Seeing Hope as Darkness Surrounds Us
Have you ever seen a snail’s tongue? They are very tiny. How do I know? I saw one last night, as a very small snail made its way across the glass of the aquarium in which it lives. Its job is to keep the glass free of algae. That’s a big task for a very small creature, but this snail was moving along, bit by bit, licking the glass clean. My sister-in-law and I watched it moving and she noticed the tiny little tongue darting in and out, cleaning the glass. The light was just right and we could see the tracks of where it had already cleaned, in lovely curves, with space between them where the snail was holding on with its great foot.
The snail spoke to me of the gift of hope in the face of what might otherwise seem like a hopeless task or future.
The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are instructional in this regard. We begin with the prophet, Jeremiah (Jer 31:7-9). The people are still being taken into exile, nearing the final end of the kingdom of Judah in northern Palestine. They are facing the possible extinction of their nation and historical line. Yet Jeremiah proclaims, “Shout with joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations, proclaim your praise and say: The Lord has delivered his people, the remnant of Israel.” All seems lost, but the prophet speaks the Lord’s promise that they will be gathered from among the nations and return as a newly recreated people. They themselves can never do that alone, but the Lord will do it. The new kingdom is beginning to be understood as something more than a nation-state with a king. It’s to be much greater because not limited to control of territory on land by an individual ruler and family.
They will return on level ground, rest beside brooks of water, and know that their father is the Lord. The reference to Ephraim is also noteworthy. Ephraim was the second son of Joseph, making him a grandson of Jacob. But Ephraim’s mother was Egyptian. She was not one of the relatives of Jacob or a descendant of Abraham and Sarah. Yet he and his brother, Manasseh, were accepted into the family as adopted sons of Jacob. Their descendants became the fathers of two of the twelve tribes of Israel. When Jacob was nearing the end of his life, he gave the blessing due the firstborn of sibling sons to Ephraim, though Mannaseh was actually the older son. Jacob assured Joseph, who noticed what was happening, that he knew what he was doing, that selecting Ephraim for the firstborn’s blessing was the right thing to do. The children of Ephraim became a large tribe in the far north of Palestine. It was these people who were being taken into exile.
Now, we hear the Lord saying, through his prophet Jeremiah, that Ephraim is also the first-born son of the Lord. All will be new in relationships and in creation through the Lord’s actions. Good news of hope for those being driven from their homes and into exile in the lands of their enemies.
The Psalm speaks of the return from exile (Ps 126:1-6). “When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming … our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with rejoicing.” The long period of suffering had passed. The Lord had kept the promise made so long ago. “We are filled with joy.”
In the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 5:1-6), the author speaks again of the high priest and his role. Historically the high priest was selected from among his peers, selected by God, just as Aaron had been selected to make the sacrifice of atonement for all the people so many generations earlier. But this time things have changed, we have a new high priest, also selected by God. This new high priest is the Christ. He did not select himself. When Jesus died, he was truly dead as a human being. But God glorified him, saying, “You are my son: this day I have begotten you … You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Melchizedek was King of Salem and a priest who lived in the time of Abram, long before the Jewish priesthood was established among the Israelites after the Exodus. He was known as a wise, righteous, and kingly man. Jesus, the new high priest, takes this role, now and forever, chosen by God for this role because he is the Son of God. He knows both the difficulties of being human and the mercy and patience of God, so he is the best intercessor humanity could ever have.
The healing of Bartimaeus is the final event in Jesus’ life before he enters Jerusalem on his final journey there for the Passover. This section of Mark’s gospel began with the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now Jesus is near Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea and next to the Jordan River. It has been a long and eventful journey, and finally they are nearing their destination.
Bartimaeus (whose name means Son of Timaeus as Mark informs us) is sitting beside the roadside begging. He hears the crowd going by, learns that it is Jesus, and calls out to Jesus for pity. “Son of David, have pity on me. (Son of David was a title given to the expected Messiah, because the Messiah was to come from among the descendants of King David.)
Those around Bartimaeus try to silence him. But Jesus hears him and calls Bartimaeus to him. “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus comes quickly and responds immediately, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus heals his blindness, saying “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” His sight was returned immediately and rather than going home, he began to follow Jesus “on the way.”
This story comes at the end of a series of stories we have heard over the past weeks, in which Jesus has tried to let his friends know that he is not a conquering Messiah but rather the one described by Isaiah who is the Suffering Servant. His followers have not been able to see what he has been telling them. It just simply makes no sense. They are still more blind than Bartimaeus or the man healed in Bethsaida.
Mark tells us that Bartimaeus followed Jesus “on the way.” The way is not just the road to Jerusalem. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ followers were known as followers of “the way.” It was not until later that they came to be known as Christians (oil heads). Bartimaeus followed “the way” immediately after he was healed. His faith had saved him.
What are the areas of blindness in my life? Where do I lack hope? What feels like it’s crashing in my life? Where are the signs of hope? How do I hold on to the promises of God? Can I just keep doing what I’m supposed to do each day, like the little snail that makes her way around the aquarium, licking clean the glass? I pray for that gift today.