Alright, let’s take this conspiracy to the next level. It’s time to get crazy-weird with this. We have been swimming at the shallow end so far, but young rebels coming to Jerusalem in 66 A.D. don’t have much in the way of kiddie pools. Six Roman legions are surrounding the place fast, and history tells us (modern readers) that they will have the whole city leveled soon. But for the young rebels, that is still just sober-minded conjecture. Simon bar Giora (among others) has placed a call on our lives to come defend the temple, but we “stumble” into Mark and read his recruiter’s pamphlet where we find the cross to be a “stumbling block” for our rebel ambitions.
Getting suspicious right away, let’s jump (for a moment) into the middle of Mark’s pamphlet. Turn with me to chapter 8. Midway through this middle chapter, we find a baffling little vignette that almost – ALMOST – almost has nothing to do with anything.
Did you notice I say “almost”?
Get used to that. There are other “almosts” in this book which will prove surprisingly central to our conclusion. (It’s hard to get more conspiratorial than that!)
Seriously. If we lifted the passage in 8:22-26 out of Mark’s Gospel, you would hardly notice it missing. Leave the last of the story after 16:8 off, and the whole book becomes a wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord and a consternation for modern scholarship worldwide. But if we took 8:22-26 out, we would be cutting out of Mark’s Gospel (and out of the whole Bible) the only – ONLY – the only account of a miracle of God that didn’t quite work out right on the first attempt. I am talking about a failed miracle here! A miracle that doesn’t take! Seriously.
So… why is this little story so important to Mark? What purpose does it serve? How does it function in our Gospel?
Think it through carefully. You pick a miracle from ANYWHWERE in Scripture and consider it carefully. Let’s say turning the Nile River into blood. Moses (in Exodus 7) is told by God to preach to Pharaoh saying, “I will strike the Nile with my staff, AND SO THAT YOU MAY KNOW THAT YHWH, GOD, means it when he says ‘Let my people go,’ the water will turn to blood.” Then Moses strikes the water with his staff and it becomes wine. So, Moses asks Pharaoh if he is convinced, and Pharaoh says, “Not quite. But it tastes good!” So Moses strikes the water again and it becomes blood.
What do you think?
Does that sound biblical? Does that sound like our God?? Does that ring true???
Of course not.
Pick another miracle. Any miracle.
The axe head floats (in II Kings 6), but not all the way to the surface. It bobs up and down and the prophet is unable to actually catch it. So the prophet has to cut off yet another stick and throw it into the water to get the iron to float with real buoyancy.
Feel me yet?
What if “take up your mat and walk” is followed by “stagger up and stumble”? It would still be a miracle, sorta… but not much of a God behind it. Right?
What if the woman slipped up in the crowd and grabbed Jesus by the neck in a headlock and held on for dear life, and he felt a burp go out and she felt a little bit better, but not quite all the way healed? (This is starting to sound more like a lucky charm than the healing power of Jesus!)
What if Jesus tells the sea to “Hush, be still” and about five hours later, the sky begins to clear up and half an hour after that, the sun is out and the wind dies down?
I could keep going like this. But I think you get the idea. There are no stories of God (via Jesus or any prophet or miracle worker of any kind) pulling off miracles only halfway. When God moves, miraculously, the miracle is always a full-blown miracle. It always, always, always has the desired impact, and it’s always immediate.
Yeah. If the Bible was full of miracle stories that only achieved half the miracle, we would not have any real confidence in God.
But here in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, we have the one – THE ONLY ONE – account of a miracle that doesn’t quite take the first time and must be buttressed, shored up, braced and so forth with a second attempt. And this happens to Jesus! Jesus, it seems, couldn’t quite heal the blind man’s sight! He has to work his miracle twice to get the right result!!!
WHAT’S UP WITH THAT???
You do realize, don’t you – my XAnon reader, that Jesus heals another blind man of blindness just two chapters later in Mark’s Gospel and does so with no problem!
So, it’s not like healing blind eyes is extra challenging for Jesus.
So what is it then?
Maybe it’s a matter of “unbelief.” Consider the scene Mark sets in chapter 6, two chapters before our selected passage, where Jesus preaches in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth. The hometown crowd holds Jesus in contempt and Mark tells us (6:5-6) “He could do no miracle there except that he laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them… marveling at their unbelief.”
Hmmm… (Here is another one of those “almosts” I was talking about.) The passage seems to settle our question, but then jerks the rug out from under it at the same time. Due to their unbelief, he could do no miracle… Yes… Yes… Yes… That sounds like the answer… Except that he laid hands on and healed….
D’oh! (Thanx Homer Simpson.)
But the “almost” of this answer, though as incomplete as the healing miracle of chapter 8, is still instructive, and seems to point us in the right general direction. These “almosts” that Mark teases us with may not give a direct answer to the questions we bring them, but they will keep nudging us closer to God’s goal anyway.
