Scripture notes – 30th Sunday of the Year, B – 24th October 2021

There was a sombre tone in last week’s readings, today begins with joy. The first reading is an example of how the unhappiness of exile would be turned into rapturous delight when the Hebrews were freed from the Babylon Captivity.

The readings are available online here.

Jeremiah 31:7-9
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. The loss of their homeland Jeremiah saw as a result of of their turning away from God to pursue selfish ends. But God did not leave them without hope and that is well expressed in this prophecy. The exuberant poem 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.

Psalm 124/125
This short song celebrates the exiles return to the Holy Land, and expresses both the pain of loss, and the joy of restoration.

Hebrews 5:1-6
This continuation from the Letter compares Christ’s saving work to the High Priest of the Old Law. Basing the teaching on Older Testament texts explains how Jesus by giving himself as a sacrificial offering has a new and different kind of priesthood. Aaron was the first High Priest in the time of Moses, and all other Jewish priests derived their office from him. But Jesus priesthood is like that of Melchizedek, based on Psalm 110/111: ‘The Lord has sworn an oath he will not change: You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.’

The story of Melchizedek, a mysterious figure, is told in Genesis 14:17. His name is made up of the Hebrew words for ‘king’ and ‘righteous.’ He is likely to have been a pagan king and priest, although he calls upon ‘the Most High God’ in his prayer which is a title that could be used for our God. Because Abraham came to him with a sacrifice of thanksgiving, the author of Hebrews thinks of Melchizedek as having a priestly authority that precedes that of Aaron. Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine, which some 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.

Mark 10:40-52
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 the 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’. While this was not a usual title for the expected Messiah, it has an allusion to the promise given to David of an everlasting kingship (2 Samuel 7:16). 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. (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 may hint that Bartimaeus 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: ‘Rabbuni’ a more honorary form of Rabbi, the title which is still used by Jews. The liturgy translates it, as ‘Master’.

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. 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’ – having some resonance with the royal title (son of King David) used by Bartimaeus.

Joan Griffith