The narrative of Mark, like that of all the gospels, climaxes with the cross and resurrection, but we should not speed toward the conclusion with such haste that we overlook the gospel’s centerpiece, the pivot around which the revelation of the central character turns.
That centerpiece is Mark 8:22-10:52. It is framed by two healings of blind men, the only such healings in Mark, and within that frame is a threefold prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus encounters the first blind man in Bethsaida, just north of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:22-26). Perhaps the most memorable part of that story is the two-phase healing of the man. A first touch from Jesus results in blurry vision: the man sees people, but they look like trees walking. A second application of Jesus’ hands yields clear vision. Anyone who has had an eye exam knows the refrain, “Better first? Better second?” when the optometrist is clicking through various lenses to find the best correction for one’s vision. The blind man of Bethsaida opted for “Better second.”
Immediately following the healing, the scene shifts to Caesarea Philippi and Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah. A story of sight is followed by a story of insight; physical vision by spiritual vision. The blind man eventually saw clearly. It remains to be seen just how clear Peter’s spiritual vision is.
What follows for the next two chapters is an assortment of revelatory events, like the transfiguration, and teaching moments on topics like Elijah, divorce, and riches. But the structure of this centerpiece is a threefold pattern repeated three times. There are three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection, immediately followed by three blundering missteps by the disciples, culminating in three repetitious lessons by Jesus.
The overall picture is depressing … perhaps depressingly familiar. The disciples take two steps forward, one step back. A board game that was popular decades ago and can still be purchased is called “Chutes and Ladders.” Players roll the dice and advance around the board hoping to land on a ladder and quickly ascend toward the finish, while avoiding the chutes, which send the player sliding back down to a lower level. It is a child’s game but also a metaphor for life, and sometimes for Christian discipleship. A moment of revelation and insight is followed by a tragic slide into darkness and failure. Anyone who has struggled with habitual sin or substance abuse knows the pattern. In Mark’s centerpiece it is a struggle for understanding, to see Jesus as he is, not as we would remake or distort him for our own purposes. Flashes of insight come, but a dark pattern of corrupting self-interest returns. Two steps forward, one step back.
The disciples’ missteps include Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (rarely a smart thing to do), an argument among the disciples about who was the greatest (not a good sign), and the request of James and John for positions of privilege (could they have missed the point any worse?) If there was a wall nearby, Jesus was banging his head against it. But each time Jesus takes them back to the drawing board, back to basics. Peter is rebuked for his self-serving, Machiavellian thinking (Mark 8:33). The twelve are instructed again in servanthood (9:35-37). James and John are given a lesson in Jesus’ countercultural style of leadership (10:41-45). It culminates in a terse but provocative statement of Jesus’ mission. They say that a good mission statement should be concise enough to be recited comfortably while standing on one foot. Jesus’ mission statement fills the bill: “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). The disciples have erred so egregiously and repeatedly that we are eager to join in Jesus’ rebuke of them rather than contemplate our own egregious and repeated failings.
Then comes the closing bracket of the frame around Mark 8:22-10:52, the healing of Bartimaeus. The scene is Jericho now. We are much closer to Jerusalem than when this section started in Bethsaida. Perhaps one’s vision improves as one draws closer to Jerusalem, closer to the cross. This time the blind man is named, perhaps suggesting that he joined the band of disciples and was thus known to the tradition.
Bartimaeus was almost passed by because Jesus is exiting Jericho when Bartimaeus hears that he is near. Jesus’ reputation clearly preceded him. He was known as a healer, and Bartimaeus was not going to lose this opportunity to gain his sight. So he spoke up … forcefully … stridently … shouting and probably gesturing. His outburst was sufficiently loud and boisterous that bystanders rebuked him. But he would not be silenced. Compare this to the earlier blind man who was brought by others, whose healing was requested by others, and who said not a word until the first phase of the healing had been accomplished.
A recent innovation in tourism is “sightseeing for the blind.” It sounds like a cruel and insensitive joke, but it is a bona fide industry that enables the vision impaired to experience famous landmarks and locations. (One such organization is Traveleyes.) The blind experience these places through their other senses, particularly hearing and feeling. Audio tours offer descriptions of the sites, and the experience is supplemented when possible by touch. So the blind traveller hears a description of the California redwoods and then is guided to the base of a towering tree to feel its bark and massive girth.
The same senses now guide Bartimaeus to Jesus. He hears that Jesus is passing by and responds to Jesus’ invitation to come to him. Although the text doesn’t say so, we can probably assume that there was physical contact between Bartimaeus and Jesus, in greeting one another or perhaps in the act of healing. But this healing differs from the healing of the unnamed man in Mark chapter 8. It is immediate. No two-phase therapy. No “Better first? Better second?” Immediately, he received his sight. Also unlike the earlier healing, this one results in Bartimaeus following Jesus “in the way.”
What made the difference between Mark chapter 8 and chapter 10? Perhaps Jesus is getting better with practice. Or perhaps Mark is talking about more than one kind of blindness and one kind of sight. The disciples, represented by Peter in 8:29, had figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, but in their blurry vision they still thought the Messiah couldn’t suffer and die, would certainly want a hierarchy of assistants, and would indulge their cravings for prestige and privilege. But they couldn’t tell the Messiah from a tree walking. Only with a second touch, with further instruction, and especially with the example of Jesus’ own suffering and death, could the disciples gain clear vision and follow Jesus in the way.
PRAYER OF THE DAYLord Jesus, it was hard for your disciples to hear that they would have to suffer in order to follow you. Give us faith and courage to follow you when following is painful or frightening. Amen.
HYMNS I’m so glad Jesus lifted me ELW 860, NCH 474, TFF 191 Healer of our every ill ELW 612
CHORAL Balm in Gilead, Jackson Berkey