Blindness XII

The blind man in Mark 8 was healed twice by Jesus. It was a double dose, industrial strength kind of miracle. On re-reading the story, I discovered something that I hadn’t seen before, which I thought might shed some light on our conversation.

And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.” (Mark 8:22-26)

This is the only healing miracle conducted by Jesus in two phases. Two new insights developed as I reread the story. First, the uprooting. In light of our discussions about cleaning off one’s spiritual slate, it takes on a little more meaning and significance. Jesus took the blind man by the hand and brought him out of the village. It seems that the opening of the blind man’s eyes required him to be uprooted from the village. It seems that he had to leave his culture behind in order successfully to see the light. It suggests that it is necessary to be willing to open our minds so that our eyes too might be open. What it really does is raises the question: Which of our preconceived cultural ideas need uprooting, if any?

In the Bible, trees are highly significant and symbolic. Just as light is a metaphor for insight, trees are used throughout the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, as a metaphor for life, prosperity, and stability:

Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)

So as we saw the creation of light and vision, we see the introduction of the concept of trees and their symbolic use throughout the course of the Scriptures. The Tree of Life reappears again in the book of Revelation as the symbol of God-sustaining power. In Psalm 1 we read of trees planted by the rivers of water:

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3)

And:

A man will not be established by wickedness,
But the root of the righteous will not be moved. (Proverbs 12:3)

So we see this concept of a tree rooted and immovable, stable, and sustaining and producing a certain kind of life. There are many other stories about trees in the Bible, such as King Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a great tree. Jesus uses trees several times in His miracles and in His parables, He talked of trees that were withered, trees which grew in certain ways, and so on. Jesus Himself, of course, died eventually on a tree. There’s a lot of important symbolism about trees in the Scriptures.

The other uprooting seen in this miracle is the uprooting of the trees themselves. The trees the blind man sees are not rooted They are walking around. This is not the natural condition of trees. They don’t move. Trees by their nature are fixed and certain, not moving and unsettled. What does this vision of moving and uprooted trees actually mean? In verse 24, the blind man “sees” men like trees walking. In Greek, this verb is Βλέπω (Blepō)—“I look, see, perceive, discern” from a primary verb meaning to look at, to observe, to take visual note of something, to see what is around. But in verse 25, which describes the second phase of the man’s recovery of sight…

Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly.

…the verb “see” is a slightly different form of the word: ἐνέβλεπεν (eneblepen)—to look on, to observe fixedly, or to discern clearly, or to see inward, introspectively. The story might then be re-told in this way: We see the externals of life only vaguely, not like a tree planted by a river or water that shall not be moved, but something vague, transitory, and often (disconcertingly) moving. To see the light clearly, we must look inwardly, to the inner light, where we will see everything clearly.

Is it possible that what we see externally—our religious culture, our spiritual roots and so forth—are vague. seen through a glass darkly, whereas what we see internally is divine and clear? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:22-24)

We see another allusion to this inner kind of vision in this passage:

…we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

This is emphasized in John 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.
[Here is the key verse:] There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

From the beginning of time every culture and every religion has equated light with goodness, and darkness with evil. They use light as a part of their rituals, in the form of fire or candles or lamps or strings of lights. Festivals to celebrate light are common. Is it troubling to think that spiritual clarity of vision comes from within? We look for external validation of our inner light. Does our inner light need verification? Does the inner light need validation? Is it even possible to validate it? And importantly, is it possible to share the inner light and the uprooting that’s required to see—eneblepen—clearly?

Anonymous: Jesus said “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” The inner light is a jewel that is hard to share. Other people can most likely not understand the experiences we have gone through inside so it’s not easy to share with them our deeper moments with God, our insights. They don’t make sense to somebody who did not experience them. The outside is completely different than the inside. That’s what Job said: “Now I see you, God.”

Donald: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to interconnect socially through little boxes on our computer screens, each of us trying to make a contribution to the whole class. I saw one Zoom session where 30 or 40 different people played a hymn on the piano together, concurrently. It was unbelievable. They were each in their own box but contributing to the whole. It was a kind of gestalt moment where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think that relates to what we’re talking about.

The first thing they did was to move the blind man. Christianity has historically been shared throughout the world through the imposition of culture and faith. I think we need to pause and consider what are we really sharing? What are we trying to to have others convert toward? Do we want them to move into our box? Or their box is just fine but we would like to have them see what we’ve come to understand or contribute, and not try move people from one box to another?

