like James and John than Bartimaeus.
We may listen to a sermon and make solemn resolutions to take these words to heart. We may pray, we may read our Bibles, we may even discuss the text with others … but we still try to constrain God, because of the shallowness of our understanding or the limits of our imaginations. We may be made in God’s image but he is certainly not made in our’s. In our prayers we can only make requests and express our concerns but we are definitely not in a position to approach God and make demands. But if we are to serve, for whom should we pray? For whom should we act?
Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan and that earth shattering question, “Who is my neighbour?”
Every person on earth is a child of the same creator God and we are called to serve regardless of nationality, colour or creed: everyone from prince to pauper. It is simply not good enough that we, collectively through our government, withdraw aid from places like the Yemen so that we can buy more missiles. Neither is it good enough for us to wash our hands of those people who find themselves in crisis, the refugees, the homeless, the addicts, or those who are in need of vaccine. And it is not good enough that we do things our way because we have always done them that way.
Always pray to have eyes that see the best,
a heart that will reach out to those in need,
a mind that constantly searches to find God,
a soul that never loses faith
and a willingness to serve each other as Jesus serves us.
And so I pray,
Lord, give us your eyes to see,
your ears to hear,
and your heart to understand … Amen.