Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mark 8: 22 - 33

and he cometh to Bethsaida; ; 
and they bring a blind man unto him, 

and besought him to touch him
and he took the blind man by the hand, 
and led him out of the town; 
and when he had spit on his eyes, 
and put his hands upon him, 
he asked him if he saw ought.
and he looked up, 
and said, "I see men as trees, walking."
after that he put his hands again upon his eyes, 
and made him look up: 
and he was restored, 
and saw every man clearly.
and he sent him away to his house, saying, 
"Neither go into the town, 
nor tell it to any in the town".

Out on the lake, Jesus pronounced his disciples to be deaf and blind. And the first thing that happens when they get back to the land is that he heals blind man.

But for the first time, Jesus powers appear to be fallible. He tries to heal the man and it doesn't work. So he has another go; and on the second attempt the blind man is healed.

Some people conclude that this is a primitive passage. The historical Jesus must have been something more like a shaman or a wizard -- performing rituals which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Or, at any rate, that's what the very, very early Christians thought he was like. The later Church cleaned up the stories so that merely touching Jesus clothes produced an instantaneous transfer of miracle-juice. But that only poses a new question. Why did Mark present the raw version of this miracle but clean up the others so they fitted in better with the official, theological idea of Jesus? 

We are trying to read Mark on his own terms. How does the two-stage healing fit into his story?

"Well, in a very real sense, each time Jesus does a healing it is slightly different; and helps us see that God's ways are above our understanding, and that he resists any attempt to systematize him; and that he regards us all as individuals and ministers to us in the way we personally need."

I think we can do better than that. But we will have to get there by an indirect route. 

In the story, the blind man is brought to Jesus by some friends. And in the story the friends of the blind man believe that Jesus's touch will heal him -- in the way that it healed the woman with the bleeding problem, and brought Jairus's daughter back to life. So this isn't a "primitive" story. The people in the story know about the other healings. This particular story is different for some reason. 

We have been told that wherever Jesus goes he is been followed by people who just want to touch his clothes, or be touched by him -- that the roads are now lined with such people. But in this particular case, Jesus takes the blind man away by himself, and performs some kind of medical procedure. He spits in his eyes, and touches him: the man says he can see a little bit, but very imperfectly. Jesus  touches his eyes. This time the man can see perfectly. It's very similar to the story about the deaf man in the previous chapter. Jesus took him away from the crowd; performed a procedure involving saliva; spoke special Aramaic words; and he could hear again. 

The idea of deafness and blindness permeate the first half of Mark's Gospel. On four different occasions Jesus has concluded his teaching with the phrase "If any man hath ears, let him hear". He deliberately frames the parables so that "seeing, they may not see, and not perceive; and hearing they may not hear and not understand". And a moment ago, when the disciples couldn't understand the numerological meaning of the loaves, he told them they were deaf and blind. 

And then, this happens: 

And Jesus went out, and his disciples 
into the towns of Caesarea Philippi
and by the way he asked his disciples 
saying unto them, 
"whom do men say that I am?"
And they answered
"John the Baptist
but some say, Elias 
and others, one of the prophets."
and he saith unto them, 
"but whom say ye that I am?" 
and Peter answereth and saith unto him, 
"thou art the Christ."
and he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

There was an old pulp hero called The Shadow. He probably inspired Batman. In the first novellas he is very mysterious indeed, popping out of the darkness to save his agents from the forces of Crime and disappearing into the night. After about a hundred episodes, there was a special story called The Shadow Unmasks in which we finally learn his secrets. (He is an aviator named Kent Allard who crashed in Tibet and learned the secrets of mesmerism from the mystics there. If you thought he was Lamont Cranston, that's because you have only heard the radio version. I digress.) For several decades more, this was the established backstory: most readers didn't know of a time when the Shadow's identity was mysterious. Something very similar happened to Doctor Who.

Clearly, it would frivolous to the point of sacrilege to suggest that this following passage could be subtitled "Jesus Unmasks." 

Caesarea Philippi is about 40 miles north of Nazareth. It's the furthest Jesus has taken the disciples. The conversation happens "by the way" -- while they are still on the road. But it also seems to have happened "by the way" in a colloquial sense. This isn't a major teaching session. They are talking on the road, and suddenly everything comes to a head. 

Big questions often come up that way. Thank you for dinner. I enjoyed the movie. Oh, and while I think of it, would you like to marry me? 

The disciples' answer is the same as Herod's. The people are saying that Jesus is a prophet. This is no trivial claim. A prophet is someone who God talks to. Prophets wrote the Bible. Moses and Elijah were prophets. Prophets get to tell kings when they mess up. It's just about the biggest thing a human being can be. And the people don't just think Jesus is any old prophet. They think he is a super-prophet. Maybe a recently beheaded prophet come back to life. Maybe an ancient prophet come back to earth. 

All right, says Jesus. That's what the people are saying. But what do you think? 