We got to 16:8 and found ourselves with an incomplete Gospel and decided (in the last post) that we simply must read this text again looking for DEEP text meaning that isn’t just lounging around on the surface and handed to us on a silver platter, but we must wrestle the issues out of the text. Here is a text that offers us a lens through which to refocus our search, AND it’s a story about healing blindness!
Let us sit with that.
There are deeper levels in this rabbit hole, and if they start adding up, perhaps we should trust the findings after all.
Sight as symbol/metaphor
Sight, physical sight, is a very easy symbol or metaphor for understanding. We trade out the word “see” for “understand” all the time in regular speech; so it’s not actually some deep Bible code really, though I bet your decoder ring will confirm what I am saying. And while we are here, “understanding” also is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from “belief/faith.”
What if, and this isn’t just a wild leap, what if Jesus has to heal this man’s blindness in two stages, according to Mark, because the act itself is a prophetic way of saying the disciples don’t yet really see Jesus for who he really is? And if that is true of the disciples who are closest to him, then it is likely true for me, the reader too. No? (Let the reader understand.) If I am right about this, then the story functions in Mark to alert a careful reader to start opening his heart and mind a bit more sensitively to other levels of meaning.
Let’s test this hypothesis.
Look at the passages both immediately before and immediately after 8:22-26 and see if this two-stage miracle story doesn’t appear to address the disciples faith and understanding (or lack thereof) rather than the generic, flat-character, blind man in question.
So… sure enough we have Jesus chewing out men of God who oughta know things they don’t seem to know in these verses. Two groups of them, actually. The first being Pharisees who seek a sign and want to argue about it with Jesus. He tells them, “This generation ain’t gettin’ one.”
But immediately following that exchange, he gets in the boat with his closest twelve friends. Jesus begins speaking about “leaven of the Pharisees” with them, but they completely don’t catch his drift and think he is talking about the bread, of which they are in short supply, and this all despite the fact that in recent days, he has worked feeding miracles that should be rendering this speculation pointless.
Now… this bit starts off simple enough to see, but it gets really dark and heavy fast. So bear with me a moment.
Immediately after healing the bind man twice, Jesus gathers his close friends together and quizzes them about his reputation – quite literally, his identity. “Who do the people say I am?” followed closely by, “Who do you say I am?”
Well, the boys sitting there with Jesus that day have been with him on his messianic journey for a while now and have traversed more than a few dusty Galilean trails with him, they have crisscrossed the Sea of Galilee a few times with him, they have SEEN things – miraculous signs, the casting out of demons, the feedings and healings, and all – and they have camped with him a few nights. Only his Mama knows him better!
These guys know his favorite meal, his favorite drink, his favorite watering hole. They know when he is happy, when he is grumpy, and even what his farts smell like! These guys don’t need to see his driver’s license to identify him, so this should be easy.
First the question: Who do the people say I am?
This is a bit of gossip, so to speak. Let’s gossip about gossipers – after a fashion.
Well, Herod and some think Jesus is the ghost of John the Baptist. Still others think Jesus is really Elijah come back. But a lot of people think he is one of the old prophets returned. This is the skinny going round.
Then the next question: Who do you say I am?
If we modern readers didn’t catch on to this idea in chapter 1, chapter 8 will not make much sense, but Jesus is, and has been, making a bid to be “king of the Jews.” Most Jews of the time hope that God is calling forth a new messiah to give the crown to, something very much like David, the shepherd boy of old. If you recall in that story, the people asked Samuel for “a king like the nations,” which actually was a betrayal of God himself (I Sam. 8:7). God indulged the people, but at first he gave them Saul, a young man who seemed regal and really “looked the part” so to speak. Though it’s a complicated assertion I am not going to iron our in this post, I liken Saul to “the people’s choice” award. But the people chose poorly, because Saul turns out not to be such a great king.
However, right under Saul’s nose, God calls up another – David. If you go examine that story closely, you will notice that the calling of David is quite a surprise. He does not look the part. God sees what is on the inside and does not judge by the outward appearance. And so he has Samuel “anoint” David to be king of Israel in something of a secret ceremony.
The word “anoint” only means “chosen.” The choosing process involves pouring oil over the head, and so that act is called anointing, but the act is a sign of the choice, actually. The choice is the part that matters most.
But wait, there’s more!
When Samuel anoints David, signifying in a secret ceremony that God has chosen another king who will supersede Saul, David goes underground – so to speak. In fact, over time, David winds up a wanted man on the run, like a criminal. In fact, for all intents and purposes, he is a criminal – certainly in the eyes of the legitimate court back at Saul’s place. Thus, for all the years between the day of the secret ceremony and the day David finally ascends to the throne of Israel, he is “the anointed” – the chosen one. As such, he is something of a boogeyman vis-à-vis Saul. But to his friends and allies, he is “the anointed.” The one chosen by God to be the REAL king of Israel.
Eventually, David does in fact take the crown. And when he does, he becomes the most legendary of all Israel’s kings. He unites the people and liberates them from foes. He is a great warrior king who loves God and blesses the nation with unparalleled rule.
