The church has historically placed the disciples of Jesus in positions of honor, even referring to them as saints. Yet, when we read the Gospels, and particularly the Gospel of Mark, we find a somewhat different picture of them. This is not to say that the disciples should not be viewed as central figures in church history, for they were certainly the framers of the early Christian movement. But an honest reading of the Gospels shows us that they had real difficulty in understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about.
Mark 8:22-10:52 is a theologically rich portion of Mark that has a few distinct characteristics. First, the passage is framed by two stories of Jesus healing blind men, a feature I will address shortly. Second, it is in this section where Jesus predicts his coming death three times with great detail. Third, in this subdivision of Mark, the disciples are more noticeably shown as misunderstanding Jesus and his mission, especially in light of his death predictions. All three of these characteristics from Mark 8:22-10:52 come together to say something about the necessity of embracing vulnerability to understand the authentic Jesus.
The two stories of healing two blind men that frame this section are interesting to say the least. The first one (Mark 8:22-26) is odd for it is a miracle that takes Jesus a couple of tries to perform. Though he touched the blind man in an attempt to heal him, the blind man cannot see clearly, and Jesus must touch him a second time. While we may recoil at the thought of Jesus having to retry to heal the man, as if somehow his power to heal the man the first time was short-circuited, the story functions as an important theological point and introduction to this major portion of Mark.
The touching of the man twice serves as an introduction to the theme of the essential blindness of the disciples to Jesus’ teachings about his death and about the meaning of discipleship. Each time he predicts his death, they do not understand him, and they even reject his words. Jesus must come back to them each time and teach them what it means to be a disciple.
Moreover, the disciples are so consumed with their own interests in their own spiritual superiority, pride, power, and exclusiveness that they not only fail to see clearly who Jesus is, they also fail to realize that understanding the mission and message of Jesus requires one to embrace vulnerability. Their failure to understand is seen even more plainly in the second story of Jesus healing a blind man.
Mark 10:32-52 begins with Jesus once again predicting his death. But in response to his words, James and John come to request something of Jesus. Instead of being shocked by Jesus’ words, they continue to misunderstand and to seek for their own. Jesus responds to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They answer by asking for places of honor in the kingdom.
After explaining to them that he cannot grant their request, and after he once again makes clear that he will give his life as a servant, Jesus and the twelve encounter a blind man sitting on the side of the road. When Jesus calls the man to come to him, he poses the very same question to him as he did to James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man simply replies, “I want to see again.” He does not seek glory or power, as did those closest to Jesus; he merely wants to see.
This story clearly shows that the disciples, who seem to be insiders who are present with Jesus at crucial moments, and who are privileged to hear the secret teachings of Jesus, are really outsiders, who constantly seek their own interests, their own comfort, and their own glory. They refuse the vulnerability to which Jesus calls them, and in doing so, they are blind to the authentic Jesus and to who they must be in response to Jesus.
In stark contrast to these intimates of Jesus, the minor characters in Mark’s story, like the blind man, are those vulnerable individuals on the fringes of that society who seem to understand the authentic Jesus. Though they appear to be outsiders, they are really insiders, who recognize Jesus and his mission.
To see the authentic Jesus we must embrace vulnerability that opens our eyes to the vulnerable Jesus. Embracing vulnerability, however, means we reject our self-interests, our need to lord over others, our propensity to use violence, and our intolerant and exclusive attitudes towards others. But we must also reject a Jesus we have crafted to fit our own prejudices and preconceptions. To know the authentic Jesus, the vulnerable Jesus, means we must also become vulnerable.