They arrived at Bethsaida. A blind man was brought to Jesus, and they begged him to touch him. He took his hand, led him off outside the village, and put spittle on his eyes. Then he laid his hands on him, and asked, ‘Can you see anything?’ ‘I can see people,’ said the man, peering around, ‘but they look like trees walking about.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on him once more. This time he looked hard, and his sight came back: he could see everything clearly. Jesus sent him back home. ‘Don’t even go into the village,’ he said. Jesus and his disciples came to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who are people saying that I am?’ ‘John the Baptist,’ they said, ‘or, some say, Elijah; or, others say, one of the prophets.’ ‘What about you?’ asked Jesus. ‘Who do you say I am? ’Peter spoke up. ‘You’re the Messiah,’ he said. He gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.
I have a special memory of this passage, going right back to my university days. I had not been a very good pupil in my English Literature lessons at school. I had not really discovered something that any sensible reader of novels and plays learns early on, namely, that a good writer will use one incident to illuminate another one. The writer won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by saying, ‘so, you see, this bit goes well with that bit’, ‘this image explains the meaning of that incident’. Good writers use all kinds of imagery to make their various points. But perhaps the best sort of imagery is that which arises naturally and properly within the story itself.
Anyway, I was in my first year of undergraduate study of the New Testament, and one of the commentaries I was reading pointed out the rather obvious feature of this present passage in Mark. The story of Jesus healing the blind man in Bethsaida follows the same pattern as the story of Jesus asking his followers about who they thought he was. Once you see that, you will not only understand what Mark was doing in this passage; you will discover that most good writers do it quite a lot. And this discovery makes reading itself, not just reading the gospels, an exciting and dramatic journey. It opens your eyes.
Which is of course the point . . . because the way Jesus opened the man’s eyes was in two stages. First he put spittle on his eyes, laid his hands on him, and asked him if he could see anything. ‘I can see people,’ the man said, ‘but they look like trees walking about.’ Halfway there, in other words, but needing a second touch. Then, after that second touch, he could see everything clearly. And Jesus, having led him out of the village in order to do this healing, told him to go back home but not to go into the village itself. For some reason this had to be done in secret, and was supposed to stay in secret.
The parallel between this and what happens next is so close that, if Mark had been a novelist, we would say he had con-structed it as a convenient fiction. Jesus takes his disciples away from their normal territory, in the region of Galilee around Capernaum, away up north to the slopes of Mount Hermon. He wants this conversation to be private.
However, their destination is significant too. They go to the group of villages that had been renamed, in recent memory, in honour of Augustus Caesar. It was in the territory of Herod Philip (the brother of Antipas and the first husband of Herodias): hence the name ‘Caesarea Philippi’, distinguishing it from other towns called ‘Caesarea’, particularly the one about seventy-five miles away on the Mediterranean coast. This town, in other words, has ‘royal’ associations, both local (Herod) and global (Caesar). Mark was certainly very conscious of this, and there is every reason to suppose that Jesus was too. If his disciples gave him the answer he wanted, they should be aware just what they were saying.
So, the first question, corresponding to the first touch on the blind man’s eyes: ‘Who are people saying that I am?’ Back comes the answer, reminding us of the people appearing like trees walking around – in other words, halfway there but not yet in clear focus: ‘John the Baptist; or, some say, Elijah; or, others say, one of the prophets.’ Nice try. Not bad. And this tells us (by the way) quite a bit about the style of Jesus’ public career, and the way people perceived it: John, Elijah and the prophets hardly give us an image of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. He was acting with power, and speaking equally powerful warnings.
But then the second question, with Herod and Caesar in the background: ‘What about you? Who do you say I am?’
‘You’re the Messiah,’ says Peter.
It comes like a thunderclap, opening the skies with a flash. Mark’s reader has known all along, of course, because of the voice at the baptism. But Jesus was so different from the messiahs of popular imagination. He was a healer, not a military leader. He spoke about forgiveness, not revenge. He was challenging and redefining Israel’s ancient symbols, not reinforcing them. And yet: the cumulative weight of all that Peter and the others had witnessed spoke for itself, and gathered itself together into one great leap of faith and hope, of utter trust in this strange but compelling man and in the God who had so clearly sent him.
Messiah! Not ‘the second person of the Trinity’. That realization would dawn more slowly, as the final layer of disguise was penetrated. Indeed, it has sometimes been possible, in the his-tory of Christianity, for people to hide behind a big dogmatic affirmation (‘Jesus is God’ or at least ‘Jesus is Son of God’) and to forget that the whole point of his mission was that in and through his work God was becoming king, king of Israel (upstaging all the Herods) and king of the world (displacing all the Caesars then and now). ‘Messiah’ meant ‘king’. And ‘king’ was fighting talk, in Caesarea Philippi of all places.
No wonder Jesus told them strictly not to tell anybody – just as he had sent the blind man away. He was already the subject of critical comment. The Romans had a well-developed spy system; no doubt the Roman governor already had a file on him. Any gossip about kingship would bring serious danger. Perhaps that’s why many people in our own day have shied away from the idea, too.
That’s the trouble with learning to read. It opens up all kinds of possibilities and new challenges. But isn’t that what Lent is supposed to be all about?
Lord Jesus, king of the world, rule in our hearts, our countries, our world with the healing power of your love.