“Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” he said.
Watching the people around him while they watched him, Jesus noticed the not so modern trend of people befriending those from whom they expected to get something—social speculative investment, if you will.
In response, Jesus urged them to invite a new class of dinner guests—those from whom nothing was expected. No return invitation. No ride on the social escalator. No benefit to the host. Invite those who cannot repay you, he said. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
We want to understand it theologically. Spiritually. Theoretically. Metaphorically. Anything but literally.
Most of the time we improve our understanding by thinking of scripture in terms of metaphor. This may be an exception.
Here a metaphorical understanding, a spiritual interpretation, would free us from having to do anything. We could tell ourselves that our friends were already poor, lame, crippled, and blind, at least spiritually, and most of us would not be wrong. Of course, our own friends could do the same, and they would not be wrong, so we have little room for self aggrandizing. And nothing would change.
Try hearing the admonition as a literal instruction. Invite the poor to dinner. Share your meal, your food, your living, with the lame and the crippled. Put your best china out for the blind. Two things change—our circle of acquaintances, and the circumstances of the people who need change the most. Poor people get fed, clothed. The crippled, physical and mental, get help, maybe some medical attention. The blind see a better life.
As for a spiritual interpretation, most of us may find that in the eyes of God, we ourselves are the “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Try reading the third chapter of Revelation and the letter to the undistinguished folk in Laodicea, in what is modern day Turkey.
It is a humbling thing to see oneself with the eyes of those who are not as blind as we.
Still, take heart. There is a word of grace here for all of us, no matter how humbling it may be. Once we know ourselves for what we are, we might warrant an invitation to the feast.
He already knew the answer, this lawyer, but he asked the question anyway. Scripture commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This much he knew, and the commandment is plain, but this lawyer, much like ourselves, lived for the wiggle room between the words.
We have to love him. That’s what Deuteronomy says, right?
A straightforward answer would have done the job, but Jesus, true to his nature, didn’t give one. Instead, we and this lawyer get a story. It’s pretty famous, as stories go. We’ve even named it—the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we call it, as though this Samaritan were an exception, different from other Samaritan cretins we might know.
Samaritans were nearly Jewish, which made them more loathsome to the Jews than had they been completely gentile. They were the product of centuries of exile, a people group who filled the void left when the Assyrians destroyed Israel and the Babylonians hauled off the best and brightest of Judah. The Samaritans worshiped the God of Abraham, but in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, at least in the eyes of the Jewish people.
We most hate those people who are most nearly like ourselves. Long tailed monkeys are amusing, but chimpanzees make us uneasy.
In the story, the priest and the Levite fail, but the Samaritan shows mercy and compassion, and he rises to God’s expectations. He spends his money, invests his time. He gets involved.
That is the trouble with neighbors—their nearness. If they were far away, an orphaned kid on a poster, we could write our checks and feel compassionate. Neighbors? They are right here. They know where we live. They might come back. Get involved in their messes, and we may not get free.
They’ll want handouts and money, time and favors. And Jesus is telling us not to say no?
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is an odd way of shaping a commandment. In particular, there is much that it does not say. For one thing, it doesn’t say to give people anything they want. That’s not love, that’s indulgence, or stupidity. It doesn’t say to destroy our own lives, families, or peace.
The Samaritan took the injured man to an inn, but he did not devote the rest of his life to looking after the man. He engaged, he helped, and he also brought the social resources he had available to bear—in this case, some of his wealth, some of his time, and the future help of the innkeeper. His response was loving, it was reasonable, and it was directed at returning the injured man to health and to his own recognizance.
Sometimes we refrain from helping the needy neighbor because we recognize that the neighbor is in the business of seeking help. It is a reasonable response. Standing on a street corner passing out twenty dollar bills is not reasonable. It is the difference between helping our neighbors out of their problems and perpetuating them in their problems.
Fair warning, though—that is no reason not to help. It is a reason to think of constructive ways to help.
The Samaritan came up with the idea of carrying the injured man to an inn because there were no hospitals. Perhaps had there been hospitals, ambulances, and social services available, he would have gotten help for the man in a different fashion.
The point Jesus makes is that the Samaritan saw a need—no, saw a person who needed help—and helped. We have to wonder what the other characters in the story saw. What did the priest see? Maybe he saw a man who fell prey to robbers because God had judged him. Maybe he saw a man whose situation was the result of his own sins. There was plenty of that kind of theology 2000 years ago; there is plenty of that kind of theology now.
