Today's meditation and retelling comes from Mark 8:22-26.
Preorder "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
This story gets only four verses, so of course I embellished a lot—we know nothing of this man’s name, family situation, or the circumstances surrounding his blindness. But we do know a little more about Bethsaida: in Matthew 11:21, Jesus rebukes it for the fact that they did not repent, despite the mighty works that had been done in the city. When Jesus fed the 5000, the wilderness was just outside of Bethsaida, so presumably many of those 5000 men, plus women and children, lived there.
While there are plenty of other examples of Jesus getting a person alone or putting away the crowds in order to perform a miracle, this story is unique in that it is the only time recorded where complete healing did not manifest on Jesus’ first attempt. In the case of the woman with the issue of blood, all she had to do was touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she was instantly healed. The Centurian’s servant was healed by a word at a distance. And yet Jesus had to take this man by the hand, lead him out of town, and then intentionally lay hands on him twice in order for his healing to fully manifest. The deficiency could not have been on Jesus’ side, so presumably the blind man himself was the problem. Since Jesus had rebuked the town of Bethsaida, and then told the newly healed man not to go back there, I assume that the town itself contributed to this man’s unbelief. We know from Jesus’ reception in his hometown that unbelief hinders mighty works (Mark 6:4-5), so this was probably why Jesus didn’t want this man to return there. Those who receive healing have to know how to stand when the devil tries to devour them again (1 Peter 5:8).
Bethsaida could not have been all bad, though: it was the home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44). And at least two people did have faith that Jesus could help this man, since it said “they” brought him to Jesus—but there is no indication that the blind man himself sought his healing. This was surely part of the hindrance as well. But he allowed himself to be led out of town by the hand by a complete stranger—that took faith. There were a few other people around besides him and Jesus, since he saw “men as trees walking.” Still, he probably felt vulnerable. What if Jesus left him out there? Could he find his way home again, stone blind as he was?
Why did Jesus spit on and touch the man’s eyes? He spit on the eyes of the man born blind also (John 9:41), but when Jesus had been holding his hand all the way out of town, why would he then need to do anything else? It might have been because the man’s faith had been primed to expect a healing touch (Mark 8:22). Jesus had intended to go to the Centurian’s house when the Centurian sent a delegation to say he believed that Jesus’ word at a distance was enough. The Syro-Phoenician woman likewise believed her daughter was healed when Jesus spoke the word only. The woman with the issue of blood put her faith in touching the hem of his garment. Jesus had said, “According to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29). So perhaps this man’s faith was that he would be healed when Jesus specifically touched him for that purpose.
In Mark 8:24, Jesus told the man to “look up” (anablepo in Greek). This was the same word used when Jesus “looked up” and broke bread before feeding the 5000, and it means not just looking up physically, but looking into the unseen realm, where there is “every spiritual blessing in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). This was the moment when the man could see clearly—in fact, the word “clearly” is telaugos, meaning shining, radiant, or in full light. Perhaps bolstered by the initial improvement in his vision the first time Jesus laid hands on the man’s eyes, he then had hope—and “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Now, he could truly see—in every sense of the word.
Healing of the Blind Man at Bethsaida
Before the accident, I had been a carpenter, with a specialty in fine furniture.
That was an understatement, actually. My name was synonymous with elegant wood carvings in Bethsaida, and even in the surrounding cities. I attracted only the wealthiest clientele. Young hopeful apprentices sought me out, hoping to learn from the master. I’d gruffly rebuffed them for years, even though I was pleased by their interest and flattery; I considered them to be more trouble than they were worth. As time went on, though, I had more clients than I had time, and I realized that it made good business sense to bring on an apprentice. I interviewed several, and chose Ugo, the most eager of the bunch.
That was the biggest mistake of my life.
Ugo worked hard, but he was always in a hurry when he wasn’t actually carving, and so he was accident-prone. I could not make him slow down, no matter how hard I tried. One day in his haste, he collided with a precarious pile of unfinished wood, sending a beam hurtling directly toward his head. On instinct, I knocked him out of the way.
I should have let it crush him.
When I came to, I thought at first that I was in a pitch dark room. Yet there were people all around me, commenting fretfully on my appearance. That was when I comprehended the awful truth.
“I can’t see,” I blurted. “Why can’t I see?”
“Shh, lie still, don’t overexert yourself,” the doctor soothed.
“Why can’t I see?” I bellowed, straining against his hands. “Will my vision come back? It’s only temporary, right?”
There was an awful silence. Finally the doctor murmured, “I really can’t say. But I’ve seen injuries like this before, and… usually not.” There was a long pause. I felt like he’d knocked the wind out of me. Then he murmured, “I’m so sorry.”
I lay back against the soft pillow under my head in shock. People moved about somewhere nearby, speaking to one another in low whispers.
“I’ll kill him,” I snarled at last. Then I shouted, struggling to my feet, “I’ll kill that foolish bumbling idiot! Where is he? Where’s Ugo? Put his neck in my hands, right here—!”
