Thursday, 25 October 2018

Good news for the boy of Timaeus’s: a sermon (Mark 10:46-52)

I plan to arrive at the encounter of Jesus and Bartimaeus by a rather circuitous route.  Please bear with me.

Often, if I read a novel before it’s made into a movie or a TV series, I often don’t like the screen version.

It’s different if I see the film or the TV series first.  It’s often a good introduction to the book.

My introduction to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was via the various film versions which I saw as a young boy well before I read the book.  Please don’t judge me if I tell you that my favourite was the “Mr. Magoo” version.  (I was only ten or so, after all.)

Similarly, my introduction to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited came, as it did for many people, through the classic TV adaptation in the early 1980s.

Both became favourite books of mine, which I’ve re-read frequently.  (And, you know, I even collect DVD versions of A Christmas Carol.)

If, on the other hand, I read the book first and it had a powerful impact on me, I’m often reluctant to view any later film or TV version of the book.  For example, I haven’t seen the drama series The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS, even though I found Margaret Atwood’s novel incredibly gripping.

It’s set in a chilling version of the future, in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, in which a fanatical sect of supposedly “Christian” religious fundamentalists (the sort of “Christians” who give Christians a bad name) … a fanatical sect staged a coup and implemented a series of oppressive policies including reducing all women essentially to the status of slaves.

The main character in the book is a woman named Offred.  The two parts of her name says it all: “Of” and “Fred”.  She was the sex slave – or “handmaid” – of a man named Fred.  She was the handmaid of Fred.  All she was known as was Offred.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during one of my early Tasmanian ministries in the 1980s, in a rural community.  In this community, many people persisted in referring to a married woman by her husband’s first name.  A married woman in that community was frequently called Mrs. Ed Smith, even by people who knew her name was Betty.  It wasn’t only in formal settings where such language could be expected, but even in some casual settings.  People would say to one another, “I was talking to Mrs. Ed this morning”, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to say … in the 1980s!  (I don’t think it happens there now, thankfully.)

Think of Offred and Mrs. Ed as we hear of the time when Jesus met Bartimaeus.  Mark tells us that Bartimaeus was the son of Timaeus.  That’s true. but possibly a bit redundant.  Bartimaeus means “Son of Timaeus”.  When Mark refers to “Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus”, he was literally saying the same thing twice.

In Aramaic, “bar” in front of a name means “son of”.  This sort of thing goes on in other middle-eastern languages, with “ben” in Hebrew and “ibn” in Arabic also meaning “son of”. 

This also happens in other language groups as well.  For those who have a Celtic surname such as MacArthur, or O’Brien, or Williams, or Pendennis, your surname began in terms of one of your ancestors being identified – somewhat like Bartimaeus was – as the son of Arthur, or Brian, or William, or Dennis.

Here in Tasmania, there was a similar language thing going on, particularly among rural communities and working-class communities, until fairly recently.  A child or a teenager was frequently called “the boy of Kellys” or “the girl of Smiths”, rather than Tom Kelly or Jane Smith.  If an adult was still called “the boy of Kellys” or “the girl of Smiths”, it was a sign that the community held fairly low expectations of him or her, and was fairly open about its low expectations. 

This sounds cruel, but anyone who’s ever lived in a country town or a working-class suburb knows that both settings can be cruel places for those who don’t really “fit in”.  I say this from my own experience as someone who grew up in a working-class suburb and who’s been a minister both in country towns and in working-class suburbs.

Now, Bartimaeus was an adult.  The fact that he was still called, in effect, “the boy of Timaeus’s” may have indicated a similar set of low expectations on the part of his community.  That may have merely been because of his blindness, or it could have been for other reasons.

Jesus met Bartimaeus on Bartimaeus’s own terms, not on the terms of some stereotyped “boy of Timaeus’s”.  He treated Bartimaeus as a person of value.  This has made all the difference.  Jesus calls us, as people who seek to follow him, to do the same thing.

This, then, is good news, not only for the boy of Timaeus’s, but also for the boy of Kellys, … the girl of Smiths, … Offred, … and Mrs. Ed. 

It’s good news for you and for me.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.