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February 22nd, 2015

Learning to see clearly is a process.

Mark 8:22-26

February 22, 2015

A miracle about seeing

The first observation I make when I come to Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8 is that this story is unusual in many details. Often the basic facts and lessons of a particular miracle are relatively clear, but that’s not the case this time. I didn’t know where this one was going. There are a number of elements that are hard to see on first read – or maybe second or third. It takes patience and persistence.

Isn’t that true about much of life? Who understands the opposite sex in his first relationship? Who’s successful losing weight and keeping it off the first effort? Who can cook a gourmet meal and set an attractive table the first attempt? Who sees Shakespeare for who he is in tenth grade? You have to strain and wait to see clearly.

A Confirmand told this past week she likes watching football with her Dad. “Do you understand the game?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “I just like being with him.” Seeing football and baseball to her are like seeing rugby and lacrosse to me.

Sometimes our confusion is potentially deadly. My friend Whit Malone, who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, shared with me this week an article from The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” about the Islamic State in the headlines recently for its brutal killings. Most Americans, including our government, didn’t see this coming. We misunderstood the threat because we thought ISIS is a variation of Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda and ISIS don’t like each other and would exterminate each other, given the chance. Neither group necessarily represents the majority of Muslims in the world in terms of how they view the world, the Koran, or themselves.

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know about ISIS. They are expecting the second coming of Jesus after an apocalyptic battle (their “Armageddon”) with the West. Who knew? We’re blind to their theology, their goals, their methodology. But I can’t really blame the government any more than I can blame me. The world view of ISIS is so different from mine it takes persistence and patience to see them for what they are.

Sometimes you have to hang in there in order to be able to see what you need to see, and that’s the case with this week’s miracle of Jesus in our series. This miracle is about seeing, and I want you to see that.

I plan to punctuate my telling of this story with a number of questions. As I ask my questions, I’ll give some answers I’ve learned and will admit where I still don’t know.

Why?

Two weeks ago we studied the feeding of the 5000, which occurs in Mark 6. That’s a pivotal moment for Jesus. John’s gospel (6:15) tells us that the crowds were so impressed they intended to declare Jesus was their Messianic hope and crown him king. That was a bad thing. Jesus dismissed the crowd and sent the disciples off in a boat, only to join them later by walking on water – which is where we left the story last week. He then headed over to Gennesaret (Mark 6:53) on the western shore, where he healed more people but he also ran into conflicts with the Pharisees (7:1-23).

From this point on we find Jesus withdrawing from Galilee, for the most part, which is where he had spent most of his ministry. He heads up the coast of the Mediterranean to Tyre (Mark 7:24), where he heals a Gentile woman’s daughter, then goes to the Gentile region of the Decapolis (7:31), where he heals a deaf mute. He feeds another multitude (4000 this time), but it’s also a Gentile crowd on the eastern side.[1]

Jesus and his disciples get in a boat, and Jesus makes what seems to the disciples a random comment about “the yeast of the Pharisees” (8:15), and they start discussing the fact that they forgot to bring bread. Jesus says to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear” (8:17-18)? Don’t miss that.

Jesus heads north toward Caesarea Philippi (8:27), where he will ask the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” On the way, north along the eastern side of the sea, he goes through Bethsaida (“House of Fishing”) on the northeast corner near where the Jordan River enters the lake. Not far from here Jesus had fed and healed (Matthew 14:14) the first multitude. This is the eastern edge of Galilee, and these people are apparently mostly Jews, unlike those to the south and north.

Apparently he has no intention of doing very much teaching or healing at Bethsaida. Nevertheless, this is an important story and (although you won’t see this in most English translations) Mark uses present tense verbs in verse 22 because it’s as if he is seeing the story in real time: “They are coming to Bethsaida, and they are bringing to him a blind man and begging Jesus to touch him.”

Question 1: Why do people have to beg Jesus to do a miracle? It happens often (see Mark 1:40; 5:10; 5:17,18; 6:56; 7:32). Why? Is he resistant? Aloof? Unwilling? I suppose I have to say I don’t know, but the word translated “beg” never implies anything about Jesus’ response. It’s always about the person or persons who approach him. The word is parakaleo, which literally means “to call alongside.” This word is about physical proximity – closing the gap. It’s about touch, eye contact, being “up close and personal.” In noun form, this is the word “Paraclete,” used of the Holy Spirit who comes alongside us. You get close to someone to encourage, comfort, or urge. These people are getting physically close to Jesus – we would say “in his face” – so they can urge him to do something, in this case touch the blind man so he could be healed.