What did the Levite see, this man whose role was somewhere between the priest and the laity? Perhaps he saw trouble, and obligation. He knew that to lay aside one’s obligation to the stranger was wrong, but was it wrong if he never took up the burden? Perhaps he pretended to be blind, because that helped him pretend to be decent.
And where were they all rushing? What awaited them that was so urgent as to justify leaving a man to bleed by the roadside? We might supply many answers. All of us have plenty of experience justifying ourselves. No doubt we would recognize their answers as our own.
We like to picture ourselves as Samaritans, at least in this parable. Some of us have found ourselves in ditches. The hard truth Jesus is telling is simple, and we don’t appreciate it. We are the priest and the Levite, of course. We turn a blind eye to the needs of our neighbors. Worse, we resent the clear implication that if we fail to help, we have failed in the eyes of God.
We want to point out that God does not understand how complicated it gets, but even in our most self absorbed moments, we suspect God manages.
It is simple.
We need to stop imagining that our destination is more important than the people we pass along the way. Theologically speaking, spiritually speaking, we might say that the people we pass are, in fact, our journey. And when we see them, we need to look long enough into the mirror of their eyes to see ourselves. Maybe then we can love them.
Religious folk are seldom happy and almost never satisfied. You might argue the point, but in the gospels the religious folk are the only ones who cannot see what Jesus is doing.
The blind see. The lame get up and walk away. Even dead people get up and walk away. Everyone sees it happening, everyone that is except the religious folk. You’d think they would be on the lookout for such signs and wonders, but no. Even when they notice a miracle, they complain that it was done on the wrong day, the Sabbath, or that Jesus had no clear license to perform such miracles—who gave him permission?
Seeing is not believing, not for the religious folk, not for the religious leaders, not in any of the gospels, not in the Gospel of John. In the gospel accounts, religious people look at the world through the lenses of their belief system, and the shades they wear block out more than sunlight. They’re not just wearing spiritual Ray-Bans. These people are peering at the world through welding helmets.
The faithful, well, they are a different story. Plenty of them see the signs, read them just fine, and come to the conclusion that Jesus comes from God. It is plain to them. This odd bunch of fisherman and tax collectors and prostitutes, teachers and workmen and shepherds, they get it. Maybe they have the advantage of not being blinded by belief, and so they are better able to see with eyes of faith.
We’re not that different from the people in John’s Gospel. Instead of believing what we see, we see what we believe.
We look at cars and clothes, and we believe certain brands are better. Sometimes we are right. Often, we go on buying the more expensive brand just because we believe it is better, not because we see any difference. It may even be that we trick ourselves into seeing a difference because we believe there is one.
We look at people, and most of us see what we think they are. It happens all the time. It is true of the rich and famous and powerful, but it is more true of the weak, the failed, the different. The more radically different people might be, the more likely we are to see only what we already think about them. That’s how minorities—by color or creed or any other measure—are treated as lesser people. That’s how the homeless become a ‘problem’ instead of people.
Maybe that is why so many marginal people were drawn to Jesus. He saw them—them, not some idea about them, and they knew the difference. Maybe that is why so many people who are different become marginalized. We look at them and see what we think they are—not them, but some idea about them, and they know the difference.
Belief is an intellectual thing, a choice, a trick of the mind. Faith? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”¹ Faith requires thought, of course, but it is made of something else, something more. Belief speaks of what we think, but faith speaks of who we are.
There are things our bones and our hearts know long before our minds assent.
¹ Hebrews 1:1, a famous verse, and much better to focus upon than the “an eye for an eye” that some people favor.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.
The Coins We Give Away
It’s not about the money. We try to make it so — to turn this passage into a lecture on giving generously, to make it about donating to churches and to charities — but it was never about the money.
Two copper coins, half pennies, that is what the poor woman put into the collection box. Jesus saw her do it. At least, it sounds like he saw her. It’s possible that he just picked a woman and made up the story as a way to teach his followers, but that isn’t the plainest reading of the text. Mark writes that Jesus saw her putting two tiny coins into the collection and knew that those coins were “all she had to live on.”
Was Jesus knowing about the coins a God thing? Secret divine knowledge? It may just be that he was paying attention to a poor woman, which is the sort of miracle we need to perform more often.
Either way, he knew what she had done. She gave everything. It wasn’t just money. It was everything she had left to keep her alive, her ‘living’ —the word is the one that gives us the English term ‘bio’ as in biography or biology. All that kept her alive, that is what she gave.
The rich people gave large donations. That was good, so far as it went. The money kept the temple operating.
