In chapter 8 of the Gospel of Mark, there is a most peculiar story of Jesus healing a blind man. What makes it peculiar is that Jesus seems a failure the first time around. The blind man is brought to Jesus. Jesus puts a little home-made ointment on the man’s eyes and says, “Can you see now?”
The man responds, “Well, I see—sorta. I see people, but they look like trees walking.”
Stop the story right there! We know how it goes on. There is a second healing touch and the blind man ends up seeing clearly. But before going there, stop and think about this moment in time.
What might Jesus have been thinking when the man, still at least partially blind, said that? Was he surprised that the healing had not been instantly successful? This, of course, was not the first time that the healing power of Jesus failed. An earlier passage in Mark 6:5 admits that one time in Nazareth Jesus found he was able to do hardly anything.
If Jesus tried to cure the blind man and his cure did not work at first, and if Jesus tried to heal folks in Nazareth but found he was unable to do it, then I wonder, “How did Jesus feel about that?”
Failure to accomplish goals must be a common human experience. And if Jesus knew all common human experiences, as it suggests in Hebrews 4:15, then he knew the feeling of having failed. It does not feel good. How did Jesus prevent failure from damaging his self-confidence? How can I?
Would Jesus try to find someone to blame? Of course not. Then why do I so frequently say, “It is not my fault!” My imagination also wonders what the blind man was thinking. Was he disappointed? Did he think less of Jesus because his sight was not perfectly restored, or was he satisfied that a little sight was better than none?
Exploring any of these questions makes me reflect on what it means to be human. It also leads me to examine what I believe about Jesus. Deep issues of psychology, theology, and self-examination are hidden here.
Beyond wondering what Jesus might have thought or what the blind man might have thought, there is yet another question. What was the Gospel writer, Mark, thinking by including a story in which an action of Jesus was less than perfect the first time around?
Mark places this story at a critical point in his Gospel. It sets the stage for the episode immediately following. There Jesus asks his disciples if they understand him (Mark 8:29). Peter typically blurts out that he knows Jesus to be the Christ. But Jesus goes on to say that his journey will involve death and resurrection. That’s when Peter reveals that he really doesn’t understand Jesus as well as he thought he did.
Mark’s placement of the story is then a clever way of helping the readers to explore the possibility that we, too, may misunderstand what it means when we say Jesus is the Christ. Or, with the blind man, we may be only partially right in our understanding.
So Mark is dealing with Christology, Jesus with failure, and the blind man with disappointment. All of these are worthy trails to follow. But today I am captivated by the observation of the blind man: “I see people, but they look like trees walking.”
In my imagination, I think Jesus said, “Come and let’s try again.” Healing that blind man required a second healing touch because we are not supposed to be seeing people as trees walking. That’s like not really seeing them. It is like they are not really people.
Of course it is important to remember that I have stopped the story in the middle. My excuse is that sometimes I fail to realize that one moment in my life is not the defining point but simply one piece of a story that continues.
So after the second touch, the man looked and—scripture says—he saw clearly! I assume that the test was how well he could see other people as people. It may be that the second touch was not to heal his eyes, but his heart.
What keeps us from seeing—really heart-to-heart seeing— other people?
This is an important question because we Christians believe that God came to us in Jesus. It’s a doctrine we call incarnation. And if we are correct in believing that God came among us in human form, then that makes every human I meet a potential “God carrier.”
I find that nine times out of ten in biblical stories when God wants to get through to someone, God sends the message through a human messenger. That means I need to be attentive to every person I meet.
Not as “trees walking” but with a genuine person-to-person encounter.
The book of Hebrews says that by being open and receptive to other people—by relating to them on something deeper than a superficial level—some of us have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). Some of us have been spoken to by God’s messengers and didn’t even know it.
Once John the Baptist sent some of his men to ask Jesus an interesting question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I suppose John’s question is one I need to ask of every person whose path crosses mine: “Are you the one who is to come, or am I to wait for another?”
You may remember the answer Jesus sent back. “Go tell John what you see. Blind people are receiving their sight, lame folks are walking, people with leprosy are being healed, deaf people can hear, and poor folks have good news.” Healing and being healed is what happens when we no longer see people as trees walking.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.