In those rare cases when a person blind from birth receives physical sight later in life—through, say, an operation—the newly sighted person is not able to make sense of the apparent chaos of visual impressions that suddenly invade his or her consciousness. It takes an extensive period of experimentation for such a person to learn how to interpret the visual data. Learning cues about space, distance, and texture, and coordinating these impressions with what we hear and feel—all this takes a considerable period of trial and error.
In short, even on the physical, organic level, we human beings have to learn how to see. The rare experience of an adult having to go through this developmental task helps us realize that learning how to see is one of the marvelous achievements that most infants accomplish early in life.
Even after we learn the basic physical skills of seeing, we continue to learn how to see. Early on we learn how to read expressions on faces. A pilot learns to read the sky better than most of us. An experienced nurse can see symptoms of illness the rest of us might miss.
All of these dimensions of physical seeing have led many cultures to use physical sight as a metaphor for understanding. We do that spontaneously when we suddenly catch on to an explanation and say, “Oh, now I see,” or even, paradoxically, “I see what you're saying.”
This metaphor is so deep in human discourse that all four of the evangelists use sight as a symbol for Christian faith. Believing is the deepest kind of “seeing.” The early Church called baptism enlightenment. This shows up in the way the evangelists treat Jesus’ healings from physical blindness. It comes through loud and clear in all four Gospels that Jesus physically cured blindness. But the evangelists are not content simply to narrate those cures as marvels of the past. In their narrative hands, these accounts of healing from blindness become images of a healing process that happens through interaction between the risen Christ and any Christian.
We meet a powerful example of this symbolic use of blindness and vision in this Sunday’s Gospel, the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus at Jericho. For two chapters prior to this account, Mark has been presenting Jesus on the road with his disciples. On the way, on three separate occasions, Jesus speaks of his approaching passion, death, and resurrection. Each time one or more of the disciples show some gross failure to comprehend what he has just said.
And each time, Jesus takes them aside to teach that following him entails losing one's life to find it, carrying a cross, becoming the servant of all. In other words, Mark presents us with a picture of the disciples as spiritually blind. They do not really see who Jesus is and what he is about.
When we look at how Mark has arranged the elements of his story of Jesus it becomes evident that this is his deliberate theme. He has taken the two cures from blindness and placed them like bookends on either side of the segment about the spiritual blindness of the disciples. The keynote is sounded in the conversation in the boat, when Jesus asks, “Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” (Mk 8:18).
Then follows the curious account of the blind man who is cured in two stages (seeing first partially, then fully). This parallels the situation of Peter, who in the next episode becomes the first disciple to see that Jesus is the Christ. Then, when Peter fails to see how suffering fits the Messiah, he demonstrates that his vision is, at this stage, only partial. The failure of the disciples properly to see what kind of Christ Jesus is (a suffering Son of Man) comes to a head in the blindness of the Zebedee brothers’ request for top positions in the glory of the kingdom.
Enter Bartimaeus. This beggar sitting beside the road shows immediately that he “sees” at least as much as Peter when he addresses Jesus with a Messianic title: “Son of David, have pity on me.” Jesus instructs the crowd to call him. When he springs up, throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus, Jesus asks him the same question he recently asked the Zebedees: “What do you want me to do for you?” But this blind man knows enough to say what the Zebedees should have said, “Master, I want to see.”
Mark’s point: if you fail to see Jesus as the suffering Son of Man and what that implies about following him, pray that your blindness may be healed.