The battle lines are drawn. Literally. In asking Jesus if they can sit at his left and right side, James and John are asking to go with Jesus into battle. They are asking to lead the left and right flanks of armed and armored soldiers. James and John are ready for war! They are already anticipating a triumphant military entry into Jerusalem. They want to go with Jesus “in [his] glory,” in military splendor. And at the victory banquet, they surely will want to sit on either side of Jesus, in the seats of honor.
My, my, my. Our beloved disciples still do not understand what Jesus is telling them. This is the third time in Mark that Jesus has told the disciples that he will be killed and will rise from the dead. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise (Mk 9:30-32).” The first time that Jesus revealed that he would suffer and die, Peter rebuked Jesus. The second time, the disciples “did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him (Mk 9:32).” Instead, the disciples argue among themselves about who is the greatest. Now, this third time of hearing of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, James and John want to be of first importance in Jesus’ “glory.”
Jesus must be so tired. The disciples have no idea what is going on. In spite of Jesus’ foretelling of his own passion, the disciples keep trying to win, to be victors of war and banquets and ways of the world. The victory, of course, happens within the world, but not in a way that we understand.
There are two men next to Jesus when he dies on the cross. “When they came to the place called ‘the Skull,’ they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left (Lk 23:33).” Oh, to be spared the agony of Jesus’ glory, to move swiftly into paradise instead! James and John are not on Jesus’ sides, but two criminals; criminals are with our Lord in his glory. Who would choose to be on that cross?
The gospel writer Mark is so masterful in his account of Jesus. You will recall that Mark’s gospel often has a literary construction casually known as a “Markan sandwich.” If we step back just a little from these piece of scripture (in these few weeks of lectionary readings), we can see the rich layers of meaning that Mark is giving us.
Here we have these three foretellings of Jesus’ passion along with the disciples’ varied responses, all of which show us that the disciples are, well, clueless, we might say. Don’t they see what is happening? (We who know the ending think that the unfolding is rather clear and that we are oh-so-smart and clever.) No, they don’t see. And maybe we don’t, either.
Just before these foretellings of Jesus’, Mark gives us the story of Jesus healing a blind man in Bethsaida. You remember this one – it is the time that the man was not completely healed the first time that Jesus laid hands on him. The man said “I see people looking like trees and walking. Then [Jesus] laid hands on him a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly (Mk 8:22-26).” The disciples set out on the road and we have these conversations about death and resurrection, followed by our anger (Peter’s rebuke), fear, and lust for power.
It is no accident that the disciples now continue on their way toward Jerusalem and that the crowd hears the cry of a blind man named Bartimaeus: “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me! (Mk 10:47).” Jesus stops, and in an incredible moment, asks the blind man “what do you want me to do for you?” It is an incredible moment in part because we think that what needs to be done is obvious. The man is blind! He wants to see! Well, we want him to see; surely he wants to see, he must want to see … but Jesus does not act until we tell him what we want, what we think that we need. Jesus asks us what we want to be healed. We are given the opportunity to come before Jesus and ask, not for what others may want of us or for us, but what we want. “Master, I want to see (Mk 10:51).” Jesus tells the man that his faith has saved him. “Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”
Masterful. The stories of walking with Jesus and being in complete misunderstanding about who Jesus is are sandwiched in between two stories about Jesus healing blind persons.
Jesus heals a blind person. The blind person sees clearly.
We don’t see. We don’t understand. Over and over, we do not see.
Our faith in Jesus allows us to see. We change the direction of our life and walk with Jesus. We see.
Thank you, gospel of Mark for enlightening our faith this day. We do not always respond to Jesus; our healing can take more than one touch, many more walks and talks; Jesus stays with us. It is we who seem to tire of the journey; Jesus keeps telling us Truth. Again, Jesus heals a blind man, who springs to his feet and follows Jesus. Would that I would be so brave!
That’s it, my friends! Our doubts, our misunderstanding, our arrogance, … are in the middle of a Jesus sandwich. Jesus surrounds us, like bread in a sandwich, and helps us to see.
Thanks be to God!