Imaginative encounters with scripture…
There are many ways to read scripture passages; some of you may remember a list I once reproduced here of some of them.
There is also this one- an imaginative reading. In this kind of reading, we immerse ourselves in one of the stories of the Bible- placing ourselves as one of the characters, seeing it from a human perspective, being part of the action. This kind of reading is often applied to stories from the gospels.
It is also a kind of interaction with scripture which appeals to people like me who write.
One of the passages I was given to aid reflection in my silence last year was the story of Blind Bartimaeus, in Mark, chapter 10. It is a lovely story, full of Grace, and here is my imaginative response;
What a day.
There I was, sitting in the town square tying to sell a few pots, when everyone started to run down towards the road. Naomi and old Jebediah almost knocked each other flying in their haste.
“What is going on?” I shouted “What’s all the excitement about?” But no one would stop to tell me- they were all heading down to the road- even blind Bartemaeus picked up his stick and started to rattle his way out of the square, taking his begging bowl with him. Soon there was just me and old Martha who is so old that she has forgotten what day it is.
Despite myself I followed the whole village down the hill. They were all craning their necks to catch sight of something. “What is going on?” I repeated myself. Finally Naomi answered- “It’s that man Jesus- the Rabbi. The one I told you about. He is coming here! James saw him this morning and ran all the way back to tell us!”
Jesus of Nazareth! Of course I knew something of him- who didn’t? The stories were flying back and forward about what he was up to. Some said he was a new Prophet sent to speak to the people of Israel just like the old times. Others said he was a fraud who was just making trouble, and there had been quite enough of his sort in these parts.
There are even those would say that he is The One- the Messiah- come to fulfil all those old scriptures. Come to release captives, to bring sight to the blind, a declare the year of the Lord’s favour (if I remember my school boy Isaiah properly.)
What did I think of all this? A load of crap I said to all who asked- another loud mouth living off the bread of folk who have little to give in the first place. The country was full of ‘messiahs’ after all- every one with their own set of followers. Naomi is a little more gullible than me, shall we say- this was the third teacher this year that she had got all excited about. “This one is different” she would say, “he is not interested in money, or fame, or power- he just seems to talk about love and this thing that he calls the New Kingdom.” She also told me stories of miracles- but we have heard them before as well. A bit of religious trickery always seems to make people more ready to part with their coin. Naomi might live and breathe this sort of thing but I for one give it no attention.
Just then the crowd started to hush “He’s coming!” someone said. I was standing at the back as people lined the road, so I quietly climbed on the branch of a low tree to get a better view.
There were quite a few people on the road- mostly men, but a few women. I had no idea which one was Jesus- they all looked pretty ragged, but at the same time somehow ‘road fit’- these people clearly knew how to put in the miles. They walked in groups, talking animatedly and gesturing at one another- there was a lot of laughter and one man even turned a cartwheel to please the crowd.
Just then, right in front of me, blind Bartimaeus started to shout. He had no idea exactly how close he was to the travellers so he shouted really loudly;
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
‘Son of David’ no less- how did this beggar know so much scripture? His father, old Timaeus, used to have a broken down farm over the other side of the village and he had no time for such things when he was alive. This blind man was calling Jesus ‘Son of David’- more or less calling him ‘Messiah’!
The folk of the village did not like it- they turned on him. I think some were just embarrassed- an important, famous Rabbi comes to town and gets shouted at by a beggar- it just does not look good does it? Others thought Bartimeaus was after money (he normally was after all) although if he could see the state of the travellers he would have known that they did not have much in the way of cash. There were also more than a few religious folk in the crowd who were scandalised by the suggestion that somewhere in this ragged bunch was to be found Messiah.
So they hushed Bartimaeus, aimed a few kicks at him- but he would not be quiet. Even louder he shouted;
“Jesus- son of David. Have mercy on me!”
The travellers stopped in the road and turned towards the noise and the crowd went still- apart from Bartimeaus that is who shouted even louder. Then out of the group of travellers, a man started walking towards him.
I do not know why I had not seen him before- certainly he did not look much different, his clothes were just as ragged and his feet covered with the same road dust- but there was no doubt in my mind that this was Jesus of Nazareth. He had this presence, this quiet authority. Not the kind of authority that requires a title or a set of soldiers to enforce- this was something I had not seen before. There was nothing threatening about him at all, and yet I still found myself shrinking back a little.
This man would walk into any crowd and would become its centre. He could walk into a room and it would almost change colour. I at once saw what the fuss was all about- why he had upset people so much, why people were talking about him everywhere.
Bartimaeus was not at the front of the crowd- he was towards the back, quite close to me and I watched as Jesus walked towards him. The crowd parted like the red sea for Moses and I thought it best to climb down from my tree, not wanting to be noticed rubbernecking. I was then more than a little embarrassed to find myself standing almost right next to Blind Batrimaeus, who was still shouting for all that he was worth.
“All right, all right Bart old son” I said urgently “he heard you- and he is coming. Hush now!”
And he did. He sat there in the dust and blinked into the mid day sun, arms outstretched. I looked up and Jesus had stopped about ten feet away from Bartimaeus, and the crowd formed a ring around us like a thick hedge to keep in the goats.
