Sunday, October 25, 2009

Proper 25

Mariah Carey's new album is called E=MC²

Now, perhaps you are a huge Mariah Carey fan—and I don’t want to offend—but I wonder about Mariah’s relationship to Einstein’s special theory of relativity and the whole area of theoretical physics in general. People have been trying to explain the theory since 1905, and for the most part they end up with one of those headaches you get when you eat ice cream too fast.

Thank goodness I have Wikipedia, and can safely report that Mariah intended E=MC² to be purely symbolic, meaning the "(E) Emancipation (=) of (MC) Mariah Carey (2) to the second power." I think we can expect her to reinterpret any number of things into the future: perhaps pi, or the periodic table. In fact, there is no element “M” so maybe I’ll be the first to add Mariah.

Okay, enough of mocking the pop stars—too easy. E=MC² is the real topic here, not because I understand it (I don’t) but because it is a kind of shorthand for things that are known but largely unintelligible. Think the popular phrases “it ain’t brain surgery” or “it ain’t rocket science.” The person citing brain surgery or rocket science is not claiming insight on the topic, only that whatever they are doing is somewhat less complicated than either. I sailed with a brain surgeon for a few seasons, and we took complete advantage of it: “C’mon Leanne, pull the main halyard, it’s not brain surgery.”

Rocket science is interesting area of human activity, because we know a lot on the topic without really understanding the theory behind it. Most of us can talk about rockets without the physics or the chemistry to back it up. Not unlike E=MC², in that we knew what it is, and a vague outline of what it does, without the burden of complete knowledge.

Enter Blind Bartimaeus. On the surface, it is a simple healing narrative, and follows the standard form. Jesus is on the move and encounters someone with an illness or disability. The person cries out for help and the others try to silence him. Jesus takes notice, ascertains the situation and heals the person, ending with a word or phrase such as “sin no more” or “your faith has made you well.”

Seems perfectly straightforward, or so it would seem. Clever Mark has planted a couple of clues in the text, however, that say that this story is different and there may be a deeper meaning at play.

The first clue is the name: The subjects of Jesus healing ministry don’t get names, usually, because their names don’t matter. Who they are is not part of the story: it is who they represent. And in most cases, they represent someone falsely blamed for their condition or someone with a torment the world does not understand. And the act of healing becomes a corrective for whatever false assumption that is operating in the neighbourhood. But Bartimaeus has a name, and therefore it must have some significance.

The second clue is the repetition, “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.” Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus,” so the passage really reads “Son of Timaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the read side. Mark is saying ‘pay attention, dear reader,’ but to what? Professor Tom Long has the answer.

Dr. Long argues that Timaeus, a leading character in a dialogue by Plato, was general knowledge in Jesus’ day, much in the way we throw around E=MC². People knew Timaeus, and vaguely what he stood for, and you have nodded with recognition when Mark decided to give this blind beggar the name “son of Timaeus.”

So who was Timaeus, and what did he say? First, we now try to avoid using “blindness” as a metaphor for ignorance. It gets “grandfathered” on certain occasions, but generally it should be avoided. Mark, writing in 60 AD, didn’t feel the same hesitation. So, for the moment, we assume that the blindness of the son of Timaeus is ignorance, that there is something wrong with his worldview, or his theory, in this case penned by none other than the great Plato.

Jesus, then, is not so much healing a man as correcting a misapprehension. Mark’s readers knew Greek, and some Greek philosophy, and therefore would know all about Timaeus. In the conversational way ideas were presented, Timaeus gets the best lines, and a worldview is created. There was no television then, so people had the time to think about the nature of the universe and how it came to be. Enter Timaeus.

Timaeus, along with all his philosopher friends, argued that there were two states: being and becoming. And being is vastly superior to becoming in that being is fixed (like truth) and becoming is, well, becoming. Anything below the realm of truth (like an idea or a theory) is in a state of becoming, and therefore inferior. So far, then:

Being: eternal and good
Becoming: temporary and not so good.

Timaeus takes this a step further and suggests that the realm of being is represented by an eternal god and the realm of becoming is represented by a worldly sort of god. It is this worldly god that tends a “world soul” and various elements including the “fifth element,” something called quintessence. And you thought it was a movie with Bruce Willis.

So what does this mean and why should we care?

Jesus rejects the blindness of Timaeus because the theory was just plain wrong. There is one God, the God of both being and becoming, the God of both the realm we can see and the realm we cannot see. In the realm we can see there is Jesus, “God-with-us” who walked among us and taught us finally the heavenly way. There is no separation, because God came in Jesus and lived among us, understanding the forgiveness we need.

Jesus rejects the blindness of Timaeus because it was one more theory about the structure of the universe to be refuted and set aside. Someone will say, ‘we live in hell and later we will go to heaven.’ Or ‘this is all there is, a heaven of sorts and we need to care for it.’ I’m sure you could name more. Theorising about the structure of the universe is as old as human consciousness, and Jesus intervenes to say only this: ‘thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

In heaven, compassion is first priority, because God is fully aware of the human experience and the needs of the vulnerable.
In heaven, love is central, because everything God does is an act of love.
In heaven, forgiveness is the last word, because we all need it, and we need to learn to accept it, and we need to extend it to others.

Jesus is healing a wounded worldview, healing the misapprehension that comes through speculation, healing the mistaken understanding that the world doesn’t really belong to God. We are grateful for healing, and we are grateful for understanding, but most of all, we are grateful that Jesus stopped that day to show us the world God made. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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