Historical Culture Context
The Blind Beggar
Even though blind, the beggar in Mark’s Gospel is very shrewd. He has heard of Jesus’ reputation as a folk healer. How can he “force” Jesus to heal him?
He bases his request to Jesus on “mercy” (Mk 10:47-48). “Son of David, have mercy on me!” In the Mediterranean value system, mercy describes a person’s willingness to pay personal debts.
By repeating this statement over and over, the beggar insists that Jesus owes the healing to him. By shouting it out ever more loudly, the clever beggar makes the entire crowd aware of Jesus’ debt to him.
On what basis does Jesus owe this apparent stranger anything? By addressing him as “son of David,” the beggar publicly identifies Jesus as Messiah (as “son of David” is interpreted in Mark’s Gospel).
Even if Jesus or the crowd were to disagree about messianic imputation, the title “son of David” situates Jesus in the lineage which includes Solomon, a near omniscient and onmicompetent ruler. It would be very difficult indeed for Jesus to accept either honorific accolade without rewarding the person who announced them.
The beggar regains his sight and immediately follows Jesus. Such a response is not unusual but rather quite in line with the Mediterranean institution of patronage.
Jesus, of course, is the broker and not the patron. He is the one who has ready access to God, the patron, and who can connect clients like the blind beggar with God the patron.
The healed beggar joins Jesus’ entourage because he is indebted to Jesus and will sing his—and the patron’s—praises far and wide. A favor received is a favor owed, even if the return favor is not expected.
By setting this story in his Gospel right after Jesus contrasts the behavior of non-Judean rulers with those who hold authority in the Jesus movement, Mark invites the reader further to reflect on the difference.
Jesus the folk healer is located by his would-be client in the royal lineage of David. But instead of “lording it over” his beneficiary, Jesus adopts the role of servant, accedes to the blind man’s request, intercedes—like a servant—with the God of Israel, and obtains restoration of the man’s sight.
The beggar in turn feels bound to point to Jesus as his successful broker with the patron-God of Israel who does not turn a deaf ear to the requests of a humble subject.
Americans who tire of wrestling with the Mediterranean core value of honor Sunday by Sunday in the Gospels have a golden opportunity in today’s Gospel to compare its effectiveness in the ancient healing system with the workings of the contemporary health care system.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University