Jesus’ healing of a blind man in Bethsaida was an unusual and often misunderstood miracle. Before healing the man, Jesus took him by the hand and led him out of the village, then He spit on the man’s eyes, put His hands on the man, and asked him, “Do you see anything?” The man looked up and replied, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Jesus put His hands on the man a second time, then the man began to see clearly.
What’s going on here? On no other occasion did Jesus ask whether the miracle worked. On no other occasion did Jesus have to complete a miracle with a second attempt.
Was Jesus’ power slipping? Is that why He led the man away from the village, so that no one would see His slipping power? Did doubt on the part of the blind man get in the way of him being healed in one try? Was the man’s focus too much on people and too little on God? Is that why it didn’t quite take the first time? (These are the questions—or accusations—raised by people who have studied this passage.)
My understanding of this passage is shaped by Dr. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey’s book, In His Image. They described work that has been done with individuals who were born without sight but had surgery to receive sight. What these formerly blind people discovered is that it is not enough just to fix the eyes so that they can take in vision; radical transformation had to take place in the brain as well so as to make sense of what they see.
Brand and Yancey write, “Once these patients could see, a bewildering world of size and perspective confronted them. Previously they had a firm conception of size: an orange was about the size of a cupped hand, a face two hand-widths. In a shocking reversal, after surgery none of these rules applied. ‘How big is your mother?’ a researcher asked a sixteen-year-old girl. The girl held her index fingers a few inches apart, the same distance she had estimated for the size of a book. Her mother, standing across the room, took up about that much of her field of vision. And the sun? Obviously, it was about the size of a dime—who could believe the sun was larger than the earth?
“Gradually, over a period of months these patients had to learn the meaning of space, distance, and perspective. Vertical distances remained unfathomable for a long time, for the newly sighted had no prior conception of space beyond what they could feel by touch. Skyscrapers and trees loomed high, but how could they gauge height over ten feet, the height reachable with a cane? One patient, observing some interesting activity on the street below, stepped off the balcony of a tall apartment building and was killed….
“One young girl played with a pet cat for twenty-one days, four hours each day. Then, upon seeing a hen in a garden she squealed with delight, ‘My cat!’ After all, the thing was small and somewhat gray and it moved…. The simplest sights provoked great alarm in her: a black coat on the floor looked like the mouth of a well, a column of smoke from the chimney appeared to crack the sky in two, and the spots on her dog Muffy seemed like holes through him….
“Virtually all patients muddled through such despondent periods for a time. They were being asked to relearn the world, like persons abruptly deposited on another planet where the laws of physics do not apply.” (pp. 153-156)
No wonder Jesus led the man away from the confusing bustle of the village before healing him! And no wonder Jesus took the time with the man to heal him in two sections—first for his vision, then for comprehension of what he saw. And no wonder Jesus paused to ask the man what he saw. And no wonder the man replied that people seemed to him as trees walking around.
This two-part miracle reveals to me that Jesus doesn’t do anything half-way. He didn’t heal just the man’s sight but also brought about the transformation of his mind to make sense out of what he saw.
This miracle reminds me that Jesus wants to do something similar in me. He wants to bring me spiritual salvation, and He wants to do the further miracle of transforming me so that I can begin to live in a way that matches with the Loving God living in me!
One of the most influential prayers ever prayed for me was not the prayer I had requested. In fact, it was quite different from the prayer I had requested.
My youngest child had done poorly on a math test in Junior High School. He brought the test home with an explanation that he could regain some points for the class if he corrected his mistakes. That night we worked together on the needed corrections, but that child was not paying attention to the work as I thought he should have been, and I grew more and more frustrated with him.
The next morning, I shared my frustration with a prayer partner and asked him to pray that my son would get more serious about his studies. Much to my surprise and disappointment (at the time), Charlie prayed something quite different than my request. He prayed that God would help me to see the differences between that child and my other children, and he asked God to help me not to try to make that son like his siblings.
My initial response to that prayer was disappointment, because I was convinced that the problem was with my son and not with me. But that prayer changed my heart and saved my relationship with my son. I began to see and appreciate the unique qualities and strengths of this child. (He went on to major in economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.)
