“Jesus and Progressive Enlightenment”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

When we read the gospels, it is often the stories that strike us as strange that have the most to teach us.  This is the case with the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26.  It begins like a typical Jesus miracle.  Someone with an incurable problem, in this case a blind man, is brought to Jesus for help.  In response, Jesus does a Jesusy thing (spitting on his eyes, laying hands on him) to heal him.

However, the miracle doesn’t seem to take.  When the man looks up, though he can see, he can’t see clearly.  Jesus has to touch his eyes before his vision is perfected.

Given that Jesus is the One who does all things well, this is bizarre.  How could He fail to heal someone perfectly the first time around?  Was the Master having an off day?

As is often the case in Mark, the answer lies in the context.  Mark always has a moral to his stories, but he almost never directly tells us what it is.  Instead, he arranges material thematically, so that an apparently unrelated story offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.

That’s exactly what is going on with the story of the blind man.  It occurs in the context of stories about incomplete understanding.  In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples mistake Jesus’ warning about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod for a complaint that they had failed to bring any bread on the boat.  In Mark 8:27-33, Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, but he fails to see (get it?) that God’s plan for the Messiah was for Him to be taken and killed by His enemies.

I believe that Jesus could have healed the blind man in one shot, as He completely healed other blind men on other occasions.  However, He chose instead to use the blind man as a live-action parable, an illustration of the imperfect spiritual vision of His followers.

At this point, the disciples see some things.  They’re different from the hard-hearted and unbelieving Pharisees of Mark 8:11-13.  However, like the blind man after Jesus’ first healing, they don’t yet see clearly.  They’re focused on questions of physical nourishment instead of spiritual danger, despite having seen miracles in which Jesus produced practically unlimited quantities of food on demand.  They acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but they want to force-fit Him into their Christ-shaped preconceptions  rather than waiting for the unfolding of God’s mystery.  Jesus could heal physical blindness instantaneously, but not even the master Teacher could bring immediate enlightenment to the eyes of the heart.

Today, all of us are in the same boat.  We have God’s completed revelation, but our understanding of that revelation remains incomplete.  We may have read, but our spiritual vision still is imperfect.

Like the blind man, then, we must return to Jesus, acknowledging our need for His work to continue in us.  For us, it won’t take two passes, or even two hundred passes, but a lifetime of Him refining our understanding.  As Jesus points out in John 9:41, at the end of a different story about vision, there’s no shame in acknowledging our blindness.  The problems begin when we start thinking we already see well enough.