Sermon, October 16, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade
Look, you blind, that you may see!
In our study of MarkÕs Gospel, we come today to the centerpiece, the fulcrum, the crux of the whole book. Whatever else the commentaries may differ about, the centrality in the Gospel of Mark of this confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi is not something anyone disagrees about. This text is at the very heart of what Mark is trying to get across to us.
So today weÕll try to see how the parts of the book weÕve been studying so far lead up to this passage, and in the coming weeks weÕll be looking back to this text to see how it sets everything up for the rest of the Gospel.
Just as he has in the last several weeks, Mark gives us three scenes in a row that work together to reinforce a single point. Last week we read three scenes that all told us about the clean heart of worship that JesusÕ mission calls for on the pattern of the Jewish laws of holiness. The week before we read three demonstrations that Jesus comes with the resurrection power of the empty tomb. And the week before that, Mark gave us a series of three warnings that Mission means Opposition.
Look with me now at the similarities among the three scenes that weÕve read this morning: a feeding of the 4000 that leads to a discussion about it in a boat, a healing of a blind man at Bethsaida, and PeterÕs confession that Jesus is the Messiah. On the surface they seem like three very different kinds of events, but in MarkÕs telling they turn out to be such mirror images of each other that we canÕt escape a conclusion that he means them to be pictures of each other and commentaries on each other. Watch these similarities:
The feeding of the 4000 reminds us of JesusÕ earlier demonstrations of power when he fed the 5000, and both of those demonstrations led to a conversation with JesusÕ disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The conversation we hear today is all about those feedings, because the disciples seem unbelievably to have forgotten all of a sudden that Jesus can work a miracle like that. No sooner had Jesus made food for thousands of people from a few small loaves when these disciples find themselves out in this boat worrying about how theyÕre going to eat when they only had one loaf of bread with them.
Something is right in front of their eyes, and they donÕt see it. Jesus stands right in front of the blind man of Bethsaida, and of course he canÕt see Jesus either. And then Jesus stands in front of Peter and finally has to rebuke Peter because Peter doesnÕt quite understand who Jesus is and what he is saying. In effect, Peter doesnÕt ÒseeÓ who Jesus is and doesnÕt ÒseeÓ what it is Jesus is trying to say. Blind disciples, a blind man at Bethsaida, and a blind Peter.
So Jesus has to challenge all three of the figures in these three scenes with a question. V.17, he asks the disciples in the boat, ÒWhy are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?Ó V.23, he asks the blind man, ÒDo you see anything?Ó And v.27,29, he asks Peter with the other disciples, Òwho do people say that I am?Ó ÒWho do you say that I am?Ó In the parallels among these three passages, there is apparently a kind of blindness in the condition of people who have to be asked that question.
In all three scenes the location of the scene is named, and they are all in the same vicinity around the Sea of Galilee. V.10, the boat was on its way to the district of Dalmanutha. V.22, they arrive in that district at a town named Bethsaida. And in v.27 they are 10 miles further up the Jordan River at Caesarea Philippi.
Mark seems to want us to understand from all these similarities in his organization of his narrative, that the the blind man sandwiched in between the disciples in the boat before him and Peter with the disciples at Caesarea Philippi is a picture, in his blindness, of those disciples. There is a strong analogy, in other words, between the physical condition of the blind man at Bethsaida and the disciples of Jesus, particularly of Peter in his confession.
HereÕs an especially interesting fact that would have been fairly familiar to any of MarkÕs earliest readers but that might not occur to most of us modern readers to whom all the locations Mark names are just funny names that are hard to pronounce.
Look over at John 1:44. It says, ÒNow Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.Ó Bethsaida is the city Peter comes from. I think that is a detail that should underline the conclusion that Mark wants us to draw: Peter himself is a blind man from Bethsaida, and in just about the same condition that the blind man from Bethsaida is in the passage that comes immediately before Mark tells us about his confession.
(King Herod Philip, a short time before Jesus was born, gave this Galilean city a Roman name as well: Julius, to honor the daughter of Caesar Augustus: Julia.)
The connections Mark is drawing go, of course, another step farther in his intended application. All the way through his Gospel we are meant to understand that, if the blind man is a picture of Peter and the disciples, the disciples are also pictures of us, the readers of this Gospel. There is a blindness in us that is like the blindness of the man at Bethsaida, and the blindness of Peter, and Mark is writing this Gospel so that we can be healed. He is writing this Gospel so that we can see! (So open our eyes this morning, Lord, that we may see!)
One key to understanding what this blindness might be that we need to be healed from is to notice one more arresting similarity among all these passages that we didnÕt point out before. Something very puzzling happens in all of these scenes, most obviously in the last two of them. And these puzzles seem to be pictures of one another, too.
In his healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, a surprising thing is recorded here: Jesus didnÕt succeed in making the man completely well on his first attempt. It took Jesus two tries before his healing finally worked! After the first attempt, the blind man looked around and said, I can see people, but they look like stick-figures (Òtrees walkingÓ). And Jesus has to try again.
Now, Mark doesnÕt give us any indication that Jesus is operating under some kind of limitation, like Superman did when he got too close to kryptonite. If thereÕs any explanation for his lack of success on the first try it would have to be found in a lack of readiness on the blind manÕs part to be healed or else in a deliberate design on JesusÕ part to heal him in two stages. I suspect that Mark had in mind that both those explanations were the case.
