Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seeing and Understanding in Mark 8

The eighth chapter of Mark's gospel offers an interesting meditation on seeing and understanding. The chapter begins with the feeding of the four thousand. This is actually the second time Jesus has fed a multitude - back in chapter 6 He fed five thousand - but even so, His disciples ask "How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?" Of course, Jesus pulls it off, with seven baskets full left over.

Immediately following this episode, the Pharisees come "seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him." Just as the disciples had seen the feeding of the five thousand, but did not have faith that Jesus could feed the four thousand, so the Pharisees - like all those assembled - had just seen the miracle, but failed to understand it. Jesus answers them in an interesting way. In the parallel passage in Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah," that is, resurrection. Luke uses similar language about the sign of Jonah, as does Matthew in an earlier passage. But in Mark's gospel, Jesus simply tells the Pharisees, "No sign shall be given to this generation." Not even the sign of Jonah? Are the various gospels at odds on this point? I suspect not; rather, I think we can read Jesus' words in Mark as indicating that the Pharisees - who have clearly just had a sign - will not understand any, and thus all their seeing is of no more value than having no signs at all.

As Jesus and his disciples leave that area in the boat, He makes a comment about avoiding the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. The disciples misinterpret the remark and He must ask them, "Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear. And do you not remember?... Do you not yet understand?"

The point receives further exposition when the boat lands in Bethsaida, where Jesus heals a blind man. Spitting on the blind man's eyes and laying His hands on him, Jesus asks, "Do you see anything?" The man gives an odd answer: "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." As I child I found this a funny notion, but later came to assume that the man meant that his vision was fuzzy and the healing incomplete. But this is not the only possible interpretation and, in light of the context, seems unlikely. First, we should ask ourselves: had this man ever seen before? If he had been blind from birth, he would not know what either men or trees looked like; his sole sources of information would be his other senses (primarily touch) and the descriptions other people had given him. If he was born blind, perhaps his comment should be interpreted to mean, "I see men, but I mistakenly think they look more like how I imagined trees than how I imagined men." Even if the man had not been born blind, might his memory of how things looked faded during his years of blindness? In either case, I think we should consider the second healing the man receives from Jesus a healing of his understanding, not his sight. His sight was healed initially, but without a healing of his understanding, a metaphorical opening of his eyes, the literal opening was not worth much.

The chapter ends with a final episode, involving Peter, which again highlights the theme of understanding. In a moment of great faith, Peter declares to Jesus, "You are the Christ." But as soon as Jesus begins talking about His suffering and death, Peter scolds Jesus, earning the rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but men." Again, Peter's understanding was limited: he could see that Jesus was the Christ, but did not understand the coming passion, death and resurrection.

Parsing all of this out can be a fun parlor game, an exercise in literary analysis. But if this is to have real value, we should pray for the wisdom to understand all the signs that God has scattered across our lives. We should pray not only to see Him at work, but to understand His plan, to see the full depths that He sees, and not merely superficially, as man sees.
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