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The First and The Last

Mark 10:31 “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

I got called in to do some spiritual care for someone who was recently housed. To my delight, he was someone I had known for a long while. In his hands was a good-sized wooden cross which he held delicately yet desperately. His voice was rough but kind, however, his mask seemed to accentuate the former. His back was slouched over for he was bearing the weight of years of guilt and regret. During our time together, his cry to God was a repeated “Lord have mercy”. At the same time, I became envious of the intimacy which characterized his relationship with God. My friend prayed continually and God met him in beautiful ways. 

He was almost yelling ... for the chance to be seen as human.

I used to see my friend often asking for change outside a Tim Hortons. The last time I saw him there he was in great sorrow for I was the only one who even gave him a glance in almost 2 hours. He was almost yelling when I saw him – not for the sake of money, but for the chance to be seen as human. Together, we went inside to get a coffee. When I think of my friend, I cannot help but think of the story of Bartimaeus at the end of Mark 10.

The famous verse of Mark 10:31 is squeezed between three interconnected stories. First is the Rich Young Ruler; second is the story of Jesus foretelling his death and James and John asking for a promotion in the Kingdom of God; and finally, the story of Bartimaeus. In these stories, only Bartimaeus, following the way of Jesus, was first in the Kingdom of God. In contrast to the Rich Young Ruler who was unwilling to give away his great wealth, Bartimaeus in Mark 10:50 throws his cloak aside. Some commentators believe this was Bartimaeus’ only piece of clothing and could have possibly been a makeshift container with which he collected alms. 

In contrast to James and John’s request of “Gimme, Gimme”, Bartimaeus’ first reaction to Jesus is “have mercy.” Being last (and blind) in this world, gave Bartimaeus eyes to see what God’s Kingdom really is. 

This place of utter weakness was fertile ground for faith

James and John seem to have what Tim Keller and others call a middle-class spirit. In this spirit, there is a mindset which believes: those who are first – those who wake up first to pray, who show up first to meet the crowds, who strive to be first – should be first in God’s Kingdom. Because of their own worth, they should have the right to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. In this mindset, we believe that God should give to us the wages of our own worth and work. We should gain salvation because we deserve it. Jesus responds by essentially saying “you are blind to the kingdom”. Unlike the kingdoms of this world which operate under a first-be-first policy, in Jesus’ Kingdom the last, the servant, the slave will be first. Those who will be first will follow the way of Jesus which is the cross. There to his left and his right are those who have the privilege of the Kingdom’s glory – bodies who share the blood and shame of Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Rather than having a middle-class spirit, Bartimaeus is poor in spirit. He knows without a shadow of a doubt that he can never earn God’s grace. After all he is a blind beggar. What could he offer Jesus? All he could do was appeal to Jesus’ mercy. Perhaps to his own surprise, in this place of utter weakness was fertile ground for faith. 

First, Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus using the title “Son of David”, a messianic term. While James and John may have believed that Jesus was the Messiah they were likely mistaken on the nature of that role. Using the mentality of first-be-first, Bartimaeus should have never cried out to Jesus. The gap between Jesus and the blind beggar was astronomical. No wonder the crowd hushed Bartimaeus. Because of his disability, Bartimaeus was utterly last: he was excluded from the economic benefits of society, the spiritual riches of the temple of God and the social gift of community. It is said that a philosophy similar to Karma was influential among the Jews during this time. Even today is it very hard to witness the utter lastness of one’s suffering without giving in to the tempting belief that such suffering is directly correlated to misdeeds. Despite these social barriers, Bartimaeus saw that Jesus’ Messiahship did not exclude him. Rather than a lord of gentiles, he saw Jesus to be the one anointed to give good news to the poor. Jesus asks the same question he asked of James and John and Bartimaeus answered, “I want to see”. Jesus heals him and Bartimaeus follows Jesus. 

The poor in spirit like Bartimaeus and my friend give me a longing to see God’s kingdom anew. They teach me to be last.

Picture provided by the author.  

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