Question 2: Why did Jesus take the blind man from Bethsaida? Verse 23 says, “Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.” Remember the obvious – the man is blind. Somebody leads him everywhere he goes. We learn later he is not from Bethsaida; that’s not his home (26). A blind man can usually get around familiar places, but he has to be led if it’s unfamiliar territory. We know this man used to be able to see, because verse 25 says his vision was “restored.” It is particularly true, I think, of those who lose their sight that blindness is so unnerving and intimidating.

We’re not told whether a crowd was gathering or not, but I suspect that’s the case – although probably not a large mob in this rural fishing village. Surely there were people who were in the crowd of 5000+ whom Jesus had fed and healed. This blind man – and his friends – had missed out on their chance that day. It may have had something to do with this phase of his ministry being more about withdrawal from Galilee. He doesn’t want another miracle to attract unwanted attention. The larger significance, however, is again about touch. Jesus is personally attending to this man, guiding him with his own hands and assuring him by his presence as they walk. As I read the rest of the story, I think the disciples go with Jesus and the blind man, but no one else.[2]

Question 3. Why did Jesus use saliva in healing the man? Jesus actually does two things in verse 23 – he “spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him.” It’s not the first time Jesus had used his spit in a miracle. In 7:33 he healed the man who was deaf and mute by putting saliva on the man’s tongue.

The use of saliva by ancient healers was common. But that just begs the question for me. Why did Jesus do it like they did it? It seems like the action reinforces either their superstition or their misunderstanding of medicine. Or was it a misunderstanding? Some Dutch scientists have shown saliva to have healing properties. Or maybe it really was for the same reason your Mom spit on her hand to wipe your face – he was cleaning the eye so when it opened nothing would fall into it. There are few actions that represent a more personal physical connection than sharing saliva.

Question 4. Why did Jesus ask, “Do you see anything?” (23)? This is the only time Jesus asked a question like this of someone he healed. Didn’t Jesus know? Verse 24 says the man “looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’” So we know initially after the spittle and the touch, the man was looking down at the ground. But when Jesus asked him what he saw, it forced him to look up – and to talk for the first time in the story. Up until now, he’s been a dependent, insecure, non-vocal human being.

One of my commentaries says the Greek here suggests vivid excitement on the part of the man: “I can see people, for they look to me like trees – only they can walk!”[3] The man is not disappointed. He looks and sees the disciples, and maybe his friends who brought him (a small band probably accompanied them outside the city) and he’s thrilled with the progress. Only because Jesus had asked him, “Do you see anything?” does he get the chance to look up and exclaim. In other words, once again Jesus is inviting this man into the personal connection – not only of touch, but now of verbal expression.

Question 5: Why did Jesus have to touch him twice before his vision was fully restored? Verse 25 says, “Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Jesus didn’t have to touch him twice. If he could raise the dead and feed the crowd and walk on water, he could have healed this man with a single touch. “Maybe,” you say, “Jesus didn’t have the power to do that every time.” If ancient copyists had thought there was any hint in Mark’s words of limiting Jesus’ ability, they would have tried to change this verse. Yet there’s no record of any significant textual difference for verse 25.

OK, then, if Jesus didn’t have to touch him twice, why did he choose a two-stage healing? I think that is the point of this miracle, so I will return to that question.

Question 6: Why did Jesus tell the man not to return to Bethsaida? Verse 26 says, “Jesus sent (the blind man) home, saying, ‘Don’t go into the village.’” At this point, according to the footnote in the NIV, some possibly reliable ancient manuscripts do say, “Don’t go and tell anyone in the village.” Some of the early copyists seem to have added those words because that is, indeed, what Jesus told others and because that’s clearly his implication. “Don’t tell anyone about this. Just go home.”

This happened often in Jesus’ ministry. His instruction to the Decapolis demoniac was exactly the opposite: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (5:19). Mark also tells several stories about those who were instructed to keep quiet: a healed leper (1:44), demons who knew he was the Son of God (3:12), Jairus’ daughter who was raised from the dead (5:43) the deaf and mute man and all who knew about his healing (7:36), the disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration (9:9), and, of course, this blind man in Bethsaida.

But why? What all these “don’t tell” passages have in common is that it’s about timing. It’s not “Don’t ever tell,” or “This story must never get out,” or we wouldn’t be reading about the stories in the Gospels. Usually the timing has to do with Jesus’ ministry. He had a clear sense of his mission and how it would be carried out – virgin birth, obedient childhood, sinless life, teachings and miracle-signs, confrontation with this world’s pagan and religious ideas that would finally have him put to death on a Passover night. For people to blather on about miracles at the wrong time would further the wrong impression about him to people who didn’t understand him, and would offer a premature justification to his enemies for his death. It was all calculated.

