Jeremiah 31:7-9 † Psalm 126 † Hebrews 7:23-28 † Mark 10:46-52
So how do you tell the difference between a crowd and a mob? How do you know? What are those markers that help to make the distinction?
Mark tells us at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his followers pass through Jericho, and just as quickly, they leave. Nothing happens, except that Mark notes a large crowd follows Jesus out of town. Or is it a mob? Or a caravan?
I would imagine once the word made it to Jerusalem, it might have felt like a mob—at least to the political and religious leaders of Jerusalem who felt the pressure of an unsettled population. Especially after Bartimaeus refuses to remain silent: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” In other words, do something.
You see, in Mark, this is new. And it might be troublesome when it comes to this question of crowds and mobs. Mark’s go-to title for Jesus is Son of Man. But here, for the first time in Mark, we get this Son of David label that forecasts Jesus’ triumphal entry into his next stop—Jerusalem—on a colt, with people laying out their coats and shouting their welcome to the son of David and the coming kingdom of David in the midst of Roman rule. Politically, it’s as if they are throwing gasoline on a fire.
“Son of David, have mercy on me,” Bartimaeus says from the gutter. Son of David, see my situation, see my suffering, see this injustice and do something to change it.
There’s been a lot of back and forth about this caravan of folks coming from Honduras. Led by a president who should know better, there are accusations that, without evidence, attach a criminal nature to their flight as refugees. The tone is disturbing, but it is not new to politics. They ratchet up the fear by acting as if the group is an armed band of guerilla warriors already banging on the border wall, not families, women and children fleeing violence and still 900 miles away from it. These charges ignore the long-standing national and international immigration laws that give people with a credible fear of danger the right to seek asylum.
Teresa Waggener, an immigration attorney for the PCUSA’s Office of Immigration Issues notes a troubling cynicism in the rhetoric around the people making their way along the roads of Mexico:
In the past, our government has said the adults traveling with their children are being irresponsible and are not thinking about the safety of the children… They say, “It’s a dangerous journey so what kind of parent would do this?”
Noting that, in fact, this group has banded together so they can protect one another and their families, Waggener adds,
Now we’re hearing that because they’ve banded together to protect their families, they’re doing so in direct defiance of the government and therefore must be hiding criminals in their midst.”[i]
It has not been lost on me, and, I suspect, you as well, that the bulk of this group is coming from Honduras, where we’ve traveled three times over the last decade to visit the NPH home outside of the nation’s capital. We have heard about the instability that has created violent conditions and economic hardships. We’ve known that families are being forced to make an impossible decision about remaining in increasingly dire conditions or leaving everything to make a dangerous trip toward uncertain opportunity. And we have listened in as the situation has grown increasingly unstable.
And this is where it gets even more complicated—as most things do.
Honduras had an election in November that the Organization of American States found so problematic that it called for a new vote. People took to the streets to protest what they saw as a fraudulent election. The Trump administration, like others before it, had to choose between two unsavory options. It held its nose and chose to support the newly re-elected President Juan Orlando Hernández. While not happy with the apparent corruption, they saw him as an ongoing ally who in his first term cooperated with Americans on issues like slowing the flow of drugs and migrants toward the American border.
One political response came from activists and politicians of the opposition party who called—and not for the first time—for a caravan to lead migrants north. This time they tossed in a partisan spark, blaming their right-wing government for the exodus: “The violence and poverty is expelling us,” they said.
A recent background article summarizes the situation:
What began as a domestic political dispute in Honduras—an effort to undermine the newly re-elected president and to call attention to the plight of migrants, quickly became an international row, a source of embarrassment in Honduras, consternation across the region, and political opportunism in the United States. [ii]
And all Bartimaeus wants to do is to see again.
You see, if we are honest, we recognize that there are very few simple choices when it comes to living among others in the world. It is just complicated, and fraught with more perspectives than we can see to. In a way, we’re flying blind ourselves. And yet, to sit on the sidelines is to make a choice. To not take a stand is to stand in favor of the status quo, to stand in favor of our privilege to sit it out because we aren’t the ones whose lives have been turned upside down. We aren’t the ones who are being shot at. So we struggle with what to do.
Son of David, have mercy.
And it turns out that crowd is not particularly helpful—at least at first. Bartimaeus calls and no one notices. He shouts and he’s told to be quiet. But he won’t. Son of David, have mercy!
And notice what Jesus does: “Jesus stood still, and said, ‘Call him here.’”[iii] And with a few words, a mob that is so willing to shout down a beggar is constituted as a righteous community, a means of grace by which the son of Timaeus is healed. The same people who were shouting him down now turn to him and say, “Chin up. Have courage. He’s calling you.”
How little it takes sometimes to turn us around!
And Jesus looks at him and us, and asks the same question as he did the disciples who wanted to be in places of honor. What do you want me to do for you? And his response is simple, and straightforward, flowing from a humble heart.
I just want to see again.
And he does. Just like that. And then he does what the rich man could never do. He throws off all of his possessions, his beggars’ cloak, everything that has defined and encumbered him in the past. And one more thing. He does what no one else who has been healed in Mark’s gospel does. “Go,” Jesus says. But he stays, and he follows him on the way.
Bartimaeus is one of the foremost examples of discipleship in Mark’s gospel. This one who was blind sees better than anyone else. He gets it right when no one else seems to—even Jesus’ closest followers. And yet, even he doesn’t get it completely right. In only a few chapters Jesus will reject this title Son of David and its implication that he is a Messiah who will restore Israel to political power through partisan means.[iv] He will reject that politics alone is the answer.
And that may be, for us, the best news of all. He shows us a better way, a way of self-giving and of love.
It turns out that this way too, this way of Jesus, is hard to get our heads around. It is complicated, and even the best of us don’t get it completely right. That’s why this notion of being on the way is such a merciful idea. It suggests there is room for error, room for growth, room for understanding and learning and correction. And the crowd is where it happens.
But this is not to say that we are ever really adrift. We follow in a way that speaks to values. We are a part of a story with deep roots. One of my teachers, Walter Brueggemann notices that in every social dispute you will always find people on the side of the status quo. You will always find some who caution against hasty change. And you will always find others engaged in transformative action. We should not forget, in fact, that all these positions are found in our scriptures and they are often in dialogue with each other. There is, you see, no way that does not draw a crowd.
You see, this call of ours, this work on the way is messy and uncertain, and littered with heartbreak, but it lives precisely in engagement with the reality of the world.
For we have these five words that wind their way like a golden cord through our tradition. We have five ideals that serve as waypoints on the journey: Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion. All Christian action must be measured by these.
If you want to know how to tell a crowd from a mob, here’s what to look for. If you want to know what it looks like to be in the crowd that follows Jesus, test these spirits. If you want to see again, look for Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion.
[i] See Rick Jones, “Presbyterian leaders prepare for migrant caravan” (October 24, 2018). Retrieved on October 26, 2018 from http://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/10/24/presbyterian-leaders-prepare-migrant-caravan/?fbclid=IwAR20Ll_0hjj9PClKa7skO9sZ5E3r8fhwl42ItsrXl_VHEp_s0PTxE_YCgJo.
[ii] This summary is drawn from Azam Ahmed, Katie Rogers and Jeff Ernst, “How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy. New York Times, October 24, 2018. Retrieved on October 26, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/world/americas/migrant-caravan-trump.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer.
[iii] Mark 10:49.
[iv] Mark 12:35.
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