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"I See Men as Trees Walking"

Some of us older folk remember how the King James version reads in the story of Jesus healing the blind man outside Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26).  Johnny Cash's interpretation is worth hearing.  (Make sure to listen to the very end.)

We find another odd Gospel story that offers the opportunity to practice Bible reading in line with the previous post.  My goal is to encourage you to gain awareness of how you operate while you're studying the Bible.  Pay attention to where your mind is drawn and what thoughts emerge as you study the details of the passage.  Learn to ask active questions.  (And forgive the "teacherly" tone I'm taking.)

As we did in the last post, we encounter strange features in this account of the blind man at Bethsaida.  Jesus takes this man who was brought to him for healing outside the town "and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, 'Can you see anything?' And the man looked up and said, 'I can see people, but they look like trees walking.'  Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly."

What in the world does spit have to do with this healing?  (We'll have to see about that question another time.)  Why did it take two applications of Jesus' laying on his hands?  Why is looking and seeing repeated so much?  Why does this healing look like a longer process whereas, in other healing stories, Jesus just speaks a word and it is accomplished?  How do we begin to answer?

The first step is always to look at the context in which this passage stands.  If we back up to the previous section (Mark 8:14-21), we find, in the middle of a teaching session between Jesus and the disciples, this double question (that Jesus asks): "Do you still not perceive or understand?  Do you have eyes and fail to see?"  Just prior to this exchange, we find a tense one between the Pharisees and Jesus.  They ask for a sign from heaven that would prove Jesus' authority to do and say the things he has been doing and saying.  Jesus response? "No sign will be given to this generation."  We have to think a little here, which means more questions.  What is a sign?  What are the Pharisees referencing?  And why doesn't Jesus want to accommodate them?

A sign is a metaphor, a figure of speech, or a gesture or some kind of action, that points the viewer/reader in the direction of something that the pointer wants the viewer/reader to see.  The sign is not the thing itself, but points to the thing.  I'm following St. Augustine here, who, in his writing on interpretation (De Doctrina Christiana) differentiates between a thing (a literal something) and the sign (a symbol of some kind that guides the seer/reader to the thing) It's important for good interpreters to know the difference between a literal something and the symbol that points to it.  

We have to be careful not to use what we tend to think of as signs, as in a street sign, as an analogy.  When we think of signs of this sort, they are obvious and easy to understand.  With many of the signs in the Bible, "easy" is not the case.  They make us think.  Jesus' teachings make us think.  Sometimes they have a surface-level obviousness, but that is not usually the main point of the teaching.  We have to dig.  We have to work.  There seems to be something about the effort to understand that is part of the revelatory process of understanding.  

Anyway, the religious leaders want Jesus to show them something that would convince them of his legitimacy.  They challenge Jesus with this demand and Jesus says, flatly, "No."  "No sign will be given this generation."  

Without pinning things down too neatly, we recognize seeing and not seeing taking place in Jesus' engagement with the Pharisees.  It connects thematically with Jesus' question to his disciples, about the yeast of the Pharisees: "Do you see (perceive) and not understand?"

Now, let's go to what follows the story of the blind man for more of the context on the back side.  There we find Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah and the following hard conversation between Jesus and Peter.  Peter (and all the disciples) see what the Pharisees don't, but they also do not see clearly.  That Jesus is Messiah, they see.  They don't yet understand fully what Messiah means in Jesus. 

Isn't it interesting to see how Mark uses the situation of the blind man to suggest that people (including the disciples) don't see Jesus clearly, but if they stay with him (yielding to his touch) they (we) will see clearly?  Did you notice the repetition in Mark's description?  "He looked intently and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly."  Mark tells the story to show that Jesus' action is the sign, the very sign that Pharisees wanted, but refused to recognize.  Jesus has been doing this kind of work throughout the Gospel and they just won't see.  

Going back for a moment to Augustine: Jesus is the (literal) thing and the actions he does - his deeds of power, his teachings, his interactions with his disciples and his opponents - are signs.  All of them.  Once we see the account of the blind man at Bethsaida in this light, as a parable about needing to see clearly, we can begin to see things more clearly.  Mark is not telling us, rather repetitiously, of one more amazing thing Jesus did, as if the Gospel were a daily log of Jesus' activities.  He's weaving together an account to help us see.  By reading carefully, we have opportunity to recognize our own inability to see and, by study, to come more fully into understanding who Jesus is.  That's the whole point of Mark's gospel.  

To notice the features of the scripture that I've drawn out in this post does not require technical assistance from experts.  At the right time, what the scholars tell us will be very helpful.  But we first do our own work, with simply practicing close attention to detail and asking a few questions that get us going in the direction of understanding.  Mysteriously, when we do what at times feels tedious and unnecessary, we find ourselves encountering the living God.  

I may risk annoying you with repetition, but it's because I want people to know the riches of insight they reap from a slow, leisurely attentiveness to the features of these biblical texts.  I have no doubt that people committed to this practice, wrapped in prayer, will find their relationships with God growing and their sense of the significance of their lives as followers of Jesus growing, too.  


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