("Walking trees" along the shore of Loch Lochy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.” Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Out of all the healing stories in the Gospels, this is one of my favorites, for two odd reasons. One is simply that Jesus had to make two runs at healing this blind man.
From a medical standpoint, I wonder if the man was blind from Chlamydia trachomatis, aka trachoma. It's often inherited trans-vaginally during the birth process (one of those "sins of the father/mother" sorts of things) and causes granules to form on the cornea. Before the advent of antibiotics, most "cures" involved physically removing the granules in some way.
In fact, I'd put my house payment on that was what was wrong with the guy, and oddly, my comfort with that speculative knowledge gets me flak from both ends of the religious/non-religious spectrum at times. My non-religious friends point with glee that there was no miracle at all, it was an ordinary medical cure of the time. My more evangelical friends tsk-tsk and shake their heads at me that I don't believe it was a "miracle." Neither end does my feelings about this justice.
First of all, a miracle does not have to be defined in terms of a magic trick. Modern medicine produces miracles all the time. What we now think of as simple garden variety generic antibiotics, at the time they were introduced, were, indeed, miracles. They alleviated death and suffering in a way not previously known. It's just a fact that yesterday's miracles are today's old news. In fact, a lot of antibiotics are no longer miraculous when it comes to certain organisms, because the bacteria have become resistant. I really believe there is a temporal aspect to miracles. They are miracles because they happened in a frame of time or history that this was not the expected outcome.
Second, knowing and believing there is a scientific principle to the healing miracles of Christ does not cheapen or dilute them in any way. Part of the miracle in this story is that mostly, the world in that place or time did not bother themselves with blind people. For Jesus to stop and interact with that man is another form of miracle--to see humanity in a way different than the typical rank and file person on the street.
But oddly, I really really like that it took Jesus two runs at curing this man's blindness.
I don't like some of the theological takes in this story that the reason it took two tries was because of some perceived lack of faith in the blind man. There's nothing in this story that even hints that the blind man is skeptical or unfaithful. I mean, for crying out loud, all the man did was admit the truth--that he could see a little but not a lot.
I honestly think it took two tries because it simply took two tries to remove enough of the granules...and there's no harm or denigration of Jesus because of that.
I think of my own relationship with God, and the true healing I've experienced in this relationship...and I can't think of a single time God did anything "healing" to me that got accomplished in one shot. Or two, for that matter. I think we are talking many, many runs at me to get me healed. Yet I feel healed by the grace of God just the same. I don't sit around and grump about "Well, gee. If God's grace were really worth a damn, he would have fixed this the first time."
Seems to me that we need a Jesus who is persistent enough to take more than one run at us, in our spiritual and psychological blindnesses. Honestly, I don't need a Jesus who takes a powder when I don't straighten up the first time, or dumps it back on me for not being faithful enough. That's not a loving relationship. That's abuse of power.
The other thing I like about this story is simply that the blind man spoke up that he was better, but not cured. I am so used to making do with the leftovers. I've told the story to you before about how it was well into my teenage years that I discovered most people think of over-easy eggs as the "good" fried eggs and the broken yolk ones as "failures." I have always been used to not getting the best product, being okay with the store brand instead of the name brand, and getting the "good" brand as a closeout or overstock. It seems to me the blind man had a pretty difficult choice to make in terms of speaking up or not. It would have been easy to think, "Well, I'm less blind than I was, so I guess I'd better shut up and say that's good enough." We forget that the blind in this era were not just visually handicapped, they were ostracized, ignored, and blamed for their own "sins" or carrying their parents' sins.
But our man in the story spoke up and told the truth. "Wow, it's better, but these people don't look like people. They look like trees walking." He gave Jesus accurate feedback which shaped Jesus' next move. I am impressed he did that. What right did an outcast of the times have to tell the great healer, "It's still not quite right?" Well, in the secular world of the day, none. In the religious world of the day, pretty much none, also, because it was clear people with infirmities were "unclean" in some way--that is why they could read the Torah in public or stand at the bima. I have to hand it to him for that.
It begs a great question. What do we do when we begin to "see" things in a new or undiscovered way? Do we settle for what we get, or do we speak up? Have we ever considered the possibility that God desires honest feedback from us, and is big enough to handle it?
It took me many years to be comfortable "praying angry," or "praying hurt," and it took me forever to even broach "praying when I was sobbing so hard any innocent bystander wouldn't have understood a word I said." For so long, I felt I had to be all emotionally squeaky clean when in the presence of the Almighty--that I had to use complete sentences and sound prayerful and look grateful. I am still no good at all doing that in the presence of other people, but I'm at least comfortable doing it off by my lonesome. I think it is because there were people in my family that if you cried, you became vulnerable and that set you up for being attacked, or the flip side--there were people in my family that if you did not "cry to their specifications," your feelings were somehow not as valuable, and they, the emotional, tearful ones in the family, well...their feelings were more important than yours then.
Cry and be stabbed and left by the side of the road for it, vs. don't cry and be devalued over the one crying. What a dilemma!
But as we learn to pray angry, pray hurt, pray with tears, and pray when we smell our own decomposition in our noses, something happens. We become less afraid to admit "Well, I only see people that look like trees, walking." When we work with a Jesus whom we discover doesn't mind a bit to take two, three, or 327 runs at us, we stop insisting on "all or nothing" as the result of our prayers. We stop clinging to the "my way or the highway" position for the difficulties in our life, and start engaging in a two way relationship with God--and even if the best it will ever be will be to see people like trees, walking, we discover we are not alone in our semi-blindness.