Do I need to have you erase your slate and take on what I have on my slate? Do I need to convince you to think my way? Why do we want others to think the same way as us? We use our human culture, we impose our human culture. What does God’s culture look like? Like a cult? Like the Branch Davidians?

Jim: The blind man was uprooted from his community and taken out of Bethseida. This was the first of three times that Christ touched him. First he took him by the hand and uprooted him, took him out of town. This particular town, on the northeast side of Galilee, right in the beginning of the desert there, was a dry place, a place metaphorically lacking in spiritual growth. Jesus actually pronounced a woe upon it. He said if Sodom had heard what Bethseida had heard, even Sodom would have been repentant. So Christ transplanted him out of that sinful place. I think that’s what God wants to do with us. He wants to take us out of the state we’re in and transplant us into a new place where we start again with a fresh slate.

Kiran: Salt doesn’t change soup into curry or curry into apple pie, but it enhances every dish. The dish doesn’t know that it has that much taste. Many missionaries who came to India did not want Indian instruments and music to be played in church. They considered Indian drums to be evil. It was the same in Africa. Being Christian meant being like an American or an English person. Maybe the missionaries were not ill-intentioned, but they tried to change the local culture without understanding the good things about it. They did not think simply to enhance local culture with the gospel.

David: Salt is universal. Every cuisine in the world uses it and knows what it is. God’s culture is universal. It is not Adventist or Catholic or Buddhist. When Jesus took the blind man out of his village, he was not merely taking him out of Jewish religious culture: He was taking him out of parochial human culture, period, and into God’s universal spiritual culture. And he was told never to go back.

What is human spiritual culture made of? It is woven into and out of religions and scriptures. To many, their scripture is the Word of God, the embodiment of God. Christians and Jews and Muslims find the light of their faith in their Scripture. But Jesus is trying to tell us that the light is not to be found there. It is to be found inside us. Were I a practicing religionist, I think that would give me pause.

Don: We look externally for validation of our spiritual path. We see ourselves rooted in external things we can point to, measure, analyze, and share with others. How does one create a spiritual foundation on something which is internal?

Donald: Salt on watermelon and salt on corn are radically different, but if you don’t put it in oatmeal, you’re going to be wishing you had. Salt is an enhancer. In God’s culture, I would speculate that the enhancer would be goodness, kindness, love thy neighbor, end of story. But we want to complicate matters. When I visit Africa I spend most of my time among Africans within their cultures, but I also spend some time with the Adventist community there and I must say I find it reassuring to walk into church and know the sequence, know essentially how things are going to unfold. It’s kind of like hearing your native tongue spoken in a foreign land. It confers a sense of belonging. The difficulties arise when we start saying, no, it’s my [Adventist, Catholic, Buddhist, Moslem, etc.] way or no way. That divides us. God’s culture is not any specific religious culture.

David: If the light of God is to be found inside ourselves, how do we pass it on? Can we share it with the 5,000 individuals at a megachurch service? Jesus told us to look for Him—the Light—wherever two or three people are gathered in His name. That’s where the light can be shared. It’s interpersonal, almost one on one. Two or three is fine, but two or three thousand won’t cut it. I doubt that’s God’s culture.

Dion: Man is spiritually blind by nature. The blind man in the story was blind by nature as well because God had to take him out of his culture, in essence, and his blindness was enhanced because he was immersed in living in that city. To refocus him, God placed His hands over the man’s eyes again and the man stared intently. It shows the importance of internal focus and its intensity. There was an element of nurture missing when he was immersed in his culture. He had to come out of his culture to find it in himself. Sometimes I think just to get rid of our blind nature, we have to let go of things we have learned and refocus on the same things to arrive at a new version of it.

Jay: I agree that there’s a culture of god, that we all have this blindness born of a full slate. The problem is that it’s really impossible to erase our slate completely. We are going to hang on to our biases and cultural influences and so on. It feels like we have no choice but to hang on to these things and let them impact us and shape us and our thought processes. Where we struggle with this in a spiritual sense is in thinking that we will reach a point of enlightenment or attainment or clarity, so we’re always striving for it, for that clear picture of God and what God wants us to do and how we’re to act.

The issue is that as soon as we believe we’ve gotten to this point, it seems we have to reboot the whole thing all over again. Because once we believe that we have this enlightenment, does it not just create a layer of bias, a false sense of comfort or superiority or rightness or truth?