He was close enough now for me to see his face. He was young – younger than me – that much I can tell you but yet I struggle to describe what his features actually looked like. All I know is that his face was so alive. His eyes seemed to be laughing even though his mouth was still.
I wondered then if he had stopped short of actually coming right up to Bartemaeus because he realised has was just a blind beggar- the sort that line all the major roads shouting for mercy. A man of no worth and no consequence. A man who some religious types described as bearing the consequences of sin. An unclean man, an outcast. The only reason that Bartimaeus survived at all was because people in my town remembered his mother, who was a good soul and had a lot to put up with what with her waster of a husband and her only child born blind, so many of us dropped him a coin or a piece of bread (when no one else was looking of course.)
Suddenly Jesus spoke.
“Tell him to stand up and come to me”
I realised with a start that he was talking to me- that he was looking right at me. And in the presence of this ragged stranger, my heart started pounding. I opened my mouth, but words seemed to have got stuck.
“Come on man- introduce your friend to me and tell him to stand up” said Jesus.
My friend? I thought- does he think we are the same? Was he mocking me? Certainly there was laughter in his voice.
Still, I bent over and spoke to Bartimaeus again “Come on Bart old son- he wants to speak to you.” I put my hand on the arm of this unclean wretch and helped him to his feet. “He is right in front of you, waiting.”
Bartimaeus put out his hands- he had left his stick on the ground- and took a step towards Jesus.
Then another, and another, until his hands were actually in contact with this strange compelling man. Jesus did not flinch as the beggars hands even began to explore his face; instead he opened his mouth and roared with laughter.
And his followers laughed too- not an unkind laugh; not the sort of laugh that happens when a man trips over a stray dog or a woman drops her bucket down a well. There was no victim to this laugh, rather it was an inclusive laugh- the sort that sucks you in and holds you in its embrace. It seemed to arise from a kind of emotion that I can only call joy. I found myself laughing too- really laughing. It was as if the trees and the stone walls laughed with us.
Then Jesus leaned forward and spoke again; “What do you want me to do for you?” he said, softly- so softly that I think only a few of us heard him.
That’s done it, I thought- clearly he has no money and there was no way he could take this poor wretch with him, wherever he was going. This is where it gets ugly again.
Bartimaeus did not ask for money though. Instead he dropped his hands, stood an inch taller and said this;
“Rabbi, I want to see.”
The crowd let out a communal gasp. Many had heard the rumours- lepers who had been made clean, mad men who were calmed, even a man called Lazarus over in Bethany who seems to have been raised up out of his own tomb. But talk was cheap and anyway things like that never happened in my town. Not here. Not to some smelly blind beggar who we all stepped over on the street every day of our lives.
But Jesus seemed to have heard only what he expected to hear- he appeared delighted. There was mischief in his voice when he said;
“Go on then- on your way. Your faith has healed you.”
And with that, Jesus turned about and started to walk down the road.
Is that it I said to myself. Is this the work of a Messiah? He throws out a few smart words then is on his way? I felt cheated somehow- despite my cynicism, even I had started to believe that this Jesus was different from all the other would-be Messiahs.
Bartimaeus just stood there- eyes wide open, wriggling his fingers between the sky and his face. I felt sorry for him.
“Well that’s that then Bart.” I said. “Come on up to town with me and let’s get something to eat…”
But before I could finish my sentence, he was shouting again at the top of his voice!
“I can see! I can see! I can bloody well SEE!”
The crowd parted again as he stumbled towards them, dumfounded as he pointed out the branches of the trees against the blue sky, the lichen on the wall next to the field, the marks he had made in the dust with his feet, and the smoke rising from the village chimneys in the distance. We all watched dumbfounded as he ran back to his stick, picked it up, kissed it then hurled it far over the wall shouting;
“Good bye you old bugger, I’ll not be needing you any more!”
Then he stopped in his tracks and spoke more slowly;
“Go he told me- on my way. Where on earth would I be going… if it is not with him?”
With that, once-blind Bartimaeus was up and half running, half stumbling down the road, still with a hand held out in front like the blind man he used to be, chasing after Jesus for all that he was worth.
As for me, I stood with the others, watching him go- unable to take it all in. Unable to believe that the most important thing that ever happened to this town- no, the most important thing that ever happened to me- was wrapped up in the rags of this creature running like a drunken goat down the road.
I was wondering what it meant. Wondering what had just changed right before my eyes. Looking for something to anchor myself to, but not able to see it…
But that was all years ago now. Bartimaeus came back a few weeks later. He told us the story of what happened over the next few weeks. He was our eye-witness as to how Jesus rode in to Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, only to be arrested on trumped-up charges and put on trial. Bartimaeus was there when Jesus was whipped and beaten up. He was there when they paraded him through the streets, and watched as they crucified him and hung him there until he died. He also told of how the curtain in the great temple ripped right down the middle and the sky went dark at mid day.
And Bartimaeus told us how a couple of the women went to take care of his body early in the morning, only to find Jesus not dead but alive- of how he met with his followers, and even let once-blind Bartemaeus touch his face again, and of how they all laughed till they cried.
Bartimaeus is my friend now. He lives with Naomi and I and helps me make pots- all those years of living by touch alone has turned him into the most gifted potter in these parts- people come from miles around to buy what he has made.
Or perhaps they come to hear the stories. Of a man called Jesus, who on some days even I have come to believe was indeed the Messiah.