Although I’m known for griping about the way the lectionary authors pieced things together, I probably should spend more time thanking them. Today is one of those days that I rejoice in the work they did. Our gospel lesson for today (Mark 8:11-26) pulls in three distinct episodes that Mark intended to be read as a unit but that often get split up into fragments that fail to say what they can convey as a whole. As I read all three of them together this morning, I was pushed into a new sense of what God is doing in my own life.
First, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask for a sign, and Jesus says, “Why do you keep asking for signs? You won’t get one.”
Next, the disciples hear Jesus expound upon that encounter by warning them to stay away from the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, but they fail to understand what he’s really talking about and stay focused on their own problems.
Finally, Jesus comes ashore and heals a blind man in stages—first enough to give him blurred vision and then enough to help him see clearly.
Do you think those things come together like that as an accident?
I don’t remember when I first learned that the two-stage healing of the blind man was a demonstrative tool to show the reader the importance of getting “full sight” into who Jesus is, but I’ve carried that with me for a while. I’ve usually read that miracle story by itself and have asked myself, “How am I only looking at the surface? Where does God want me to see deeper?” I’ve also been led to draw connections with the disciples and the crowds—those who see in part but can’t quite get the whole thing. But today, as I see the first, second, and third scenes all strung together, I find myself asking a new question: “How is my demand for ‘signs’ getting in the way of my ability to see the real issue?”
Pharisees want signs. Mark tells us they ask for them as a test, and we know that the authorities who test Jesus aren’t looking for faith but are looking to trap him. They are the “bad guys” of the gospel, and we more easily identify with the disciples. Usually, I think of myself as having the half-way sight of Jesus’ insiders—better than the Pharisees but still not quite where I need to be. But Mark weaves these stories together to put us in the same boat as the disciples AND the Pharisees.
Jesus warns the disciples as a way of saying, “Don’t be like them!” But the disciples’ failure to perceive Jesus’ warning show us that they aren’t really any better. They may not have the animosity of Jesus’ enemies, but they can’t see any more clearly. The Pharisees want physical, this-world evidence. The disciples can’t even think to look beyond the same. Jesus wants to take them to a higher plane of perception, but they are stuck in the same pursuit of the literal.
Like the Pharisees, I’m still looking for signs, but the real problem is that, like the disciples, I’m looking for them in the wrong places. I want God to show up where I want him to. I want my prayers to be answered on my terms. I want God to speak to me in a language I understand. I want God to be conformed to my understanding of how he and the universe work.
To what extent is my faith dependent on everything lining up and making sense in the framework I’ve constructed? Honestly, I haven’t had many ground-shaking experiences. The way I read the bible has evolved. My opinions on social issues have flipped and flopped and flipped back again as the years have gone by. I’ve learned to talk about God with a new vocabulary. But, by and large, I expect God to fit within the system I’ve created. But God isn’t just boundary-stretching; he’s paradigm-altering. The disciples’ inability to get it and the two-stage healing of the blind man suggest that I’m still stuck in the dark ages. How do you look for something you have no way of seeing? For me, it starts with letting go of two important assumptions. First, I must let go of my belief that I fully know who God is. But that’s the easy part. That only gets me in the boat. Then, I have to let go of my belief that as God reveals himself to me in new ways he will do so in ways that I can anticipate.