Commentary on the Readings
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
Leave the mantle to see the light
Homer could see, but is depicted blind. He was the symbol of inspired men, of those who, to penetrate deep truths, hidden from ordinary mortals, must close their eyes to the reality of this world. In ancient Greece, even the wise men, soothsayers, the rhapsodes were believed to be blind. They had to take themselves away from the deceptive appearances, ignoring the earthly flashes, to catch the light and the thoughts of the gods.
Their passionate quest for truth and their commitment to educating for wisdom were commendable. However, in the face of the great enigmas of the human universe, they had to give up, grope in the dark and they remained blind.
The peripatetic, wearing the “mantle,” a symbol of those who cultivated the love of wisdom, discoursed on the truth as they strolled around the Acropolis of Athens; academics, the Epicureans and the Stoics reflected on the pain, the joy, the pleasure and the meaning of life. In Athens, described by Cicero as “the lamp of all Greece,” all—like the blind—turned their eyes longing for the light. But it was not from that city that “the light of the world” would come.
In Rome, Tiberius reigned when, in the mountains of Galilee, a carpenter of Nazareth began to preach the Good News. It was then that “the people which sat in darkness have seen a great light” (Mt 4:16). For the ancient philosophers the time has come “to lay down their mantles” and look up: from the top “‘a rising sun’ had come to visit people, ‘to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’ and indicate the blind the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The proposals of the world wrap me in darkness, those of the gospel are light.”
In the dictionary, the word jeremiad is described: long and plaintive discourse. Jeremiah is the prophet famous for his announcements of misfortunes and for the continuous threats of disasters. Still, there was a period in his life when he too broke up in encouraging forecasts and uttered pleasing oracles. It happened when the pious King Josiah began a deep religious reform and undertook the re-conquest of Samaria, taken from Israel by the Assyrians a hundred years before. These oracles, put together in four chapters told by biblical scholars—Book of Consolation (Jer 30–33)—are a series of calls to joy and celebration because the Lord still loves Israel (Jer 31:3,15-20) and is about to do a miraculous intervention in her favor. He will bring back the deportees from Niniveh to their homeland. Today’s reading is from this section of the book of Jeremiah.
After the invitation to praise the Lord, to sing praises to his name and glory (v. 7), the prophet seems to already contemplate the group of exiles who are returning to their homeland. He observes them and sees “the blind, the lame, the pregnant women and women in labor” (v. 8).
A truly unique group. No one feels ready to bet on the success of the trip. Such group people do not go far nor walk fast. Their situation is desperate: they are “blind,” unable to orient themselves, the “lame” who cannot move, “women weighed down by pregnancy” or suffering from the pain of “childbirth.” Only a miracle of the Lord can lead to a so badly-assorted group to the destination.
Yet these are exactly the people reduced to this state which attract the eyes of the Lord and move him to compassion. He loves every person, but has attention and special care for those in difficulty. It is to those who are like the exiled in Nineveh that he bends down to bring them to life.
These saved deportees, called to timidly retrace the journey that led them far from the land, represent those who, after being estranged from the Lord, have become prisoners of the vices, bad habits, sin, no longer have the strength to return to God and perhaps they do not even wish to. If the release depended only on them, if they were to rely only on their moral forces, they would have every reason to resign themselves to slavery.
Even the deportees considered themselves a remnant of those who failed, but it was from them that God restarted the history of Israel.
In the last part of the passage (v. 9) Jeremiah describes, using the images of the exodus from Egypt, the return of these deported ones. They cross the desert without encountering any difficulty; they do not suffer from hunger or thirst, as it had happened to their fathers on the run from the bondage of Pharaoh. The Lord makes them encounter rivers of water and traces a straight and comfortable road on which they cannot stumble.
The comforting words of the prophet are proposed today as a reminder that the history of these exiles is ours. Who turns away from the Lord makes the experience of the “weeping” (v. 9), but the return journey, although challenging and difficult, is also littered with satisfaction that, like so many springs of water gushing into the wilderness, the Lord commits to let us encounter.
The Letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians of Jewish origin who so believed in Christ, but continued to feel nostalgia for the temple in Jerusalem and the solemn ceremonies performed there. On them hung the temptation to return to the reassuring practices of the old religion.
The author of the letter—a Christian very learned in the scriptures and traditions of the people of Israel—clarifies this difficulty explaining to his brethren in the faith that Christ is a priest infinitely superior to those of the Old Covenant.
