Monday, February 16, 2009

A Second Touch

It is at least partially because of passages of scripture like the 8th chapter of Mark's gospel that I love to study the Bible and am thankful that such study is an enormous part of my life's work. Mark 8 is a literary masterpiece.

At first glance, Mark 8 begins with the kind of story that we expect to find in the gospel. It is a story which many people who don't attend church or study scripture have probably at least heard before. In fact, this story is so common to accounts of Jesus' life that we've already heard a similar story once before in Mark gospel. Just a chapter and a half earlier (Mark 6:33-44) we heard a story about how Jesus fed five thousand men plus the women and children who were with them. Now at the beginning of chapter 8, Mark tells an almost identical story about a crowd of four thousand people. And therein lies the first clue that there is more going on in this passage than just another miraculous feeding.

This miracle begins much like the one in chapter 6. Jesus feels compassion for the people because they have been several days without food and are far from home. Now at this point, if we have been paying much attention at all to Mark's story, we should be able to anticipate what Jesus is going to do next. After all, he fed well over five thousand people not much earlier in the story. Certainly, he can handle four thousand. We would expect Jesus' disciples to anticipate this as well since they were there when Jesus performed the earlier miracle. But much to our astonishment, when Jesus states that he wants to feed the people the disciples don't say "Awesome! Jesus is about to do another miracle!" Incredulously, they say "Where will anyone be able to find enough bread here in this desolate place to satisfy these people?" What? Are you kidding me? Didn't you guys see what Jesus did before? I can only imagine Jesus rolling his eyes in strained patience as he says again "How many loaves do you have?".

After Jesus feeds this mass of people, Mark decides to show that the Pharisees aren't too far ahead of the disciples in their understanding of Jesus. The Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him for a sign from heaven. I suppose feeding four thousand people out of almost nothing wasn't quite good enough for them. Not surprisingly, Jesus refuses to show off for them when he has just done a miracle and they completely missed the significance of it.

Unfortunately for the disciples, Mark isn't quite done emphasizing their cluelessness just yet. Jesus and the disciples are headed to the other side of the lake in a boat. On the way, Jesus tells the disciples to be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Yeast was seen as a corrupting agent in ancient Jewish culture. One's entire household had to be rid of leaven before the passover meal so that the unleavened preparation would not be contaminated by it. Therefore, Jesus is using leaven as metaphor for the disciples to guard against the corrupting influences of the Pharisees and Herod. He is saying that the house of Israel must be cleansed of their corrupt way of doing things. However, the disciples think that Jesus is scolding them for not bringing more than one loaf of bread with them for the journey. I have to imagine that even Jesus' patience wore thin that day. "Why are you talking about not having enough bread? Didn't you see what I just did? Twice!"

Next Jesus and the disciples encounter a blind man. Again, the healing of a blind man is exactly the kind of story we find in the gospels again and again but this particular episode has a twist. Apparently, Jesus' first touch of the blind man is not enough to heal him. When Jesus asks the man if he can see after he touched his eyes, the man says "I see men, for I see them like trees walking around" The man has sight now but its still a little fuzzy. Is Jesus suddenly experiencing a lack of healing power? Jesus places his hands on the man a second time and this time the man is able to see everything clearly? Why the need for a second touch?

The very next story that Mark tells is a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus asks them "Who do people say that I am?" They tell him "John the baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets." But then Jesus cuts to the chase and asks the disciples directly "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answers boldly "You are the Christ". This is a high point in Mark's gospel for the disciples. Finally, they seem to be getting it. After failing to grasp Jesus' amazing power in so many previous episodes, Peter finally gets it right. He is the first human character to recognize Jesus for who he really is.

But then Jesus begins to talk about how he must suffer and die. Peter isn't too fond of that kind of talk. And not just because Peter isn't willing to die for Jesus. He may very well be ready to do just that. But Jesus can not die. Peter has just proclaimed his belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the conquering hero whom God has sent to deliver Israel. Peter might die along side of Jesus in battle but Jesus can't die because if he does then that means that all of Peter's hopes and dreams for Israel will have failed. If Jesus dies, then its game over, there is no hope for Israel to be an independent nation with a God given king instead of the pagan Roman emperor and Peter takes Jesus aside to tell him as much.

Jesus' response is to actually call Peter Satan because he has his mind on man's interests rather than the interests of God. Once again, Peter has misunderstood who Jesus is and what his mission is all about. Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ demonstrates that he has begun to see Jesus for who he really is but like the blind man in the previous story, his vision is still a bit blurry. Although, Peter is beginning to see, he will need a second touch, the touch of the resurrection if he is going to see Jesus clearly.

So it is with us as well. Most of us in the Church today have been following Jesus for a very long time; many of us our whole lives. As a result, we think we know Jesus. But incredulously, when we come to difficult points in our lives or the life of our church, times very much like ones that Jesus has carried us through before, we wonder how Jesus could possibly do anything for us. Jesus response: Give me what little you have and watch me multiply it just as I have done for you time and time before. But even when we are obedient to that command, even when we finally see Jesus in all his glory and power and like Peter we are eager to confess Jesus as the Christ, the savior who has come to deliver us, even then our vision of Jesus is not yet complete. We need a second touch of healing for we need to see that Jesus is not all glory and power; that he is also compassion, mercy, brokenness, and weakness. And he calls us to be the same if we are to be his followers. Only when we take up our own cross and trust in Jesus to lead the way no matter the costs will we really be able to see him clearly.

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