Peter comes right out and says it. "You are christos". 

We can easily miss the force of this. We are prone to think of "Christ" as a surname. Mark introduced his book as "The Gospel of Jesus Christ"; people who follow Jesus are called Christians. But apart from that opening rubric, the word "Christ" has not been used before in Mark's Gospel. Demons have called Jesus "the son of the Most High" and Jesus has referred to himself as "son of Man". But Peter is the first one to call him Christ. 

Christos comes from chrio, to anoint. It is a direct translation of the Hebrew mashiach: the one who has been anointed. There is no mundane or secular sense in which Peter could be using the word. The only people who get anointed are kings. The mashiach is the king who is going to arise at some point in the future and make Israel Top Nation. We usually render it messiah, but that makes everyone think of Life of Handel. Or possibly Life of Brian.

Mark's Gospel is very old. The idea of it being dictated directly by the historical Peter is a bit romantic, but 60 - 80 CE seems to be the consensus date. 30 - 50 years since Jesus lived and died. The early date puts it as close to Jesus as we are to Bill Clinton's first term"; the late date puts it as close to Jesus as we are to Watergate. It may not be reportage; but it's too ancient to be folklore or legend. There has not been much time for Christian Theology to develop. 

I can't prove this. But it is the conviction I reach as I study the book. That I am reading something old; something primitive; something frighteningly close to the events; so close that awkward bits have not yet been smoothed out. Mark is speaking to a world which remembers Jesus;  a world where "who is Jesus?" remains an unsettled question.

Who do people say that I am? What is the consensus position? If you went out into the street and asked one of Mark's contemporaries what they thought of Jesus, what would they have said? I think that they would have still been saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the Prophets. Mark writes to correct what he sees as a popular misconception. His Gospel is not stating an orthodoxy, but throwing down a gauntlet. This is the good spiel that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.

and he began to teach them, 
that the Son of man must suffer many things, 

and be rejected of the elders, 
and of the chief priests, 
and scribes, 
and be killed, 
and after three days rise again.
and he spake that saying openly. 
and Peter took him, and began to rebuke him
but when he had turned about 
and looked on his disciples, 
he rebuked Peter, saying, 
"get thee behind me, Satan: 
for thou savourest not the things that be of God, 
but the things that be of men."

We have talked about the word anistémi before. It means to "get up" or "stand up" or simply "get out of bed". When Jesus was first staying in Peter's house and we were told that he "woke up" very early to avoid the crowds, this was the word Mark used. It is perhaps understandable that the disciples didn't get this. "Waking up from among the dead" was not a familiar religious idea for them. 

We have also talked about the phrase "Son of Man". Jesus has used it twice before. It might mean "The Man"; it might be an idiomatic way of referring to himself ("this guy"); but it seems mostly to be a royal designation: the title Jesus uses when claiming exceptional authority. The Son of Man can forgive sins. The Son of Man gets to decide what you can and can't do on the sabbath. But now The Son of Man is going to be rejected and killed. 

I suppose that the announcement that Jesus was the Messiah caused some excitement among the disciples. Was there a moment when visions of Jesus on Big Herod's throne, ruling Israel with piety and a simple word-worker's wisdom danced through their heads? (With them, doubtless, as councilors and officers.) If so, the mood doesn't last more than a few seconds. The religious authorities will never accept Jesus as king. They are going to kill him. 

This is not quite news. The Pharisees have been against him from the beginning, and they have been planning to kill him since chapter 3. The announcement that he is King may make us think for a second that Jesus is going to win. But the message comes through loud and clear -- not couched in parables and analogies. He is not going to win. He is going to lose. 

There is some irony in the fact that, immediately after declaring him to be king, Peter starts to tell Jesus what's what -- to rebuke him. It's the same word that was used to describe the calming of the storm. Peter tells Jesus off. We don't hear what he said, but I suppose we can imagine it. He won't accept the idea that the person he has just declared to be Messiah is going to be killed.

So now it is Jesus's turn to tell Peter off. The English word "savour" is a bit of an odd choice here: it means "taste". The Greek word is phreneo: to think, or to have in mind. "You aren't thinking of God's things; you are only thinking of human things." 

If Jesus talks about bread, the disciples think he just means bread. If Jesus talks about kings, Peter assumes he just means kings. He takes everything as literally as possible. He can't see that there could be a different way of looking at things. Of seeing things.  

"Who does everyone else think I am."

"They think you are a prophet. A dead prophet come back to life; a legendary prophet come back to earth, or, well -- just a prophet. 

"Who do you think I am?"

"I think you are King."

"The religious bosses won't accept that. They will turn against This Guy, and kill him. But three days later This Guy he will stand up."

"No, no, no, your majesty. You read that bit wrong. That's not what happens to kings. Kings rule. They establish their thrones in Jerusalem and all the foreigners come and pay homage and..."

"Go away, Satan! That's what kings look like to humans. Not what kings look like to God..."

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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