An upside down world? Or an upside down church? Where we sit determines not just our perspective but also decides whether or not we need to be turned upside down in order to effectively live out the good news of the Kingdom.
If you spend any time reading Mark’s Gospel, you can’t help but feel your world being turned upside down. Is Jesus upside down? Or are his followers in need of being turned upside down in order to follow him?
Maybe the following meditation on Mark 10 will open our eyes. A blind man sits by the way in Jericho. His name is Bartimaeus. Huge crowds of pilgrims are here at this last stop before Zion. They’re on their way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.
Bartimaeus hears someone say that Jesus of Nazareth is among the travelers. He begins to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Many people tell him to keep quiet, but he becomes even more belligerent, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus’ disciples, meanwhile, are worried. They’re worried about where they get to sit. They’re not sitting by the road in the powerless position of a beggar. They want to sit in positions of power and greatness.
James and John secretly ask Jesus for a favor. When he asks, “What do want me to do for you,” they say they’d like to sit on his left and on his right. When the rest of the disciples hear about it, they’re incensed. They’ve already been fighting about who is the greatest, and now James and John have tried to make an end-run around them and secure places of prominence.
They’re focused on seats of power. They’re sitting in the wrong place. They want prayer in schools. They want to be able to wave flags in the auditorium and say “in Jesus’ name” before the Friday night football games. They’re anxious about the “degradation” of the family and how heterosexual marriage is losing its place of honor. They’re worried about where they get to sit.
Meanwhile, blind Bartimaeus sits by the way.
Do we pay attention to people who sit by the way? Or do we mostly care about our own seats?
We want the best seats. We want to camp out in places of prominence and glory. We believe that, because our church was once the place to be in our society, we should always be the happening and influential place to sit. We want to be able to proudly tell our friends, “Look at the church I attend. See how successful it is!” We tend to think as James and John, fixated on our desire to sit in glory.
Jesus tells a story about a sower (Mark 4), a reckless farmer who wastefully throws seed not just on the good soil, but also on rocky and thorny ground—and even by the way. Jesus knows the importance of sowing seed in unexpected places and of paying attention to those whose hearts are most open to him.
While arguing about seats of power, the disciples are unable to see the blind man seated by the way. Ironically, Bartimaeus sees Jesus more clearly than they. He knows who Jesus is. He knows Jesus can give him what he most needs. He is unstoppable in his quest to get to Jesus, who notices him and gives him his sight. In the process, the disciples are shown to be upside down, unable to understand who Jesus is or what it means to follow him.
Perhaps it takes getting flipped upside down to finally look at Jesus the right way. Perhaps we can never see our role as disciples until we sit beside the road. Perhaps it takes getting our tails kicked off our seats of power and onto the ground as beggars before we finally understand that Jesus isn’t here to make us free, famous and wealthy.
Perhaps we have to leave everything in order to gain our sight. It’s what the rich young man can’t do. He goes away sad because he has so many possessions. The disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, but they can’t leave behind their false hopes and dreams.
Can we in the North American church leave behind our taste for power and prestige? Bartimaeus has been sitting by the way with his cloak spread in front of him. This was the way beggars collected alms: spread out their cloak for people to toss coins onto. When Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus leaves his cloak, his only tangible possession, and runs after Jesus with single-minded devotion. “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.
Is there hope for people who sit in powerless positions? I hope so. There is for Bartimaeus. Perhaps by losing our power we will once again discover the power of faith in Jesus.
Bartimaeus leaves everything to follow Jesus. Can we leave it all? Can we stop fighting over who gets to sit on the left on who on the right? If we deny ourselves, we just might gain the ability to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And in so doing, we might find renewed hope for the upside-down church in North America.