I hate to admit it, but I have a tendency to carry that old mindset in my spiritual life. I tend to think that God works with cookie cutters. I tend to think that one size fits all. I tend to get stuck within a box and think that all of God’s ways will be found within that box.
But the truth is that God makes millions of varieties of snowflakes, and God makes each of us uniquely. That means that if I am going to be in touch with how God is working in the life of any person, I need to be attentive to the way God is working uniquely in that particular person’s life, honoring that person as a unique individual.
I love the ways Jesus does this in the Gospels. When I look at how Jesus interacted with people in the Gospel accounts, I never find a “cookie cutter” approach from Jesus. Each person He meets and each person He deals with is a unique person to Him.
One of the passages where I find this most clearly is in Mark 7:31-37, when “some people brought to Him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Him to place His hand on the man.” Jesus took the man aside, put His fingers into the man’s ears, spit (apparently on His own finger) and touched the man’s tongue, then, “with a deep sigh,” Jesus declared, “Be opened.”
What a unique and personal way of dealing with this man!
Why did Jesus do the things He did here? I don’t know for sure, but it certainly wasn’t a cookie cutter approach! It was unique and personal.
To a man who was missing the sense of sound and could not speak, Jesus engaged with him in the realm of the sense of sight and the sense of touch. For a man who could not interact with words, Jesus interacted with him with His fingers.
And He sighed. As one writer remarked, “With Him, that is, with the Sympathizing Jesus, this was entirely natural. It showed that he was taking the man’s condition to heart…. The sorrows of this man were His sorrows. Jesus never healed anyone half-heartedly. He always put everything he had into His work of mercy.”
In His dealings with us as well, Jesus never acts half-hearted but always in a unique and personal way.
Reading in Mark 6:30-44, I was stunned by something I should have noticed years ago but never did. I was stunned by the attentiveness of Jesus to the needs of people before they were aware of it themselves, then by the way He directs the attentiveness of the disciples to the needs of the people around them.
The passage begins with the disciples reporting to Jesus what they had done and taught during the time that they had been sent out by Jesus, so all that goes on in this passage needs to be understood in the context of Jesus teaching them further about how to be His ambassadors.
As the disciples try to report to Jesus, He is aware of their need to get away from the pressure of the crowd in order to rest and be refreshed. So He says to them, “Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
To meet that need, Jesus takes them on a very slow sail across the Sea of Galilee. So slow that the people who are hurrying by foot around the lake beat Jesus and the disciples to the destination. Knowing that crowds would meet them on the other side, He made sure that they had time away from the crowd on their way across the lake.
When they arrive, Jesus is attentive to how lost and directionless and spiritually empty the people are. Verse 34 tells us, “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” So He provided what they needed; “He began teaching them many things.”
Then something rather miraculous happens. What Jesus wants to accomplish in the lives of His followers takes place in the hearts of the disciples: They become attentive to the needs of the people around them. They become attentive to the hunger of the people in the crowd. The compassion of Jesus toward others spreads to them!
So, with the ongoing goal of teaching them, Jesus directs the disciples in the meeting of that need. He says to them, “You give them something to eat.”
When they express the impossibility of doing that, Jesus asks, “How many loaves do you have?” Then He added, “Go and see.”
When they come back with the report of having five loaves of bread and two fish, He directs them to have all the people sit in groups on the grass. Then He divides the fish and loaves among the people, and after everyone ate and was “satisfied,” they picked up twelve baskets of leftover fish and loaves.
A miracle occurred in the feeding of the multitude, but I think the greater miracles here are the miracle of Jesus’ attentiveness to the needs of others spreading to the disciples, and the miracle of Jesus enabling the disciples to follow through on their care for others.
One of the things I learn from this passage is how wrong I have been in my perspective on prayer throughout the years. I have always tended to think that prayer is about me trying to get God to pay attention to the needs I am aware of, but what I see here is that prayer is far more about me learning to pay attention to the things God is already attentive to, so that I can catch onto what He is wanting to do in the world around me.
No wonder Mother Teresa stresses, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself.”
And no wonder Scripture encourages us so often to wait upon the Lord. At the age of 5, my granddaughter (Eleanor) seems to have captured this understanding faster than I. She wrote this prayer: “Wait for God. Don’t take longer. Say ‘I love you.’ Don’t be afraid.”