In today’s passage he refers first of all the features of the priests who offered sacrifices in the temple. They must be chosen by God; could not take this honor without having been called by the Lord, just as Aaron was. Then they had to be men, not angels, in fact, only those who experience in their own flesh the human weakness is capable of understanding the frailties and sins of the brothers and sisters and knows how to be in solidarity with them (vv. 1-4).
Jesus possesses both of these characteristics.
He did take upon himself the glory of being high priest, but it was given to him by the Father (vv. 5-6). Then he is fully man; he made the experience of pain and temptation, and therefore is able to sympathize with our mistakes (vv. 7-10).
This reading has a consoling message not only to the Jews nostalgic about their religion, but also for some Christians today who might still miss the old rites, traditions, old catechisms so clear and precise, and the so reassuring devotions. Today, the church gives them Christ in the Scriptures and in the Eucharistic bread and this double nourishment is immensely more tasty and solid than any other food in the past.
This passage closes the central part of Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus clarified the goal of his journey. He has exposed the moral requirements to which those who want to follow in his footsteps must adapt to: unconditional love, without reserve and without limits, renunciation of goods and all ambitions, selfless service to others.
Jesus has already covered a good part of his journey. He started from Galilee, came down along the Jordan and is now in Jericho. There are only 27 kilometers to reach the goal. He is about to start his ascent towards the holy city, with him are his disciples and a large crowd (v. 46).
From the historical point of view the presence of a large crowd at Jesus’ side is very likely because, at the time of the Passover, numerous caravans of pilgrims went to Jerusalem. From the theological point of view it is amazing. It is not clear how it is possible that many people still follow Jesus after that, he clearly announced the fate that awaits him, the bitter chalice he has to drink, the rushing waters of hatred, persecution and martyrdom in which he must immerse himself (Mk 10:38).
There is only one explanation: those who accompanied him did not understand or did not want to understand the meaning of his words. Not even the disciples are able to free themselves from the distorted idea of messiah they have in mind. In their hearts, they continue to delude themselves, hoping that the dire predictions made by him were uttered in a moment of bitterness and despair. They believe that in the end everything will end with a victory.
Their spiritual condition is similar to that of the “blind.” They have eyes impenetrable to any beam of light, impervious to the more intense colors. The Master rebuked them before, to no avail: “Do you not see or understand? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that don’t see?” (Mk 8:17-18), then he started to cure their blindness, with difficulty, intervening several times, as he did with the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26). The central part of Mark’s gospel is totally dedicated to these attempts of Jesus.
He is now in Jericho, before the ascent to Jerusalem. He makes a last sign: healing a blind man.
On the occasion of the Passover, the Jews showed themselves particularly generous in giving alms. They felt compelled to involve those who are disadvantaged in the joy of the feast. For the beggars, the exit of the city of Jericho, where the road begins to climb toward Jerusalem, was the perfect place to settle themselves and beg for help from the well-disposed pilgrims.
Among these beggars sitting on the edge of the road, there was, at the time when Jesus and the group of disciples were passing, a blind man, identified by his surname, Bartimaeus.
The account of his encounter with Jesus, narrated by the three Synoptics, is more than a page of the news. In Mark’s intention it is also a “parable,” an allegory of the man enlightened by Christ.
Bartimaeus is the image of the disciple who finally opens his eyes to the light of the Master and decides to follow him along the way.
Let us consider the stages that led to his recovery.
The first frame shows him “sitting along the way” (v. 46). To live is to move, design, build, cultivate ideals. Bartimaeus instead, rather than living, surviving, is still, repeats like a robot the same gestures and the same words, is brought to the same ambient each day. He seems resigned to the unfortunate condition that an unfortunate fate has assigned him.
He represents the man who is not yet enlightened by the Gospel and by the light of Easter. He does not walk towards a destination, he gropes, involved in mysterious and perpetual succession of birth, life and death.
“He begs for alms” (v. 46). He is not self-sufficient; he must beg for everything, including affections; he depends on others, things and events.
The first step he does to recovery is the awareness of his situation (v. 47).
Only those who realize that they are leading a meaningless, unacceptable life, decide to look for a way out. There are also some people who adapt to their condition, who take a liking to the disease that allows them to live lazily on alms, who welcome their status. Bartimaeus is not resigned to the darkness in which he is immersed.
