Eyes Half Open

February 25/Mark 8:27-38


The story is out.  No more undercover action.  No more scintillating hints thrown out without explanation.  Jesus has laid it all out for the disciples and the crowds to see.  And it is not the pretty story they – or we – hoped for.

Peter has the right idea.  You are the Messiah!  For nearly a hundred years, the Romans have ruled Palestine through some puppet king or other.  Finally, Peter thought – they all thought – the promised messiah had come.  The Romans would be booted out, this Messiah would reestablish this land as belonging to God’s chosen people, and order would be restored.

But then Jesus ruins the whole thing by talking about suffering and rejection and murder!  Doesn’t he know that messiahs don’t suffer?  Doesn’t he realize that his role is redemption for this people – and that means marching in and taking control, not dying?

Oh yes, the story is out.  But it is not the story anyone expected, not the story anyone wanted.  And Peter doesn’t mind telling Jesus so.  Grabbing his shoulder, Peter pulls him aside and begins to rebuke him.  He is going to set Jesus straight.  He needs to get this messiah thing right.

You are the Messiah!

***

As Jesus and the disciples came into Bethsaida, some people brought a blind man to him.  Word of Jesus’ miracles was by then spreading far and wide.  They just wanted him to touch this blind man, just touch him, and they were certain he would see.  After all, Jesus had healed people with his words alone.  Remember the man whose friends lowered him through the ceiling?  Stand up!  Take your mat and go home!  And the man who barged into the temple, consumed by an unclean spirit?  Jesus said “Come out!” and the spirit was gone.  So of course he could heal with a touch.

But Jesus decides to shake things up with this healing.  Mark tells us, “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” (8:23-25).  Two steps.  The only two-part healing in the gospels.  And immediately after that, as they walked along the road into Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked the question.  “Who do you say that I am?”

Like the blind man who at first sees only blurred figures, people who look like trees, walking, Peter sees only the title.  You are the Messiah!  You are the Messiah.

***

Jesus doesn’t react well to Peter’s rebuke.  Turning on him, but looking at all of the disciples – rightly seeing that all of them are thinking what only Peter was brazen enough to say out loud – he rebukes Peter in the harshest terms imaginable.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  Step aside.  Move out of the way.  You don’t begin to understand, Peter.  You want a very human overthrow of the Roman government; you want me to do to them what they have done to us for so long.  But that is not the way.

Calling the crowds to join them, Jesus begins to explain a new kind of messiah.  If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  You want to save your life?  The only way to do that is to lose your life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus calls the hearers to “deny themselves rather than deny Jesus, that is, to no longer make oneself the top priority and the center of one’s own universe.”[1]  Jesus calls people to the hard way of discipleship.  “If one finds oneself moved to follow, that is a sign that one has been the recipient of a special, lifesaving grace not vouchsafed to most. The question is whether one will have the will, courage, and endurance to ‘follow after’ Jesus.”[2]  In the end, Mark reminds us that “a person can never possess his own life. … I learn who I am by discovering who Jesus is.  The way to self-fulfillment is the way of self-denial.”[3]

John Calvin treated self-denial as a summary of the Christian life:

We are not our own;

therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions.

We are not our own;

therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh.

We are not our own;

therefore let us, so far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours.

On the contrary, we are God’s;

therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions.

We are God’s;

towards him, therefore, as our only immediate end, let every part of our lives be directed. (Institutes III, 7)[4]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who became a martyr in the battle of the church against Adolph Hitler, put it more simply: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[5]

***

The story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man mirrors Peter’s two-step understanding of who Jesus really is.  He is the first person to recognize Jesus as Messiah, but like the blind man, his sight at first is only partial.  Full sight will demand that Peter and the other disciples recognize the role they are called to play in the story.  “Peter’s insight is a result of revelation; the eyes of the blind have been opened, or at least half-opened, by an act of divine grace.”[6]  “Like the half-healed blind man, Peter sees but does not see.”[7]  But in an act of total grace, “Jesus does not command the disciple who has become Satan’s mouthpiece to go away from him, but rather to go behind him, that is, to resume the path of following that he has momentarily forsaken.”[8]  “Peter makes a stupid remark and Jesus rebukes him for it, then calls him to resume a life of discipleship.”[9]

With his words to Peter and the disciples, we suddenly see that there is “more to being Jesus’ disciple than watching him heal and hearing him teach.”[10]  Twelfth-century Christian theologian Abelard believed that “the Son of God came down into this world to be crucified to awaken our hearts to compassion, and thus to turn our minds from the gross concerns of raw life in the world to the specifically human values of self-giving in shared suffering.”[11]  During Lent, we have an opportunity to walk the long road to the cross, along the way to reflect on our own mortality.  Taking up our own cross, we can share in the “suffering involved in discipleship and Christian mission.”[12]

***

After Jesus put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, the blind man saw only partially – people, who looked like trees walking.  Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and the man saw everything clearly.

Blind of sight, or blind of heart – Jesus does not stop with halfway healing.  The blind man’s sight was fully restored.  In time, Peter and the disciples would fully understand true discipleship.  Jesus does not want our eyes to be only half-opened.  During the forty days of Lent, many folk “give up” something – go without as an act of penance or discipline or self-sacrifice.  Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin suggests a different path.

I’d like to suggest not giving something up, but doing something.  In the Gospels, when Jesus of Nazareth condemns people, or points out sin, it’s usually not people who are trying hard to avoid sinning, it’s people who aren’t bothering to love. … For Jesus, sin is often a failure to bother to love.[13]

Maybe this Lent, instead of giving something up, we can become true disciples – people who bother.  People with eyes wide open to clearly see the hurting world around us.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, New Testament Library: Mark, 244

[2] Joel Marcus, Anchor Yale Bible: Mark 8-16, 624

[3] Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark, 155, 156

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Part One, Ch. 2

[6] Marcus, 612

[7] Ibid., 615

[8] Ibid., 614-615

[9] Ibid., 608

[10] Paul C. Shupe, Feasting on the Word B/2, 70

[11] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 143

[12] Boring, 244

[13] James Martin, SJ, “Bothering to Love,” All Shall Be Well, 44

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