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08 July 2019

Jesus cures a man… in stages.

Mark 8.22-26.

People are fascinated by healing stories where Jesus cures people with spit. ’Cause he didn’t just do it the one time. Twice he cured blind men with it; here, and in John 9. Previously in Mark he cured a deafmute, and spat in the course of doing it—and while I don‘t believe he spat on the guy, or touched the guy with his saliva, plenty of Christians believe otherwise.

What mainly gets us is the ick factor. Our culture doesn’t think of saliva as sanitary. Even though people spit-shine things all the time—glasses, phones, jewelry, shoes, their children—a number of people cringe at such behavior, because spit has germs in it. And yeah, human saliva has bacteria in it. But it also has a lot of digestive enzymes and white blood cells in it. Saliva protects us from a lot more than we realize.

Whenever Jesus cured people with spit, it was reflective of the ancients’ attitudes about spit. Like us, they cleaned with spit. And when Jesus cured people with spit, it represented cleaning. The Hebrews thought of sickness as a form of uncleanness. It made you ritually unclean for worship, obviously; and if you suffered leprosy you were expected to warn people away with the shout, “Unclean!” and stay away from people and the local well, lest you infect anyone. ’Cause the ancients figured uncleanliness, or unclean living (i.e. sin) caused your illness.

Blindness too. ’Cause let’s face it, sometimes people get stuff in their eyes, and it blinds them. Happens to me every allergy season. In the apocrypha we read where this happened to Tobit:

Tobit 2.9-10 KWL
9 That night I sat shiva, and slept by the courtyard wall because I was unclean. My face was uncovered.
10 I didn’t know there were sparrows on the wall.
My eyes were open, and the sparrows emptied their bowels into my eyes.
My eyes became white as tablets. I went to “physicians,” and they didn’t help me.

Tobit spent the next four years blind, till an angel instructed his son Tobias to cure him by anointing his eyes with fish-gall salve. And while this story isn’t in the Hebrew bible, it wasn’t unfamiliar to people of Jesus’s day: Blindness was related to uncleanness. People had stuff in their eyes. Tobit had bird poop, Paul had scales, Ac 9.18 and everyone Jesus cured had something which needed to be washed away. So, spit.

Yeah, I’ve heard theories the ancients thought spit had magical properties. Did not. People cleaned with it. So did Jesus. When he felt it necessary, he spat.

Nowadays when people ask for prayer ’cause they want God to heal them, sometimes they ask for certain things. They want us to put our hands on their head, or on the affected area. They might want to be daubed with oil. They might want a certain prayer. They don’t actually need any of these things, y’know. They only need Jesus. And sometimes they know they don’t… but it comforts them, and there’s nothing wrong with comforting people. Jesus didn’t need to cure anyone with spit, but he recognized his patients needed it, so he provided, because he’s kind. Let’s follow his example—although I’m pretty sure nobody’s gonna ever ask us to spit on ’em. But you never know.

Oh yeah, the story:

Mark 8.22-26 KWL
22 Jesus and his students went to Beit Chayda.
People brought him a blind man, and encouraged Jesus to touch him.
23 Grabbing the blind man’s hand, Jesus took him outside the village.
Spitting in the man’s eyes, placing his hands on the man, Jesus asked him, “Can you see anything?”
24 Recovering his vision, the man said, “I see people—like trees. I see them walking around.”
25 Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again.
He saw clearly, his vision restored. He gazed at everything clearly.
26 Jesus sent him to his house, telling him, “You ought not enter the village, nor say anything in the village.”

In stages?

The other thing Christians find fascinating about this story is the man wasn’t instantly, totally cured. He was gradually cured. Cured in stages.

It strikes a lot of people as wrong: Isn’t Christ Jesus almighty? Shouldn’t people, when he puts his hands on ’em, be instantly, finally, totally cured? Shouldn’t his healing power surge through them so mightily, not only does he cure the ailment they’re worried about, but everything else gets cured at the same time?—they came to him with partial deafness, but after he’s through with them, their acne also clears up, their occasional indigestion goes away, their hangnails and cavities disappear, they now have perfect eyesight and instant recall, their hair never turns white, and they inexplicably live to the age of 150?

Yeah, I deliberately made it sound ridiculous ’cause it is ridiculous. The only time God’s gonna absolutely, finally cure us of absolutely everything—including death—is at our resurrection at Jesus’s second coming. Till then, the Holy Spirit cures us ad hoc: He cures people of one thing at a time—the one thing he considers necessary. He’ll cure you of the flu, but he won’t necessarily fix your migraines. Or he will fix your migraines, but you’re still gonna have that limp.