One day he realizes that something is about to change. “He hears about Jesus” (vv. 47-48) and understands the chance of a lifetime is presented to him: he can meet the “Son of David,” listen to his healing voice, opening his eyes. Hesitations and fears, embarrassment and shame exceed. He screams, asking for help; he no longer wants to stay in his state of life.
Even the healing from spiritual blindness begins with a deep inner turmoil, the denial of a life devoid of values and ideals, intimate dissatisfaction that stimulates to seek alternative proposals, being mindful of the new discourses, patterns of life different from those that the society and the current morality offer.
The meeting with those who follow the Master is the first step towards the light (v. 47). Before reaching Christ one runs into the disciples and there are difficulties to overcome.
Who reflects and starts to ask if what he is doing makes sense is aware of moving against the current. He immediately feels thwarted in his effort to encounter the light of heaven. Colleagues of revelry, partners in ambiguous business and even friends, perhaps in good faith, are obstacles. They call for silence, suggest to drop the fleeting topics of faith, smile at the torments of the soul, argue that these are concerns of psychologically unstable people.
Faced with this opposition the blind is not discouraged, continues to invoke the light, is not ashamed of his condition, does not hide his anguish; he cries, asks for help from one who can open his eyes.
Even those who accompany Jesus can be an impediment to those who try to approach the light of the gospel. It seems impossible that those who followed the Master from Galilee, heard his word and belong to the group of disciples can still be spiritually blind (Mk 8:18) and be a hindrance to those who want to meet Christ.
Yet it happened in Jericho, where “many rebuked Bartimaeus to keep quiet” (v. 48), and this continues to happen today.
To see if he is really enlightened by Christ, or if he follows him just physically is quite simple. The feeling—that one has in the cry of the poor who asks for help—is revealed. Who is bothered, who pretends to ignore it or tries to silence him, is engaged in higher projects, more devoted, more sublime and has no time to take care of those who are in darkness, believes that there is something more important than to stop and listen, understand and help those who want to meet the Lord, he, also performs flawlessly all the religious practices; he is still blind.
“Jesus hears the cry of Bartimaeus” (v. 49), and demands that he be brought before him.
His call does not directly reach the blind; there is someone responsible for passing it on.
These mediators represent the true followers of Christ, sensitive to the cry of those who seek the light. They are those who spend much of their time listening to the problems of the brothers and sisters in trouble; they always have words of encouragement, pointing to the blind the path that leads to the Master.
In the words they direct to those who have spent a lifetime in the darkness of errors, there is no blame, but only invitation to joy and hope: “Take heart! Get up, he is calling you” (v. 49).
And so we come to the last stage. The blind man “jumps up, throws off his cloak and runs” to the one who can give him sight (v. 50).
These are really unlikely gestures. The blind person does not normally behave like this. It would be more logical to expect that, having settled the cloak over his shoulders and moving unsteadily, he lets himself be accompanied toward Jesus. But he throws it all away, jumps up and runs speedily.
As it stands, the scene can only have a symbolic value and a theological message to communicate.
In Israel, the “mantle” was considered the only asset owned by the poor, “is all the covering he has for his body. In what else will he sleep?” (Ex 22:26). Like any beggar, Bartimaeus puts himself on his knees and uses them to gather alms. The act of abandoning it, along with a few coins that passersby kindly placed there, indicates the complete detachment, decisive, radical by the state in which he lived. He is no longer interested in the life he led up to that moment.
His gesture recalls that which the catechumens of Mark’s communities were performing on the day of their baptism. They threw away the old clothes; they refused what prevented them from running behind the Master. It was a sign of giving up the old life, habits, behaviors incompatible with the choices of those who have been enlightened by Christ.
The story ends with the dialogue between Jesus and the blind man (vv. 51-52).
The Master asks everyone who seeks the light to make his profession of faith, to believe in the one who can open his eyes. The encounter with Christ and with his light places one in a difficult condition.
Before Bartimaeus was sitting, now he has to start walking; before he had his “profession” which, for better or worse, fed him, now he has to invent a whole new life; before he had a place to live, living among people he knew and friends, now he has to leave for an adventure that looks challenging and risky.
Anyone who comes to Christ must not delude himself of encountering a comfortable life and trouble-free. The experience of Bartimaeus teaches that the journey that awaits those who have received the light is very difficult; it forces one to rethink habits, behavior and friendships. It demands that life, time, goods are managed in a radically new way.
Who wants to be enlightened by Christ must choose between the old mantle and the light.