“I can see people, but they look like trees”: Insight and Humility in the Gospel of Mark

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, 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. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
                                                —Mark 8:22-26 (NRSV)

The story of Jesus healing the blind man in Bethesda is, in at least one way, the most remarkable of the New Testament’s miracle stories: it is the only time that Jesus needs two tries to get it right. The first time is only half a miracle. The man can see people, but they look like trees. He sees, but badly.

This is one of the very few stories that appear only in Mark’s Gospel—90% of which occurs in either Matthew or Luke (or both), who had access to Mark when they wrote their own versions. The fact that the later evangelists left this bit on the cutting room floor suggests that even they felt uncomfortable portraying Jesus as someone unable to heal somebody on the first try.

What’s going on here? Does Mark want to knock Jesus down a peg? Show that even he doesn’t get everything right? Are Matthew and Luke covering it up to make their boss look better?

Probably not. One of the constant features of Mark’s Gospel is that he uses stories to comment on other stories. Though Luke has the best Greek, Mark has a level of narrative sophistication that we rarely see in the other gospels. He knows how to create parallelism and metaphors and leitmotifs and stuff like that—and there is always a theological method to his narrative madness. In this case, we just have to go to the next passage to see what Mark is doing:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30 NRSV)

This is the point in Mark’s Gospel that the disciples finally understand that Jesus is the Messiah of prophecy. Matthew portrays this same incident as a pivotal moment of revelation. When Peter declares Jesus the Messiah, Matthew has Christ say, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”—and then he goes on to declare Simon the Rock (petros) upon which he will build his Church (Matt 16:16-18).

Mark has a very different perspective on the story. In Mark, Christ goes on to tell his disciples that he will have to go through suffering and rejection and eventually be killed. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. That is not, Peter supposed, how Messiahness works. Instead of calling Peter the rock that he will build his church on, Jesus calls him “Satan” and orders him away. The difference between the two accounts could not be more dramatic.

Fortunately, though, Mark has already prepared us for this rebuke of Peter through the story of the blind man restored, albeit gradually, to sight. Peter is the blind man. He has received the great revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t yet understand what being the Messiah means. Much as the blind man receives his sight in stages, Peter will gain his insight gradually. It will take him the rest of his life to understand fully what the spirit clarified to him in a moment of revelation.

Paul held it as a condition of mortality that we see “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). This does not mean that we are blind, just that we never see completely. Both sincere faith and intense study can produce remarkable insights, but those insights are never finished, never final.Mark’s story of the half-healed blind man who saw people as trees is an invitation to both spiritual reserve and intellectual humility as we read and study the New Testament.

Comments

  1. bagofsand says:

    Wonderfully insightful.

    Thank you.

  2. bagofsand says:

    Just a thought: Trees can represent families–and so it’s possible that the blind man’s sight was restored to a level of perfection that he was not able to bear. He saw men in their full potential (metaphorically speaking) as partakers of the Abrahamic Covenant. But he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing–so the Savior had to bring his vision into focus at a level of understanding that he was prepared to receive.

    I think the same could be said of his disciples. He told them of things that were beyond their ability to comprehend at that particular time–knowledge that they would later grow into.

    My interpretation could be wrong. But even so, it kinda gets at the same point you address in your OP–that we see through a glass darkly; that our vision is never complete; that we need to be patient and humble and not expect to grow faster than we’re able.

  3. Given that the blind man probably only felt tree trunks, blurry people probably looked like tree trunks.

  4. EagleLady says:

    111

  5. EagleLady says:

    1111

  6. Jeremy Spilsbury says:

    This was a powerful insight and led me to another insight. The account in Mark 8:27-45 you mention offers a profound juxtaposition of two contradictory dispositions manifested by Peter. First, he receives divine revelation from God that allows him to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. Yet, moments later, he was rebuked for being deceived by Satan after he protested Jesus’s description of what his mission would entail. I think Peter was so susceptible to deception because he was trapped within his cultural frame for believing that the Messiah would be a conquering military leader, not a submissive lamb that would be humiliated and killed by worldly oppressors. I think this shows how divided we can be, both enlightened by the Spirit even while most of what we still see is through a glass darkly. How could Peter then proclaim that he knew the Christ? Christ affirmed the fact that he spoke truthfully. Peter revealed a true aspect of Christ. He now knew that this man with whom he had chosen to follow was the promised Messiah. Christ is revealed to us in a line upon line and precept upon precept fashion. Just because we can stand at a microphone and say “I know Jesus is the Christ” does not mean that we truly know who Jesus Christ is as our Savior. Like Peter, we might have a divine witness that Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Messiah, but if that is all we know about him, we don’t truly know him. Christ taught that the process of knowing him is revealed as we deny ourselves, take up his cross, and follow him. As we do this he discloses himself to us until “…we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”.

  7. This is a beautiful article.

    Re: comment about tying this somehow to Mormon doctrine about families, sealing, and the Abrahamic covenant.

    There is no way that the author of Mark would have thought of trees as ancestral pedigrees. That wording comes from the English words used for that type of diagram that we use for genealogy It is a thoroughly modern terminology.

  8. A few extra things here:

    Jesus asked him if he could see after the first blessing. So the expectation was not that it would instantly work, right?
    Jesus laid hands again.
    And the man looked more intently.

    So was the first attempt a failure of Jesus or a failure of the man in looking or an observation that to see as God wants us to see we have to patiently wait and look as we are blessed. I prefer the latter.

    God indeed does bless us multiple times with blessings that we miss or only partially receive the first time around. So keep waiting on the Lord to patiently see as he would have us see.

  9. bagofsand says:

    Brian G,

    Yeah–I might be reaching a bit. But still–in defense of my my half baked idea:

    First, there are many allusions to people by the use of symbolic trees in the Bible. And second, I don’t know that it would’ve been necessary for Mark to understand that allusion for him to report the incident accurately.

    That said, however right or wrong I may be in my interpretation, I agree with you–that the OP is a beautiful article.

  10. This is just lovely, Michael. Thank you.

  11. Stephen Hardy says:

    How can I take pride in feeling like I know the scriptures but fail to take note of significant stories? Thank you for not only revealing such stories to me but also for doing it so profoundly.

  12. Antonio Parr says:

    You had me at “insight” and “humility.” What a thought provoking and edifying submission. Thank you.

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