And we should give to support our synagogues and churches, our mosques and temples. We give to support all the things that sustain love in this world, and God would have us love our neighbors as ourselves. Love the poor. The sick. Love the stranger in our midst, a command found at least 36 times in scripture. Those things need our coins. They also need our time, and they need our voices as well.
This woman threw herself out into the sea that is God, trusting she would be lifted by a different kind of whale than Jonah’s. That was good. Her gift caught the eye of Jesus and thrilled the heart of the Almighty. Perhaps being at the end of her purse, only two half pennies left, it was easier to let go of them. Somehow I think it was not. The sound of those copper coins dropping was a prayer.
“I lay down my life,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John. He doesn’t say that he dies, but that he lays down his life. Christianity is so full of people trying to explain the crucifixion, focusing on the death of the Messiah, that we miss the life. That is what Jesus gave—his life. He laid down all that he had and let the sea of humanity flood across him.
It is not the death of Jesus that saves us. It is the life. It is all that is God. Faith cannot be solely about something that happened two thousand years ago, or millions of years ago, or days. It’s fairly easy to love the past. We shape it in our minds to suit us. It’s harder to love the present, full of complicated, aggravating, conflicted people, but they need our love, and our voices, and our time. And we need to open our hands, let some coins drop, and reach out. In touching one another, we touch something of the Spirit of God.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.
We know the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man sitting and begging by the roadside at Jericho. Even if we do not recall the details of it, we know the type of story it is.
There are a few odd details, odd enough to be worth pointing out. For one thing, this blind fellow has a name—Bartimaeus. Literally, it seems to mean “son of Timaeus”, and the wording of the passage in Mark’s Gospel may go a ways toward explaining the variation in Matthew’s account, where there are two blind men. Mark’s wording was “the son of Timaeus Bartimaeus”, or one might read it “the son of Timaeus ‘Son of Timaeus’”. The construction is awkward, and maybe the writer of Matthew’s Gospel simply read it wrong and thought there were two of them.
The important bit is that the fellow has a name. He is no anonymous leper or unnamed lame man. This is Bartimaeus, an individual with a past, a name, a face. He is not just any of us; he is someone in particular. One might imagine there was no shortage of blind men in the ancient world, medicine being limited and eyesight being vulnerable to such a range of maladies. This man’s blindness may have been common, but he is set apart, named, set face to face with Jesus.
That gives us hope. Our own maladies, failures, and needs may be commonplace, but in the eyes of God we are not. In the eyes of this God, we are each known, we each have a name.
Continuing with the use of names in this passage, it is very odd that Bartimaeus begins calling Jesus by the title “Son of David”—it is the first time the title is used in the Gospel of Mark, and in this Gospel Bartimaeus is the only one to speak the phrase other than Jesus himself (chapter 12, verse 35.) Mark records Bartimaeus using the phrase twice, in fact, in this short passage.
Perhaps a man whose days were spent sitting by the road leading into and out of Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, would have been inclined to think in terms of history and of the passage of time. Perhaps he had heard stories of the birth of Jesus from other travelers on the road, and the idea that Jesus was of the house of David had impressed him. Maybe the gospel writer was using Bartimaeus to make a point.
Whatever the reason, Bartimaeus called to Jesus in a very particular way. He understood something of waiting, this beggar, and he understood something of seizing the moment when opportunity comes. By calling Jesus “son of David,” Bartimaeus recognized the long generations that his people had waited for the coming of the Messiah. By his insistence on being heard, despite the angry responses of the crowd, blind Bartimaeus demonstrated the importance of seeing the truth with one’s own eyes and acting on it.
It is also odd that Bartimaeus would have thrown aside his cloak as he rose to go to Jesus. The fact that he had such a garment speaks to his ability as a beggar. The fact that he cast aside something of such obvious value speaks to his recognition of the greater value of getting Jesus to see him.
Finally, there is the word ἀναβλέψω — ‘that I might receive my sight’, or literally ‘that I might look up’, or perhaps ‘that I might see again’. If it is the latter, that I might see again, then there is the implication that Bartimaeus was not always blind. It may be that he once could see.
It is one thing to treasure what we have. It is altogether another thing when we measure what we have lost.
We are all like Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. We sit in the dust, cloaked, all of history passing by us. Though God passes close by, we cannot see, hemmed in as we are, crowded by the expectations of the people around us, blinded, anesthetized, immobilized by the net of our own ideas. We settle blindly for scraps, when we might look up and see the immanence of God.