People Look Like Trees Walking Around?
– Looking at the Healing of the Blind Man from Mark’s Eyes

Dr Ng Wai Yee

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

 

Mark 8:22-26 gives us an extraordinary record of how Jesus healed a blind man “progressively”. This miracle occurred outside a village (v.23a), so it took place against a backdrop of trees and people. Jesus first spat on the blind man’s eyes so he could see, but the blind man could not see clearly (v.23b). Jesus then put His hands on the blind man’s eyes. This restored his sight completely and he could see everything clearly (v.25). But in between the two actions, Jesus asked the blind man, “Do you see anything?” The blind man looked up and said, “I see people, they look like trees walking around.” (v.23c – 24), meaning, “I can see (people walking), but I cannot see clearly (so they look like trees)!”

Mark recorded this dialogue vividly in a passage consisting of just 5 verses, and this dialogue stood out, dividing the entire passage into two parts, making it all the more clear that the healing of the blind man is progressive. What does this mean? If we see Jesus’ miracle as simply a display of power, we will be confused: why didn’t Jesus heal the blind man completely the first time round? But if we are familiar with the Bible, we will know that Jesus’ actions are often beyond our expectations, and the authors of the Bible would usually bring out the subtle meaning in their narration. If we look carefully at how Mark told this miracle, we will notice that he has not emphasised on the miraculous power here, but on Jesus’ love and care for the blind man: He took the blind man by the hand and led him to a quiet place; He put His hands on the blind man and spat on him, He spoke to the blind man and touched his eyes (v.23-25). In this progressive healing process, we believe that Jesus wanted the blind man to experience His intimate personal guidance. And this is the emphasis placed by Mark when he recorded this miracle.

Coincidentally, another passage appearing only in the Gospel of Mark also brings out the same emphasis. In Mark 7:31-37, a man who was deaf and could hardly talk came to Jesus for healing. Jesus also treated him caringly in the same way: Jesus took him aside, away from the crowd, then put His fingers into the man’s ears, spat and touched the man’s tongue, then looked up to heaven with a deep sigh for him, and with this he opened the man’s ears and loosened his tongue (v. 33-35). In this passage, Mark also stressed the love and compassion of Jesus and even used words very similar to those used in Mark 8:22-26. If we look at these 2 passages in the macro context of Mark 6 - 8, we can see how the two passages echo each other to bring out Jesus having mercy on and saving the weak. Isaiah’s words will inevitably come to mind: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:5-6).[1] It would appear that Mark has intentionally laid out the passages in such a way that readers will realise that Jesus is the one prophesised by the Old Testament prophets, that He is the Messiah that God gives to His people in the last days. Can we see this clearly?

Jesus’ question “Do you see anything?” appears to be a pun! In Mark 8:22-26, these words reflect Jesus’ patient, progressive guidance to the blind man. But in the macro context of Mark 6 - 8, this question carries a deeper meaning: it reflects the disciples’ blindness and Jesus’ unfailing guidance to them all along. Mark has told us that the disciples had already been following Jesus for some time, “seen” His miracles, “heard” His teachings, and yet they still failed to recognise His true identity and constantly misunderstood His words. Mark 6 – 8 repeatedly mentions that the disciples “do not understand” (Mark 6:52, Mark 7:18, Mark 8:21), and we hear Jesus’ rebuke: “… Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:17-18). The disciples received Jesus’ revelation, yet they were like the blind and the deaf, so foolish that they could not understand. They really needed Jesus’ continuous guidance and healing. This is one of the key themes in Mark 6 – 8.[2]

When we come to Mark 8:22-26, the passage about the blind getting healed is like a turning point, marking the point of enlightenment in the disciples’ path of following Christ. In Mark 8:27-30, Jesus “took” the disciples to Caesarea Philippi, resembling how Jesus took the blind man to outside the village earlier. It is there that Peter finally “saw” Jesus as the Christ (v.29), similar to the blind man seeing people! Yet, Peter still “couldn’t see clearly” that Christ would have to suffer (v. 31-33), because to Peter, the will of God is like “people look like trees walking around”, blurred and unclear. In the days to come, the disciples still required more of Jesus’ teaching, forgiveness and healing to finally come to grips with and fully comprehend the entire revelation.

The healing of the blind in the gospel of Mark is the disciples’ path to revelation in miniature, both being “progressive” in nature. In the same way, “people look like trees walking around” is also a portrayal of our spiritual sight, reflecting how “blind” we can be on the path of knowing Christ and how much we too need the progressive guidance of our Lord, and the laying of His loving hands on our spiritual eyes, so that we can see His will more clearly.

 

 

 


[1] Many scholars take the view that these two passages constitute two paired narrations, and can even be viewed as constituting a parallelism structure with the two episodes of the breaking of bread (Mark 6:35-44, Mark 8:1-10). Please refer to W.L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1974), 286-87.

[2] R.T. France pointed out that commentators mostly believe that Mark’s narration carries this symbolism. (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 322.) Please also see Mark 4:12.

 

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