When they ask “What Would Jesus Do,” they never expect your answer to be “spit in someone’s eyes.” That is not what the bracelets were trying to promote. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is passage is exactly what they were thinking of when they started that campaign, but somehow, I doubt it. This text would have worked well as one of our weird or uncomfortable passages that we looked at earlier in the year, “The Unsanitary,” we could have called it, because it makes for a strange read, and not just because of the spitting.
Jesus and the disciples have moved up into Bethsaida on the northeast coast of the Sea of Galilee. Before this they spent most of their time along the southwest coast and a lot happened there, the biggest thing being Jesus’ second major feeding miracle. We think mostly about the feeding the 5000, Mark records a second time where Jesus feeds 4000 people. Immediately after this Jesus gets the disciples on a boat and they sail across the lake, which plays into a recurring theme in Mark: Jesus always tries to avoid the crowd. When things start to get too hectic, when there get to be too many hangers on, when it seems like he isn’t in control of the situation anymore, Jesus gets away from it. He has a plan, he has a mission, and when he sees that other folks are trying to gain control of that he gets away from them.
Some of us run to the crowd instead of away from it. It makes sense, there’s strength in a crowd, its nice to feel supported, to be a part of something, but if the crowd is keeping you from your purpose you need to run from it. Jesus has an amazing capacity for knowing when to get away from the outside influences that might pull him in the wrong direction, we would all do well to look for that same discernment.
Back to story though, Jesus and the disciples get to Bethsaida and a group brings a blind man to him, hoping for him to be healed. Seems like a pretty basic request, this is the kind of thing that Jesus does. The first thing that happens here, however, is that Jesus takes the blind man away from his friends to lead him out of town. I had never noticed that before this week. Jesus just takes the blind man to the outskirts of town. Imagine you’re one of the people that brought him there. We assume the disciples are with Jesus, so you bring your blind friend to this man who you’ve heard of but don’t actually know anything about and he proceeds to just take your friend off to the outskirts of town with his crowd of fishermen and zealots and the like. Now the consensus opinion on why Jesus takes him out of town is that he doesn’t want attract too much attention, again trying to avoid getting a crowd behind him, but it still makes for an odd start that these people bring this man to Jesus and then aren’t involved again at all.
Jesus takes the man out of town, proceeds to literally spit in his face, lays his hands on the man’s eyes, and then says “do you see anything?” That’s what sets this apart from every other miracle story in the Gospels, this is the only one that doesn’t work immediately. At first the man can only see something that looks kind of like people moving around, his vision is still blurry, Jesus has to act again and this time the man’s sight is fully restored and he’s sent on his way with the warning not to tell anyone what happened, the concern about the crowd still dictating how Jesus moves and interacts.
For some people this apparent difficulty of Jesus to complete the miracle is a real point of concern and they’ll go to great lengths to explain how it was really the blind man’s fault, he didn’t have enough faith, and that kind of thing. I think instead of worrying about that, we can learn something important here about sight and about faith.
Sight is one of those things we take for granted until we start to have some kind of issue with it. It gives us so much, the ability to read, the ability to take beautiful settings and vistas, it allows us to distinguish what team to pull for when we’re watching a game, to recognize loved ones and friends we haven’t seen in a while, it is fundamental to how we live our lives, I doubt any of us would give up being able to see regardless of what carrot was dangled in front of us. Our eyes can also play tricks on us though, can’t they? We see things happening that aren’t really going on. Sometimes our perspective changes what we see. Sometimes conflicting information can confuse us about what it is that we’re seeing. Sometimes our perspective changes and causes us to get an entirely different picture.
This is why the Bible so often uses sight as a metaphor for faith. Seeing allows us to situate ourselves within the world and perceive our wider context and plan out our next moves, but our eyes also play tricks on us. We can’t see everything from only one vantage point. Even those of us with the keenest vision are limited by the day’s weather when it comes to how far we can see. The faith that scripture calls for is the same way. Rarely do we see everything clearly or receive all the answers in advance. Rarely is what we can see enough. Oftentimes we find ourselves like this blind man, only vaguely able to make out what is going on, needing another touch from Jesus to make things clear.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this connection between faith and sight, and he talked about only seeing something like the reflection in a mirror. Now most of you probably have perfectly nice mirrors that give you a perfectly nice reflection of yourself, that was not the case for these people. Glass was a luxury. Good glass, glass that could give you a real reflection, was something that you only found among the richest of the rich. If you were lucky you could maybe hope for a smudged, broken, chunk that gave off something close to your reflection but didn’t quite get all the details right, like a fun house mirror. Paul said that is what we sometimes get in life: a cloudy vision, a warped image, some fuzzy shapes in the distance, but that one day we’ll get the full picture. But until then we don’t despair. We take heart in what we can see, we have faith in the things that haven’t been revealed to us yet, and we trust that Jesus is still there, and can still touch us again and make our picture a little clearer.