I have been suggesting that, while Mark’s Gospel aims to bring disciples into ever more full and mature faith — to turn them into those who faithfully confess Jesus to be God’s Son, both with their lips and with their lives — the irony is that disciples do not model faith in his Gospel. It’s “little people” who do. It’s a “little person,” in the form of an unnamed, Roman soldier presiding over his execution, who models the faithful confession of one’s lips. Similarly, it’s a whole string of “little people,” making mostly cameo appearances in the narrative, who model the faithful confession of one’s life.
In the Gospel accounts, some of these “little people” have names, but most remain nameless. Only two can be imagined moving among polite society. Quite a few are women. Their number could comprise all the human characters who are not Jesus and who are neither family, nor opponents, nor disciples of Jesus. At a minimum, they include a leper (1:40-45), friends of a paralytic (2:1-12), Jairus and a woman with a hemorrhage (5:21-43), a Syro-Phoenician mother (7:24-30), a half-believing father (9:14-29), blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52), a sympathetic scribe (12:28-34), a poor widow (12:41-44), Simon of Cyrene (15:22), and the women at the cross and tomb (15:40-41, 47; 16:1-8).
What unites these “little people” is a common narrative role. They model faith. “Faith,” at least, is what Jesus explicitly acknowledges and commends in the paralytic’s friends, in the hemorrhagic woman, and in Bartimaeus. Set next to his disappointment in the “faithlessness” of his disciples (4:40) and kinfolk (6:6), such acknowledgement and commendation sound all the more significant.
This faith that these “little people” exemplify is simple trust that Jesus’ gospel proclamation is true, that in him no less than God has come near in sovereign power. They thus embody belief in Jesus as “the Son of God,” even if they never declare it. When they speak (and they often do) they say volumes about who he is; but they never identify him confessionally. What these “little people” do matters more than what they say. Indeed, their narrative role turns, not on what they confess with their lips, but on what they confess with their lives.
What does this confessing life look like? It begins with a kind of “sight.” Mark’s “little people” routinely perceive who Jesus truly is. They penetrate that obvious humanity that blocks insight in other humans, disciples included. These others may, but “little people” never, ask the dull questions pertaining to Jesus’ identity that dot the narrative (1:27; 2:7; 4:41; 6:3; 11:28). So, while Jesus gives “the mystery of the kingdom of God” to disciples (4:11), only “little people” receive it. They perceive that the mighty God has come to deliver in the weakness of a human being, Jesus. Verbs of seeing, hearing, and understanding that characterize their response to Jesus highlight this insight. Such “sightedness” — personified in Bartimaeus (10:52) — stands in ironic contrast to the “blindness” of others, especially the disciples.
Because they “see” God drawn near in this Nazarene, these “little people” act as they do. First, they come — aggressively, indefatigably, often at considerable risk — seeking him out. The leper (1:40) and the woman with the flow of blood (5:25ff) approach him in violation of purity laws. The paralytic’s friends (2:4), cutting a hole in the roof to lower him to Jesus, not only exert themselves monumentally, they chance enraging the homeowner (is it Jesus himself?). The Syro-Phoenician woman (7:24ff) runs every religious, racial-cultural, and sexual risk in coming, plus the psychological risk of disturbing his rest, only to endure, undeterred, what is arguably verbal abuse from the healer himself. Bartimaeus (10:46ff) simply won’t be put off. To what do this persistence, and the lengths to which these “little people” go, testify, however mutely, if not the majesty, the divinity, of Jesus’ person and power?
That these “little people” seek him out to ask for the impossible only augments this silent witness. Who can heal leprosy, stop a 12-year hemorrhage, open deaf ears and blind eyes, or raise the dead? If this Nazarene can, then who but God must be at work in him? These “little people” not only expect Jesus to be able to do such things, they expect him to do so easily: if he only wills (1:40), if he would just lay on his hands (5:23), if only the hem of his garment might be touched (5:28), if mere crumbs were to fall from his table (7:28). If it could talk, this expectation would shout testimony to Jesus’ divine Sonship.
Add to these two a third and final way that these “little people” demonstrate their insight: the characteristic “posture” that they strike with respect to Jesus. It is routinely worshipful. They kneel, fall at his feet, and fall down before him. If humans should position their bodies thus, worshipfully, before no one but God, then what does the ready adoption of such postures by these “little people” say, albeit wordlessly, about Jesus?
These characters embody an eloquent witness — audible, nearly, isn’t it, to us readers? — to the majesty and mystery of Jesus’ person. The visceral pattern of this witness, in outline, is clear: it stops at nothing to get itself and beloved others into his presence, it asks of and expects from him the impossible, and it prostrates itself unashamedly before him. This is what faith in Jesus as the Son of God looks like, how it makes corporeal testimony, in the life of the believer.
Or, at least, this is what faith looks like initially in Mark, up through the story of Bartimaeus. Interestingly, this picture changes in dramatic ways as the rest of Mark’s “little people” appear (and disappear) briefly in the passion narrative that concludes his Gospel. But the rest of this exposition awaits the final installment.
Harry Chronis is pastor of White Rock Church in Los Alamos, N.M. This article series evolved during his recent sabbatic leave in Edinburgh with further exploration of the topic in dialogue with an adult Sunday School class at the Los Alamos church.