But here’s something I think is often overlooked. Sometimes it was the best thing for the people involved – for those healed or their family and friends – not to tell the story right away. The leper needed his healing verified by the priest, but he then he needed to resume a normal life. People didn’t need to brand him permanently. Jairus’ daughter didn’t need to be known as “the girl who used to be dead.” As for this blind man in Bethsaida, I see something else about his silence.

An acted parable

Almost every commentary I read suggests this gradual healing is an acted parable. That is to say, the story of this blind man’s healing is really not a story about his physical healing. It’s about healing spiritual blindness, and that often comes in stages.

I resisted that idea at first, because there is no direct hint of it in the story itself. With the help of my Thursday Bible study I finally caved in. Blindness and sight are themes in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus explains why he tells parables, he quotes Isaiah 6:9, “that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving” (4:12). When the disciples complain the multitude is too large to feed, Jesus says, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see” (6:38). When the disciples are puzzling over what Jesus said to the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Are you so dull? Don’t you see….?” (7:18). When the disciples fail to bring bread in the boat, Jesus scolds them, but not for their forgetfulness. “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see…?” (8:17-18). Mark records that discussion just prior to the two-stage healing of this blind man. Right after that, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ (8:29).

This is what’s called an “acted parable.” Jesus is teaching the disciples something about spiritual blindness. I see two primary take home lessons.

  1. Seeing clearly is a process. If Jesus has touched you and you still don’t see clearly all you need to see, don’t be discouraged. He’s not done with you. Perhaps more importantly, if Jesus has touched someone you know and they don’t yet see clearly, he’s not done yet. The whole process reminds me of going to the optometrist. I’ve only worn glasses for a little over a decade of my 58 ½ years, but I’m still fascinated by that mechanical machine where they flip lenses back and forth: “Which is clearer, this or this? This one or that one? Here or here?” Over and over again until they find just the right prescription. It takes patience and persistence – for the optometrist and for you.

 

Pastor Paul noted the other day, however, that sometimes Christians use this as an excuse. We are overly patient with ourselves, and sometimes overly patient with others. We can go to either extreme. I can demand instant transformation of myself, and wind up feeling guilty and discouraged – or I can procrastinate needed change indefinitely. The same with others. I can shame them if they don’t change fast enough, or never come alongside to urge them to take necessary steps.

 

It’s a balance, isn’t it? My advice is very non-American at this point: Don’t be yourself. If you tend to be too impatient with yourself and others, lay off. If your natural tendency is to be too patient, discipline yourself to take some action steps.

 

  1. Wait before you talk. Let’s go back to why Jesus told this man not to go back in the village but to retire quietly to his home. Wouldn’t you think his greatest impact would be to go right back in that town where people had seen him being led into the city by friends and then out of the city by Jesus, and start telling what Jesus had done for him? As we said, that may not have fit Jesus’ agenda, but it wouldn’t have been good for him either.

The moment right after you make a spiritual breakthrough may not be the moment to tell the story. Twice over the last couple of years I’ve been working with a couple engaged to be married when the woman discovered her husband’s addiction to pornography. In both cases, she was so intent on getting married she wanted to move on too quickly. One told me, “We had a really rough night last night and I cried and cried, but then I forgave him and now we’re OK.”

I don’t doubt that forgiveness needs to happen, and it’s a good thing she’s not going to beat him up with it. But it’s not good for her to claim her heart is healed too quickly. It’s not good for her, and it’s not good for him. He was acting out again soon.

You need to live the change before you tell the change. If you just met your weight goal of losing 25 pounds, I don’t want you to write your diet book yet. I want to know how your weight’s doing in a year. If you’ve been off the bottle for a month, I’m not going to give you a platform to tell your story – not yet. If you’ve been dating for three months and are madly in love, don’t give seminars on how to keep your love alive. If you just gave your life to Christ or recommitted your life and are coming back to church, it may be that what you need is what the Apostle Paul himself needed – some time away from the public eye where it’s more about you and God than you and everyone else. When healing is first in process, shhhh….. Let God’s work continue. Amen.

[1] At this point Mark (8:10) says Jesus went to “Dalmanutha,” the location of which is unknown. Even if this indicated a temporary return to the west side of the Sea of Galilee, it was short-lived. My primary point is the mostly Jesus is outside Jewish-dominated Galilee during this period of his ministry.

[2] I make this conclusion because the man does see people when his eyes are opened (24), but it seems for whatever reason he’s not to return to those who brought him to Jesus (26).

[3] C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Mark, 265.

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