The gospel passage this week is all about Jesus’ power to remove social opprobrium and include the excluded persons back into society. To see this, we have to look closely at the text.
The blind beggar sitting outside Jericho is introduced as Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus. This is odd for a couple reasons and should clue us in that this is something other than a standard name. First, Mark is not in the habit of naming most people who benefited from interacting with Jesus. So having a name or title immediately means that the wording is important. Secondly, the name is odd. It could just be a name and a clarification, but this is unlikely. In Aramaic, “bar” means “the son of,” so this person is introduced as “son of timaeus, son of timaeus.” Mark really wants the readers to know that the blind person has a strong relationship to Timaeus, whoever, or more to the point, whatever that is.
Scholars differ on the point, but my contention, with considerable backing, is that Timaeus is not a person, but a condition. The Syriac Peshitta renders the introduction ܛܝܡܝ ܒܪ ܛܝܡܝ, [Timae son of Timae] dropping the gloss “son of” as well as the Greek “-us” ending. Some read “timae” as “honored one,” but it should almost certainly be read as “unclean/טמא”, given the context. So we have a man named “son of unclean, the son of unclean” sitting by the side of the road begging Jesus for mercy.
We must remember that Jesus was leaving Jericho when he came across Bar-Timae. This was not just any road that the blind beggar was inhabiting. The city was cursed by Joshua after his conquest (Josh 6:26), and the curse had wreaked devastation on the family of Hiel who rebuilt the cursed city (1 Kings 16:34). Closer to Jesus’ time, Herod the Great had leased the city of Jericho from Cleopatra, until it was given to him at her death. He immediately set to work building pleasure palaces, swimming pools, and luxurious gardens for parties that were close, but also a world away from, the religious center of Jerusalem. Many of Jerusalem’s elite would come out to Jericho, where Jewish rules of cleanliness did not seem to apply for Herod’s lavish, Roman-style parties in the well-watered oasis town.
Aside from all the intrigues and uncleanliness of the Roman party scene, remember that it was in Jericho that Jesus incorporated Zacchaeus back into Jewish society (Luke 19:1-9). Because of his collaboration with Rome and handling Roman idolatrous coinage, Zacchaeus was considered permanently unclean. Because he wouldn’t have been permitted to even touch his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus couldn’t squeeze through the crowd to see Jesus, but had to climb up a tree. When Jesus chose to dine with him, Jesus was asserting that ritual uncleanliness should not exclude someone from full participation in society. Zacchaeus [whose name means “innocent”] immediate gave away half of his wealth and promised that IF he had cheated anyone, he would repay them four times the theft (which is WAY more than the 20% increase than the Law demanded). Zacchaeus was not a cheater, but he was unclean by virtue of being forced [I argue] into collaboration with the occupying army. Jesus powerfully demonstrated that this should not be held against him and that Zacchaeus should be welcomed into full fellowship. To make the matter perfectly clear, Jesus pronounced that Zacchaeus was also a son of Abraham [and not to be excluded].
Considering the prior case of removing the sting of social exclusion due to uncleanliness in a particularly unclean city, we now return to the man twice named “Son of Uncleanliness.” Jesus makes a point of healing blind and disabled folks in the temple (Matthew 21:14)! These people, especially the blind, weren’t normally allowed in the inner temple precincts, though they could still participate in sacrifices (Lev 21:16-24) and as such were considered permanently unclean. So Jesus went to a unclean city and specifically got involved in the lives of people who were unclean and outside of society because of their socially-defined disease. Jesus healed them, and even more importantly, associated with them. The blind man, who I have to think never answered to bar-timae ever again, went out and followed Jesus (Mark 10:52).
Jesus did not then, or now, heal every person. Healing is a blessing, to be sure. But MUCH more important is that there is no one about whom Jesus allows others to say “outside,” “unclean,” “imperfect” or “gross.” Jesus goes to the people who society understands as “other,” embraces them, and says “I am with them and they are with me.” Jesus is our high priest who works intersession for us and pronounces us not only “innocent,” but also “clean” (Hebrews 7:24-25). Our role in relation to our brothers and sisters, then, is to be like Job’s family who returned to him after his uncleanliness and empathized, comforted, shared meals and helped build back up what he had lost (Job 42:11).
The bottom line is that when someone calls other people unclean, dirty or disgusting, they are working counter to the program of Jesus, and they function, literally, as an anti-Christ. Jesus includes all. Jesus’ people are to include all. If we would emulate the messiah, we must go and break bread with the most reviled in our society. It’s what Jesus did for us. That’s the good news this week.