There was a sombre tone in last week’s readings, today there is some joy. The first reading is an example of how the unhappiness of exile would be turned into joy when the Hebrews were freed from Babylon captivity. In the Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man, who follows him happily.
Jeremiah had had the unhappy prophetic task of predicting that the Jewish people would be conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon, which began in 587 and lasted to 539 BCE. It was understood as a result of their turning away from God to pursue selfish ends. Jeremiah’s God did not leave them without hope. In this exuberant poem, the prophet describes the return to their homeland, with a special stress on God’s care of the weaker members of the community, the ones who had been neglected in the past by the wealthy and powerful.
This short song was written for the exiles return to the Holy Land, and expresses both the pain of loss, and the joy of restoration.
We continue in this book which describes Christ’s saving work in contrast to the High Priest of the Old Law. Last week the author emphasized that Jesus in his humanity has full sympathy with our weaknesses. Then how Jesus by giving himself as a sacrificial offering is proclaimed the Son of God and receives a different kind of priesthood. Aaron was the first High Priest from the time of Moses, and all other priests derived their office from him. But Jesus priesthood is like that of Melchizedek. This was hinted at in Psalm 110/111.
The story of Melchizedek, a mysterious figure, is told in Genesis 14:17. He seems likely to have been a pagan king and priest, although he calls upon ‘the Most High God’ in his prayer. Because Abraham came to him for a sacrifice of thanksgiving, the author of Hebrews thinks of Melchizedek as having a priestly authority before Aaron. His name is made up of the Hebrew words for ‘king’ and ‘righteous.’ Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine, which Catholics have seen as a foretelling of Christ’s priestly sacrifice commemorated in the mass. Jesus for us is both priest and king as this author tells us Melchizedek was.
This is one of the short dramas Mark does so well, sometimes as here with details not in the other Gospels. It follows right after last week’s reading, in which we saw that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ stress on service as the path he takes – and expects his disciples to take. While he first disciples did not ‘see’ what Jesus expected, now there is a blind man who literally sees when healed by Jesus. And he also ‘sees’ something important about who Jesus is.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus had now reached Jericho about 15 miles north-east of the city. He is followed by disciples, and they join some of the many pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Passover in the Holy City. It was a good time to beg for alms, and a blind man has set himself at the roadside. It may have been a lively, even noisy, crowd as it was the joyous feast of liberation from slavery. There was, however, enough of an unusual commotion to raise the question for the blind man of someone special there among them. Somehow he has learned of Jesus of Nazareth, and his healings. Blind though he is, he ‘sees’ something of Jesus’ identity that others have not: that he is the ‘Son of David’, a title of the expected Messiah who it was hoped would fulfil the promise given to David of an everlasting line. We are not told the reason that some try to shut him up. Perhaps they are disciples who don’t want Jesus to be bothered, perhaps some of the general crowd who don’t want interference in their festive journey. I have seen that some people today object to giving to beggars for various reasons. The man is persistent, and his voice reaches Jesus. But Jesus does call him directly. Instead he turns to the ones who protested and tells them to bring the man forward – thereby teaching them a lesson in compassion.
Jesus also requires some initiative from the blind man: he asks him to explain what he wants. Healings in Mark of course show the compassion of Jesus, but also may have a deeper meaning or a symbolic dimension. Here when the blind man asks to see, he is of course referring to physical sight but we may also think of spiritual sight: to understand Jesus and the meaning of his life. Once the blind man has his sight, he follows Jesus and ‘follow me’ is the word Jesus used to call disciples. So Mark suggests the man now became a disciple himself. That possibility is reinforced by his name being remembered in the tradition that came to Mark.
This will be the last recorded healing in Mark, and has various symbolic aspects. In Jerusalem, enemies will refuse to ‘see’ who Jesus is and refuse to follow him.
Mark’s Greek text preserves two words from Aramaic, the everyday language of the time. He translates Bar as meaning ‘son of’. But he does not translate the honorary title the blind man uses when he asks for sight: ‘Rabbouni’ a form of Rabbi, the honorary title which is still used by Jews. The Jerusalem Bible translates it, as ‘Master’, others prefer ‘Teacher’.
If one is reading Mark in sequence, this is followed by the ‘triumphal entry into Jerusalem’ (Mark 11:1-11). But in our liturgy, we celebrate that on Palm Sunday as part of the Passion-Easter account so it is used now. After describing Jesus’ entry into the city, Mark reports him teaching there and the conflicts with the authorities which will end in his death. Our mass readings will continue with a few of these stories, and then end the liturgical year with the last Sunday celebrating ‘Christ the King’ – not unlike the royal title (son of King David) used by Bartimaeus.