All of this is a backdrop to Jesus’s question with the disciples. He too is making a bid to be crowned king, and this is going on right under the nose of Herod – that OTHER king of the Jews (who will not take kindly to a usurping messiah!). When Jesus runs around making his bid to be king, he is claiming (through his actions (though not in so many words)) that he is “the anointed” – the chosen one of God – chosen to be king!
Oh, and that word “anointed”? Well, it get’s translated also as “messiah” or “Christ” depending on the ancient language you are using.
So, when Peter pipes up saying, “You are the Christ!” … he is saying that Jesus is like David. He is playing the role of David in a recast, prophetic dramatization of God choosing a new king under the nose of the other.
All of this, by the way, is rebellious in nature. One king toppling another? Yes. That is pretty much the text book definition of rebellion. So, Peter is signing on for the revolution when he answers Jesus’s question. It is a dangerous answer to cough up, but Peter is only too excited to finally say it.
(I hope you are seeing, dear XAnon reader, how pertinent all of this is to a young Jew of about fightin’ age looking to join the army of God and defend the temple. Mark is offering an alternative leader and army to join. In fact, THE alternative. Do you think Mark has his attention?)
But it’s right there. Right at that point of Peter’s confession that something else changes. You gotta get your head and your heart in the game to get this in focus. Pull out your decoder ring for this. You could read a passage like this for years and years – all your life – and miss the relevant impact of it if you are not very, very careful.
As soon as Peter confesses that Jesus is the “Christ,” Jesus begins predicting his own death.
Sit with that.
Jesus, up until this point, has NOT told the boys about this his plan to die – not in so many words. But he is “stating the matter plainly” (v. 32) which is curious since, as we read in 4:33-34, Jesus was “speaking the word to them in parables… and did not speak to them without a parable.”
Now… we can get all bogged down in parables, and we will! Eventually. But for now let’s just notice that parables are (or can be) hard to understand and require explanation (decoder rings). And by the time Mark tells us in 4:33-34 that Jesus is only preaching in parables, he has already been at it through all of chapter 4 and some of chapter 3 too.
Did you ever hear a preacher/pastor who preaches … well, maybe good sermons, but… in hifalutin ways that are hard to understand?
Well, that is the kind of preacher Jesus is/was! People seemed to like to hear him, and they certainly liked the healing, but clear understanding is not something they typically walked away with much. Maybe sometimes or some bits, but mostly they got baffled.
But on the occasion of Peter’s confession, Jesus dropped all that parable and encoded talk and began stating the matter plainly. And what is his sermon topic? “I’m gonna get killed in a horrible death!” That would be the title, it seems.
But here’s the kicker: This message is so jarring and so hard to accept that even though he is stating the matter plainly, Peter just suddenly can’t follow it. So, Peter starts to rebuke Jesus. He can’t surely mean what it sounds like he is saying!
But Peter would be wrong! Peter is actually about half blind, and in need of further healing of his sight.
Peter can’t fathom what Jesus is saying (and doing) just now (and you and me as life-long followers can’t either, not really). And so Jesus unloads one of the most chilling rebukes on Peter a disciple can ever hear from the teacher, “Get behind me Satan! You are not setting your mind (your understanding? your belief? your sight? your faith?) on God’s interests, but on man’s!”
Peter takes a harsh scolding, and takes his seat. He was the one brave enough to pipe off with “You are the Christ!” and that had to be a real mountaintop moment in his relationship with Jesus, but it was swiftly and brutally followed by a valley low! It seems his head is spinning and he is just not grasping anything after this moment, and I think that is exactly right. He is like a blind man who sees unclearly. The men look like trees walking! He will require a bit more work before the vision clears up.
This nameless blind man getting half healed and then fully healed in 8:22-26 turns out to be a flat character of not too much substantive consequence as far as the surface narrative goes, but if we start reading Mark a bit more deeply and allow this story to function as a decoder ring for the disciples failure to grasp the depth of meaning they are finding in Jesus, then we might begin to see ourselves more deeply impacted by Jesus too.
I think a young rebel in Jerusalem come to defend the temple from Rome and finding this pamphlet just might hit a snag with this passage and find the rest of the pamphlet becomes unlocked with this as a symbolic key. And once unlocked, you just can’t get the Spirit back in the barn (to mix my metaphors). You just might begin to see in Jesus, the image of God in a way you had not bargained for when you agreed to give Mark’s little pamphlet a glance.
I have no doubt that many young Jewish rebels will walk away from Mark 16:8 and scoff just like Jewish leaders at Jesus’s crucifixion. But some will be drawn to wrestle the angel, to wrestle with the text. Some will discover in chapter 8 and the healing of the blind man in two stages that they are ready for more healing fo their own faith too.
(Let the reader understand… that goes for XAnon bloggers too.)
We will start working our way through it next time.
Welcome to Mark down in the XAnon rabbit whole!