A collection of louder voices and large hands forced me back onto my bed, though I bucked and strained against them until I’d spent the last of my meager strength. I at last lay panting and sobbing until I cried myself to sleep.
In subsequent years, I grew used to my condition, at least. I had a new routine. I had done well enough while I worked that I was not yet beggared, though I knew the time would come when I would be, if not for the charity of my brothers’ families, who cared for me. From time to time, I wondered if I was already living off their charity, but I spared little thought for that or for anything else. My life was darkness, both literally and figuratively. I slept, ate, and sat, waiting for the days to end. I had neither joy nor hope. When I thought at all, I brooded over what I had lost. I gnashed my teeth when reports reached me of how prosperous Ugo had become. All my clients were now his. He had utterly ruined my life.
Oh, how I wished I could kill him.
One day I overheard my brothers talking about a young rabbi, whom they heard was a new prophet in Israel. I snorted.
“There are no more prophets in Israel. Not for hundreds of years. God has abandoned us.”
“What about John the Baptist?” my brother Jacob insisted. “People said he was Elijah.”
I scoffed. “Elijah did miracles. John never did. He wasn’t a prophet.”
“Well, Jesus does miracles, from what I hear. Lots of them!”
“I doubt it,” I muttered.
I knew what the reaction to this would be. Jacob got very stubborn when he was contradicted, and I contradicted him daily. He’d called me a curmudgeon even before my accident, and accused me of becoming ten times worse afterwards.
“You can doubt it if you want, but if he comes to Bethsaida, we’re taking you to him, whether you like it or not!” Jacob informed me.
I uttered under my breath, “I’d like to see you make me.”
But I thought about it later. A lot.
I started to casually ask Jacob, always in a mocking tone of voice, if he’d heard of any new miracles this Jesus had “supposedly performed.” Jacob always had an enthusiastic response for me, often of entire crowds receiving their healing at his hands. He particularly highlighted the stories of eyesight restored. I realized that I started looking forward to these stories as the highlight of my days. Then one night, I dreamt that I could see again. I hadn’t had a dream like this in many years.
I dropped the mocking tone after that when I asked for stories of Jesus. Then I started asking Jacob, as casually as I could, if he’d heard anything about Jesus coming to Bethsaida.
“Nothing yet,” Jacob told me, with a tone of sympathy I hated. “I’ll tell you as soon as I hear—”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said savagely, “It’s all nonsense anyway.”
Abigail, my sister-in-law, scolded me. “You don’t mean that. You’re just trying not to get your hopes up. But maybe you should! Maybe that’s exactly what you need!”
“What do you know about it?” I lashed out at her. “When have you ever been disappointed? When did you lose your entire life in the literal blink of an eye? Don’t you dare lecture me about hope!”
“That’s enough!” Jacob roared as I heard Abigail’s quick, light footsteps leave the room, “never speak to my wife like that again!”
I huffed, crossing my arms over my chest, turning away from the sounds of his voice.
“Sorry,” I muttered about five minutes later. I knew he was still there, as I hadn’t heard him leave. “I know she was just trying to help. But—really! No one understands!”
“If you’d take half a second to get out of your rut of bitterness, there might be a chance for you yet,” Jacob said quietly. “I didn’t tell you this, but before I knew anything about Jesus, he was already here in Bethsaida. And you know what he said about us? He said woe to us, that he did all these miracles and we didn’t repent of our sins and turn back to God. He said—this is what I heard, anyway—‘it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgement than for you!’”
I absorbed this, and then felt my whole body deflate. “Then he’s never coming back,” I croaked.
“There you go again, seeing the worst in everything!” Jacob snapped, “that’s not what I said, and that’s not what he said! My point is, he wants repentance! And your whole life now is a big ball of ‘woe is me,’ because something bad happened to you, and hatred for Ugo because you think it’s all his fault. Yes, something bad happened to you, and yes, it was Ugo’s fault,” he cut me off as I was about to protest, “but it was an accident, and you need to forgive him and let it go instead of letting it consume the rest of your life! Even if you never get your sight back! Then, maybe, if you ever do meet Jesus, you’ll be in a position where you can receive from him!”
I recoiled like he’d struck me. It was, possibly, the first time he had ever successfully rendered me speechless.
Jacob took advantage of the opportunity and stalked out after Abigail, leaving me to absorb his words.
We barely spoke for the next few days. Abigail brought me food, and left. I thought Jacob also came to check on me, but he never spoke to me. On the third day, when I heard footsteps, I called out irritably, “All right, fine! You were right! I’m sorry! …Are you happy?”
The steps came back. “What was that?” Jacob trilled, his tone all exaggerated sweetness.
I huffed. “You heard me.”
“Yes, but I’d like to hear it again. I want to savor this moment for ever and ever…”
“Shut up,” I muttered, but felt a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. “I’m not saying I forgive Ugo, though. I will never forgive him. Not for as long as I live.”