He has his reasons for not fixing everything at once. They vary from person to person. For one it’s because he has more to teach them through their suffering. For another (like Job) it’s because he has more to teach others through their suffering. For a third it’s because they’re gonna die; it’s their time; they need to be okay with it. For a fourth, it’s more inconvenient than misery, and they have a whole different lesson to learn. And so on. God’s relationships with his people aren’t always reducible to cookie-cutter formulas, y’know.

So perhaps that’s the deal with this blind guy: Jesus cured one thing, which restored the man’s vision partway. Then he cured another thing, which restored it the rest of the way. First cataracts, then severe nearsightedness.

The other deal is this: Most miracle stories in the bible seem to depict an immediate miracle. Jesus touches people, or prays, or makes a declaration, and BAM, they’re well. Paraplegics can stand up. Deaf can hear. Mutes can talk. Blind can see. High fevers vanish. The dead can have lunch. So many of these stories make it sound like they were cured quickly… so we get the idea every healing happened quickly. And that may not have been the case. Some people were cured quickly; namely where the gospels say it happened quickly. The rest of the time… maybe not.

Here, not. Jesus put his hands on the guy, got a partial result, put his hands back on, and kept ’em there till he got a full result.

So why might the Holy Spirit work like this? Well when he does this sort of thing with us—when we pray for healing, and he cures us part of the way—it’s obvious he’s trying to grow our faith. It’s to get us to keep praying, and not stop till we get an answer; not be satisfied till we see a complete work.

But would that apply to Jesus? Did he need his faith stretched like that?

No. Not that people who write cheesy Jesus movies don’t sometimes depict him that way: To put a little tension and drama into the story, the writers make our Lord sound like he’s not really sure he can cure certain people. But he tries, and succeeds, and hallelujah. Cue the triumphant music.

If Christians don’t bother to read our bibles, and base our beliefs on movies, of course we’re gonna get the idea Jesus struggled to trust his Father. (Not the Holy Spirit, who really empowers miracles; y’notice they never get the Spirit right. Which is a whole other rant.) But the scriptures make clear Jesus absolutely trusted his Father, and the Spirit. And it’d be profoundly hypocritical of him to rebuke his students for their tiny faith and huge doubts, when he had such doubts. But he had no such thing. Jesus didn’t need his faith stretched at all. His faith is absolute. He wants our faith to be just as absolute.

So if the point was to stretch faith, whose faith needed stretching? Anyone who witnessed this miracle. His students. He blind man. The folks who’ve been reading Mark ever since he wrote it 1,950-some years ago. Us too.

Don’t stop till you get enough.

I translated ἀναβλέψας/anavlépsas (KJV “he looked up”) as “Recovering his vision” because that’s what other ancient Greeks meant by it. Herodotus, Plato, Aristophanes; all these guys used the word to describe someone who didn’t just look up, but whose eyes worked again. The ana- prefix generally means “up,” as in “looked up,” but can also imply getting one’s strength back up. In this case, in the eyes. So no, the blind guy wasn’t previously looking down all the time—or staring at nothing, like they way actors who never did their research will typically play blind people in movies. Before, his eyes weren’t up to the task. Now they were.

“I see people—like trees. I see them walking around.” Mk 8.24 I translated it this way (similar to the KJV’s “I see men as trees, walking”) instead of the NIV’s ridiculous “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Do walking trees, outside of Lord of the Rings movies, make any sense? Seems some translators lack sense.

This man wasn’t so blind he couldn’t see something so massive as a tree, but people weren’t so easy. After Jesus did his thing, now he could see people.

It may be other faith-healers tried cleaning this man’s eyes to see what results they might get—and this was as good as they got. He could see shapes and forms. Not much more; nothing distinct. And it may be, up to this point, Jesus hadn’t actually done a miracle yet: He simply cleaned the guy’s eyes with his spit, and this was as far as a natural cure would get ’em. So now it was time for the Holy Spirit to take things further.

Hence Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes, and now he could see everyone and everything. People looked like trees no more. He could distinguish faces. He had his eyesight back.

It’s likewise our duty, as God’s followers, to push the Holy Spirit as far as he’s willing to go. Jesus taught us to pray for things and not give up. Lk 18.1-8 So when we get what look like partial answers to our prayers, we gotta likewise pray through to the full answer. Persistently. Stubbornly. Being partly cured isn’t the same as cured.

And yet some people are perfectly satisfied with slight improvement. Which is why they’re not entirely cured, even though the Spirit is entirely willing to cure them. Never settle! Keep praying.

Christ Almighty!