Then, if we werenÕt expecting JesusÕ healing of the blind man to be unsuccessful on the first attempt, we are even more unprepared for his response to Peter in the second scene. Remember that Jesus has been trying repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark up to this point to get his disciples to understand that Jesus was the Christ, the fulfillment of all the Old TestamentÕs prophecies about a coming king.
Finally, Peter gets the right answer. And almost the very next thing we hear is JesusÕ rebuking Peter and calling him Satan. I can tell you what my students at the college might think if I put an F on the paper of the first one who finally came up with the right answer! And Peter gets worse than an F on his paper. He gets a ÒSatanÓ!
If my student thinks he had the right answer, then one or the other of us is going to have to try again. Either I am going to have to try again for a more appropriate grade, or my student is going to have to think again whether his answer was really the right one. Since Jesus is the grader in this case, we had better reckon with the probability that something was seriously wrong with PeterÕs answer.
Whatever that might be, we can see that there is a strong similarity among the puzzling observations that the disciples in the boat canÕt seem to figure out where lunch is coming from when theyÕve just seen Jesus feed 4000 people, and that Jesus has to take a second try at healing a blind man, and that Peter gets rebuked with a ÒSatanÓ when it seemed like he was on to the right answer.
The answer to these puzzles comes from seeing a larger pattern of threes that you may have already noticed Mark has constructed for us. When Jesus asks the blind man, Do you see anything? and when he asks his disciples the most significant question in all the gospels, ÒWho do you say that I am?Ó we hear echoes of a question that Jesus has been asking his disciples again and again -- in fact, exactly three times -- every time he gets done teaching a crowd.
In ch.4, he Òbegan to teachÓ and such a huge crowd gathered around him that he got pushed off the shore and into a boat for a pulpit, and he taught them the parable of the Sower. Afterwards in 4:35, he and his disciples all set off in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and thatÕs when Jesus had to calm the storm for them. But he seems surprised by the disciplesÕ agitation. DonÕt you have any faith? he asked them. But they donÕt understand. They donÕt see. What donÕt they see? Who is this man, Jesus, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
He teaches another crowd in ch.6: 5000 people, Mark tells us, and then he feeds them all miraculously with one little boyÕs lunch. Afterwards, in 6:45, his disciples all set off in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, heading to Bethsaida that time, too). This time Jesus walked out to them on the water, and when he got into the boat and the wind calmed they were astounded. Why? They didnÕt understand. They didnÕt see.
Now thereÕs a third crowd in ch.8, this time 4000 people, and Jesus feeds them all again. Afterwards, in 8:13, he and his disciples all set off in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There they are in the boat, no more than 13 people, hungry, and only one loaf among them. A different kind of storm erupts here: theyÕre arguing about how theyÕre going to eat, until Jesus comes along and asks them, Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? DonÕt you understand? DonÕt you see?
And the very next passage is a text about a man in Bethsaida who canÕt see, a man in Bethsaida who becomes a picture of Peter, who couldnÕt understand, who couldnÕt see, but who finally ... starts to see!
What hadnÕt they understood? What couldnÕt they see? They didnÕt understand that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who was coming to be king of Israel again, coming with all the power that a Messiah is supposed to have to calm storms and walk on water and feed the hungry people. Peter finally gets it. ÒYou are the Christ!Ó Who else would have that kind of power?
And no sooner does he get it than Jesus begins to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed, and then rise.
This was not in PeterÕs program. MessiahÕs donÕt suffer; they succeed and save. MessiahÕs arenÕt rejected; they rescue and rule. MessiahÕs donÕt get killed, they conquer; theyÕre kings! And so, of course, Peter objected.
ThatÕs when Jesus gave him an ÔFÕ. ThatÕs when Jesus told him he was still seeing things like Satan, rather than God. ThatÕs when Jesus told him YouÕre beginning to see;Õ but you donÕt see clearly at all. Peter saw Jesus the way the blind man saw people when his eyes were first opened: a Messiah who brings nothing but power is a stick-figure Messiah. PeterÕs vision needs a second healing touch.
Peter needs to understand that the Messiah has come to Òsuffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed -- and then after three days rise again.Ó But he doesnÕt understand. He doesnÕt see.
What about the application, then? We can see now that at the heart of MarkÕs Gospel is this question of who Jesus is, and that the blindness of Peter is the blindness of so many of the Jews of Jesus day who rejected him. They were looking for a powerful king and were blind to -- because they didnÕt want to see -- JesusÕ suffering and dying as an indispensable ingredient of his being king.
So you say, ok, Rev, the church sorted that one out in all its councils. We believe that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified and buried. We know thatÕs part of the incarnate identity of God the Son on earth. So how are we still blind disciples? Is this message at the heart of Mark supposed to apply to me somehow?
And the answer to that is going to begin to emerge more and more sharply over the next few weeks of our study. But Jesus puts it directly on the table for Peter in ch.8 here immediately after he put the Satan on his paper: ÒIf anyone [and that includes us] would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross nad follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospelÕs will save it.Ó
We may have our doctrine of JesusÕ incarnation right, but we still donÕt know who Jesus is, if we look to Jesus to provide us nothing but power in our prayers and donÕt see that discipleship, that following this king, means sharing his the weakness of his incarnation, too: the suffering, even the death, for the sake of the gospel.
The overcoming of our blindness, Jesus is about to teach us, is first of all an understanding and a joyful flood of gratitude that our savior came not to deal with us coercively from a position of worldly power, not to play the worldÕs game of power politics, and not to answer our prayers fore a share in the wealth and status of the world.
He came to share our mortal weakness and to show us how our very weakness is the way to overcome the world.