In the Gospel of Mark the disciples are often depicted as perplexed by the meaning of Jesus’ parables and deeds. There are several miracles of transformation – represented by deafness to hearing or from blindness to sight. And there are two miracles of abundance – feeding 5,000 and then 4,000 people. For each situation, Jesus needs to explain to his inner circle the social and theological meaning encased in his teachings. The crowds are rarely privy to these explanations, and several times Jesus prohibits people from speaking about what they have experienced, as if to deliberately prevent the disclosure of his divine identity or social significance. Whether the obscurity in Mark is due to lack of understanding from disciples or concealment by Jesus, the result depicted at the end of the each story is amazement, silence, and fear (Mark 16:8).
When Jesus warns of the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod he becomes frustrated with how those closest to him seem unaware of what they are hearing and what they’ve been witnessing. Jesus exclaims, “Do you still not perceive or understand?… Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18). When Jesus asks his disciples why they fail to hear or see, I suspect the gospel is reflecting our anxiety about comprehending the meaning of events that don’t correspond with our expectations or with the existing order of things. I have frequently doubted my ability to comprehend the meanings of what takes place in the gospels. But if we focus too sharply on intellectual understanding or disability and ability, then I think we miss the artful way Mark’s narrative beckons its audience away from those anxieties and toward active religious life.
How does Mark do this? Certainly these questions are for Jesus’ disciples, for the first century audience hearing the gospel of Mark narrated to them, and they’re for us. But what are we being asked to hear and see?
We can ask ourselves the riddle implied by the gospel: What has ears but does not hear? And what has eyes but does not see? Whether the audience was Jewish or mixed Jewish-gentile, they would have caught the connection to idols, images, and likenesses. And from the perspective of Jewish tradition, an idol is a simulation of life, lacking genuine spirit – a counterfeit double.
By associating the disciples with the image of an idol, Mark is drawing attention to the difference between simply being alive – by appearance – and living with the spiritual and emotional integrity that faith requires. Like the prophets before him, Jesus is trying to awaken people from a spiritlessness that grips society. To his Jewish community, Jesus is constantly pointing to the depth of spirit and the call to justice that their tradition proclaims. To the gentile communities, Jesus assures them that they too, as creatures of God, are exemplars of faith and full participants in divine life and love.
A very peculiar event in Mark’s gospel makes more sense when we consider this distinction between a spiritless idol and a spiritually animated person. When Jesus restores the sight of the blind man at Bethsaida, it takes him two tries (Mark 8:22‒26). First Jesus puts saliva on his hands and touches the man’s eyes and asks him, “Can you see anything?” The man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus touches the man’s eyes again and the man’s sight is fully restored. Apart from the theologically awkward (or humorous) problem of Jesus’ inability to heal on the first try, we have a condensed tale of a process of transformation. The lesson is not the miracle, but what the man recounts. First, the disciples are likened to a lifeless (wooden) idol, then we are given this image of people who are not quite static, lifeless carvings, but also not yet truly alive – they are like trees walking. The full transformation or awareness can be said to come in the next passage when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and they respond with faith.
Simply hearing or receiving the gospel is apparently not enough, as we learn from the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1‒9). People who truly experience the divine (who receive the word) must be animated by what they receive – like the seed that falls on good soil and bears fruit. The question being asked by the eighth chapter of Mark is: Are you animated to respond to the divine life with all your humanity or do you remain unmoved like an idol or ridged and aloof like trees walking?
Interestingly, hearing and seeing are emphasized in Mark while speech is often discouraged. After Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and they say he is the messiah, he sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him (18:29‒30).
But showing caution around speech is not the same as restricting communication. The purpose of this concealment and perplexity is not to obscure the divine life. Rather, I believe the purpose is to encourage a creative, animated, even passionate, response.
The gospel author is saying, “Who do you say Jesus is? But don’t say it out loud! – say it to yourself inwardly, and go and communicate your answer outwardly by who you are becoming through your actions (now that you are receiving Jesus’ message) and by how you are with others.”