Mark 8:22–26 has always been a troubling passage for me. In this story, Jesus heals a blind man—business as usual, right? Well, except for the fact that he appears to botch his first attempt at healing him:
After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on the man, he asked him, “Do you see anything?”
The man looked up and said, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around.”
After this weird moment, Jesus does it all again, but this time the man, with “eyes wide open,” can see everything clearly. So what gives? Why did it require a second try? Was Jesus off his game?
One of the things that I’m learning about the gospels (the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is that they are masterfully crafted pieces of literature. So many of the things we love about good literature are present in the gospels—including nuance and subtlety. Recently, scholars have begun to realize what a remarkable piece of literature Mark truly is. For example, in Mark, two sections that may not appear to have any connection actually work together to make a point that neither of them alone could make. However, by the way that Mark has situated them in the text, a careful reader may be able to pick up what is going on. It seems that 8:22–38 is one such example.
Here’s what I mean:
Immediately after Jesus heals this blind man, he is walking toward some villages with his disciples. On the way, he asks them what people are saying about him on the street. The disciples tell him that some think he’s John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others one of the prophets. Then Jesus brings it home and asks, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?,” to which Peter gives the correct answer: “You are the Christ.” Peter, being the first person to profess Jesus’ true nature, is probably bursting with that mic-drop feeling. However, it doesn’t last long.
Jesus goes on to give his disciples a bit more clarity about what being “the Christ” means. It means that he will die. They will kill him. Then he will rise again three days later. And the text says, “he said this plainly,” as though to assure us that Jesus wasn’t in one of his mysterious parable-telling moods. He was making his point obvious.
Peter hears Jesus say that he is going to die, and he actually takes hold of Jesus and scolds him. Can you imagine? The disciple–teacher relationship is turned around for a brief moment. Peter, thinking he knows better than Jesus, steps into Jesus’ role, and actually tries to correct him.
You see, Peter may know that Jesus is the Christ, but he still does not see clearly. The way of Christ is far from anything Peter may have imagined. All he sees right now are people who look like trees walking around.
So Jesus tries it again. He calls them together and lays it down for them:
“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.”
This, for Jesus, is to see clearly. This is the upside-down nature of following Jesus. It is unlike anything else in history, and completely counter-intuitive on many levels. It is giving yourself away, completely surrendering, and suffering for the sake of others.
I think Mark is telling us that we are all the blind man. And when we start to think we understand the Way of Jesus according to our own presuppositions, then we still do not see clearly. There is a two stage process that must happen. Stage one is where we see for the first time, and it’s wonderful; but we don’t realize how dim our vision really is. We come to Jesus with our ideas of what he should do for us. Perhaps this stage is necessary, I don’t know. What I do know is that it isn’t the end of the journey. Jesus must then take us into a moment of disillusionment, where we realize that what we thought we saw wasn’t actually the way things were. It is, in fact, sort of the opposite.
We must become like a baby once again, with eyes wide open, taking it in as for the first time. Only then can we see they Way of Jesus as we are supposed to.