Any individual or organization seeking to continually improve itself goes through a cycle of “plan, do, study, act”. You plan and then you do and then you look at your results, and then you act on your results, and then the cycle begins again. But we don’t treat spirituality that way. We treat spirituality very linearly. The line is on an upward trajectory, and we’re just trying to get to the top. Once we get to the top we’re good, there’s no more room for improvement. If the process were cyclical instead of linear, wouldn’t it change how we relate to other people and other cultures on the spiritual journey with us?

Kiran: After first moving to the United States, I used to go back to India every year, but then there came a gap of four years. I was shocked then to go back and see my native culture. It felt like an out of body experience. I could hardly believe that I myself had been that way once. I guess when God takes us out of our own culture, as He took the blind man, it is in order to make us live, to give us pause to focus internally. Later on, maybe we could go back to our own culture.

Personal problems are cyclical in nature. We mess up, we repent, we mess up again. We behave a certain way, realize it is terrible, change our ways, and then discover we changed only the form but not the substance of our behavior. Spirituality is also cyclical but corporate spirituality—religion—is linear.

David: I would describe spirituality as holistic. Time is a necessary element in linearity and cyclicality, but there is no time in God’s culture–it is eternal and timeless. Through religion, we seek to analyze things of the spirit—things of God’s culture—in a linear, reductionist way; at ever greater depth and in ever more detail. But we’re barking up the wrong tree. Some religions and philosophies, particularly Eastern, take a more holistic approach. Daoism is one of them.

We try to understand God’s culture through the lens of human culture and it just won’t work. God’s mind is not our mind, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We cannot imagine His culture in any depth, we just cannot imagine what it’s like to be eternal, what it’s like to see everything all at once for all of eternity. It’s not possible for us to get our minds around that. So our approaches, even the holistic ones, are nowhere near to capturing God’s culture because we cannot know what it is. That much we can know, but no more.

Jim: Jesus told us we’re the salt of the earth. In other words, we’re supposed to give it flavor. But we think we have no flavor to give because we’re not walking close enough to God. But we see Jesus spitting upon the eyes of the blind man. Saliva has a high salt content. So he was adding to what this man had already because a living being can’t live without a certain amount of salt in the body. So by spitting and adding more salt to him, Jesus gave him him more ability to spread that salt to others.

Dion: One Summer I interned as a microbiologist at a water bottling plant. The water was hardened by calcium and other salts, other than sodium chloride. To soften the water they had a process that used sodium chloride to remove the other salts.

Donald: In some sense, what we’re talking about is creating a word cloud. American culture is the biggest compound word in the cloud, followed by [your religious denomination here]. We tend to want our culture, our religion, our denomination to be the biggest words, rather than accepting all words to be equally valid contributors to the cloud, with which we can interact and share our words, our thoughts, rather than impose ours and obliterate theirs from the cloud.

The Amish and the Maasai have cultures that are pretty well defined. It would take a lot to get them to move toward my slate. Does it matter? Shouldn’t we be looking at their culture to find out what parts of their slates might add their flavor to ours?

Rheinhard: Don’s mention of trees in his opening statement reminded me of the psalm:

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. { Psalm 1:3)

“He” being the righteous man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2). This is the right attitude for those who want to live under the blessing of our loving Father. The psalmist also wrote: “Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!” (Psalm 4:6).

Humans communicate with each other using mostly the eyes and the ears, for light and sound. Through both organs we receive information so we can make decisions about what to accept or do. During Jesus’ ministry on earth two thousand years ago, He talked about those who have eyes but can’t see or have ears but can’t hear His real and good intentions. He condemned the hypocritical Pharisees, whose self-righteousness and religious practices were far from God’s purpose, which is mainly to love God and one’s fellow human beings (Matthew 22:37-39). The Pharisees tried hard to follow the law, to achieve their goal of righteousness through human efforts that could never achieve it. Jesus presented a new paradigm that required a different mindset.
 
When God’s light shines on us we have receptors—eyes—to react either positively or not. The light is a metaphor for the righteousness of God being imparted to us so we may live with a “quality of being morally right”. We may live a life oriented toward God and one’s fellow human beings through faith in Jesus. When one accepts this divine provision, it leads to justification by faith, which trumps the idea that human efforts are enough to satisfy God’s law, because those who live by faith automatically act and think in accordance with God’s will.

I would like to add that I am glad to be able to participate in this class. We are fellow travelers on a long trip, a journey of faith, and the Christian life. We can look on each other, encourage each other, and remind each other to focus on Jesus. Like an athlete doing regular exercises so his/her muscles remain intact, our love and compassion must continue on a regular basis toward each other and others with whom we may come in contact.


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