Monday, October 22, 2018

Jericho to Jerusalem

I've never been to Palestine, to the "Holy Land," but I've heard so many preachers talk about how wonderful their trips were that it almost feels like I don't need to see it for myself--almost. Even though I haven't been, there are some basic pieces of biblical geography that I have picked up from reading commentaries, searching the Internet, and (sigh) listening to preachers tell how much they now realize about the stories of the Bible that they hadn't known before. They are things like the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the locations of Galilee and Samaria and Judea. Another geographical detail that comes to mind this week as we hear the story of Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus, in Mark 10:46-52 is the road that stretches between Jericho and Jerusalem.

For all of Mark 10, we've been getting closer to Jerusalem. After the Transfiguration in Mark 9, Jesus began his journey toward the holy city with the disciples. We start chapter 10 with Jesus entering the region of Judea from the north. There were teachings on divorce and wealth. There were encounters with children. Jesus predicted his death for the third and final time, and, in yesterday's gospel lesson, Jesus responded to James and John's request for seats of honor by telling all of the disciples to become servants. Now, as we finish Mark 10, we have made it as far as Jericho, and, as Jesus and his disciples leave town to continue the final stretch toward Jerusalem, we meet Bartimaeus.

Geography matters for Mark. There is only one destination left for Jesus. This is his final journey, his last preaching tour. He's getting close. Jericho was only 18 miles away from Jerusalem, and, as the story is narrated to us, there's no stopping along the way. Mark 11 opens with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which means that Bartimaeus is the last episode before the final week of Jesus' life, which we commemorate in Holy Week, unfolds.

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was only 18 miles long, but it goes up, up, up. The Internet suggests that the elevation change is from -825 feet to +2500 feet, which is quite a climb (see the American Bible Society). I haven't seen it, but I know that an 18-mile hike with an elevation change like that is a difficult road to walk. It's a burden for all involved. It's the kind of journey that one cannot rush, but it's not a casual walk either. It's the sort of expedition that one only takes on purpose. One doesn't wake up on a Friday morning and say, "I'm in the mood to walk from Jericho to Jerusalem today. Anyone want to go with me?" And that changes the way we hear Mark's account of those who went with Jesus.

In the opening verse of Sunday's lesson, we read that "Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho." In the next sentence, by the time they left, "a large crowd" went with them. Something urgent happened during Jesus' time in the city. Perhaps the residents of Jericho, familiar, of course, with the spiritual significance of the journey to the holy city, recognized in Jesus a fulfillment of their hopes and dreams. Maybe Jesus predicted for them what would happen to him in Jerusalem, and the crowd wanted to see the showdown. If so, Bartimaeus' own story shifts our understanding toward intention. When the blind man is healed, Jesus tells him to "Go; your faith has made you well," but Bartimaeus joins the crowd and follows Jesus on the way. He had seen enough with his heart to identify Jesus as "Son of David," and he wasn't going to miss the opportunity to follow him to the City of David even if it was an 18-mile walk uphill.

There's more to the relationship between Jericho and Jerusalem. The same website from the American Bible Society reminds us that David and his followers ran the other way when they escaped Jerusalem during Absalom's rebellion. Similarly, the King Zedekiah of Judah had also used the road to run away when the Babylonians were attacking the holy city. More interesting to me is the fact that "the Tenth Roman Legion used this Jericho-Jerusalem road on their way to besiege Jerusalem" around the time that Mark's account was written--in 69 AD. With this last historical data point, there's a contemporary juxtaposition of images of power as Jesus makes the trip to establish God's reign while the Romans traveled the same road in order to try to stifle it.

What will we see this Sunday as we leave Jericho with Jesus, the crowd, and Bartimaeus and start the final stretch of the journey to Jerusalem? We've been on this road for weeks and weeks, dealing with conflict, teachings, and challenging expressions of God's reign. This is our last chance to figure out who we are and with whom we are travelling before the drama of Holy Week begins. This is our opportunity to have our own eyes opened so that we might see what Jesus and the reign of God really look like before the ultimate conflict between the powers of heaven and the powers of this world unfolds with betrayal, arrest, interrogation, torture, and death. Palm Sunday is a long, long way ahead of us, but, in biblical terms, it's just a verse away, a single page-turn, a morning's break.

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