I could hear the shrug in Jacob’s voice. “Suit yourself. It’s not doing him any harm.”
I heard another set of footsteps behind him. I recognized them as belonging to my other brother, Caleb. He sounded like he was in a hurry.
“Jacob, Jesus is in Bethsaida! Right now!”
“What?” Jacob gasped, as I caught my breath. “I haven’t heard that!”
“Because he just arrived! Come on, I know where he is!”
I had already leapt to my feet. Jacob and Caleb took me each by an arm, and hurried me forward a bit too quickly. I stumbled, and Caleb had to catch me.
“Slow down so I don’t fall over,” I muttered, hiding my almost painful excitement beneath my usual gruffness.
I hadn’t been truly out in a crowd in years. The sound of chatter, laughter, shouts, children, and animals assaulted my ears when we got outside. When I had first lost my vision, it had been very strange to know it was daytime, and yet still not perceive even light, as I once did through closed eyelids when the sun streamed down upon me. I was used to it now, though—the world was universal blackness. Now that there were obstacles everywhere, though, I felt terribly vulnerable. My brothers shielded me from the crowds on either side, and I heard them pressing through, apologizing, and from time to time murmuring to me, “Watch your step, down here,” or “careful, big rock next to your left foot, there you go.” Finally when we must have been close enough, Jacob cried out, “Jesus! Rabbi—let my brother touch you, please!”
My heart hammered, though I felt completely overwhelmed by all the sensory input I had lacked for so long. Jacob let go of my hand, and I felt a sudden wave of terror, even though Caleb still had me firmly by the other hand.
“This is your brother?” said a new voice. It was calm, steady, authoritative. Inexplicably, it set me at ease.
“Yes, Rabbi,” said Jacob, “and as you can see, he is stone blind. But if he can just—”
“Let me take him from here.” A new hand took my free one, and I felt Caleb let go too. The stranger began to pull me away, slowly enough that I did not stumble, but inexorably.
“Where… are you taking me?” I managed.
“Outside of Bethsaida,” he answered.
“Are my brothers with us?”
“No, I left them behind with most of my disciples to restrain the crowd,” the man answered. “There are a few still with us.”
I should have felt frightened by this, but somehow, I wasn’t. The murmur of the crowds behind us began to die away.
“Are you Jesus?” I asked at last.
I thought I could hear slight amusement in his reply. “Yes, of course. Did your brothers not tell you they were taking you to me? Did you think they would leave you with just anyone?”
I relaxed a little. “They did tell me. I was… just making sure.” Then I added, “Why are we leaving town?”
“Because you have enough of your own unbelief to overcome, without the influence of that town on top of it,” he said, a hint of a growl in his tone. “They are not a healthy influence at present. This is far enough,” he added to the other disciples. “Now.” I heard a sound I recognized as spitting, and then felt the unexpected sensation of wet fingertips on my eyelids. I almost recoiled, but then understood what must be happening. “Do you see anything?” he asked me.
I opened my eyes through the caked mud and gasped, blinking very fast. “Light! I see light!” I started to laugh. “I haven’t seen anything but darkness in five years—”
“What else?” Jesus asked patiently.
I turned my head this way and that, squinting from the sudden brightness. I saw one short form in front of me, probably crouching. Behind him, I saw three tall dark shapes moving.
“I see men like trees, walking,” I said at last.
The one in front of me—Jesus, I was sure—reached forward and touched my eyes again. “Look up,” he told me. “Not physically. I mean, look up.”
I looked up literally, because I didn’t really understand what he meant otherwise. But as I did, I thought back—not just to before my accident, but long before I was a master craftsman. I thought back to when I used to play with Jacob and Caleb in the fields when we were children, bathed in golden sunlight, laughing so hard my sides hurt. Not a care in the world.
I looked back, and saw the man before me. He was young, dressed as a rabbi, with dark hair and beard, and kind brown eyes. My own eyes filled with tears.
“I can see you!”
Jesus smiled, and one of his disciples behind him let out a low whistle. “Phew, I was starting to get worried!” the disciple said, in a joking tone. Another disciple smacked him on the arm. “Just kidding,” the first disciple protested. “You have to admit, that was a lot harder than usual…”
“Don’t go back to Bethsaida,” Jesus told me, ignoring the antics of his disciples. “Go your way, back to your home.”
“Are you kidding me?” I laughed, “I want to tell everyone!”
“You can tell your family, but not the people of Bethsaida,” Jesus warned. “They will make you doubt your healing. I want you to keep it.”
I blinked, sobered. “I want that too,” I murmured, a little confused. “I… guess I could start my business again in another town. Let Ugo—keep my clients here?” I choked on this last sentence, but it somehow felt right, as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Jesus smiled and gave me a tiny nod of approval.
“Now, you can see indeed,” he affirmed.