As a good charismatic, faith is excitingly experiential. We gather weekly to hear about healing through prayer, though it doesn’t stop there; we actually practice it! As a pastor at a charismatic church for many years, one of the toughest challenges was watching the unsuccessful prayer consume the faithful participant. They wondered why their prayer had not been answered. Why did the cancer patient not get better? Why did the broken bone not supernaturally mend back together? A common reprise of pastors in the charismatic movement is, “Well, even Jesus had to pray twice!” (I am also guilty). This suggestion is in reference to Jesus’ healing of a “Blind Man” in Mark 8:22-26. The phrase implies that Jesus, filled with exceedingly more power than his mere followers, didn’t always get it right the first time. In a sense, even Jesus needs round two. Consequently, if Jesus needed a second round then certainly his followers would as well. However, I think this is a misreading of Mark’s narrative; and pastors, and subsequently their congregants, have inappropriately given theological significance to a practice that is otherwise absent in the New Testament. It should be noted that this is not to disavow the supernatural, but to call into question a theological position of some charismatic adherents (myself included).
Here’s the story in Mark 8:22-26 (Key Text):
“ 22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
Mark’s gospel follows the popular Greco-Roman writing genre of “biography” (Gk. bios), and just like other biographies of its day, Mark presents his biography as a narrative, complete with a narrator, setting, plot, themes, and characters. For Mark, the recurrent theme of vision/“seeing” (Gk. blepō) is the determining factor in delineating between believers and unbelievers. In Mark 4:11-12, it is the insiders (i.e. Jesus followers) who are “given the secret of the kingdom of God,” while the outsiders (i.e. unbelievers) “indeed see [Gk. blepō], but do not perceive.”
Our key text, like any good narrative, builds upon the story preceding it. Mark 8:14-21 describes a scene of worried disciples fearing that the masses (and themselves) will starve since they have “no bread.” Interestingly, this story is a near doublet of Mark 6:30-44 where the disciples again having “no bread” watched as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish for the five thousand. The narrator is careful to remind his readers of the disciple’s past failure in Mark 6: “Having eyes do you not see (Gk. blepō), and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve” (Mk 8:18-19). For Mark the disciples are blind (“Having eyes do you not see”) and stand as outsiders like those in Mark 4:12 (see above).
The “Blind Man,” a faceless and nameless character, in our key text is contrasted strongly with the blind disciples of the preceding story. In the end it will be the “Blind Man” who will—quite ironically—“see!” The “Blind Man’s” miracle works in stages purposely: from complete blindness (like the disciples) to partial “sight” (v. 24, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking”), and then finally to full “sight” (v. 25, “his sight was restored”). A major theme of Mark’s narrative is the continued failure of Jesus’ disciples, and this key text affirms what Mark has shown to this point in his gospel…that the disciples continue to miss the reality of Jesus’ power and identity, yet a “Blind Man” gets it. Secondarily, the key text is a turning point in Mark’s gospel. The first eight chapters of Mark show that nearly all the characters—except the otherworldly demons (3:11; 5:7)—cannot perceive Jesus’ true identity. It is only when the “Blind Man” can fully “see” that the narrative changes pace and sight becomes available, even for the blind disciples. For example, in the very next episode Peter can confess Jesus as “the Christ” (8:29) showing his blindness has been lifted. This “full sight” of Jesus’ true identity will now be unveiled through the revelation of Jesus’ teaching and ultimately his death to the end of the book. As a narrative, and more importantly a “biography” (bios), the “Blind Man” plays a significant role for the plot. Jesus’ double prayer, then, is not a nod to his failure as a healer (unlike the disciples in Mark 9:18), but a literary ploy to show the revelation of Jesus’ identity is being disclosed.
So, where does this leave us with prayer and unsuccessful healing? Unfortunately nowhere, since the text itself doesn’t seem to speak to this issue. So, though my reading of this text may not lead us to a helpful answer, we’ve at least eliminated a bad one! Though on a side note, the pastor’s reprise about Jesus having to “pray twice”—with all of its good intentions—attempts to eliminate the tension we feel between the God who acts and the God who is sometimes silent. This is unfortunate as it is in the deepest moments of frustration that the God of the universe becomes tangible. For “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:4). We are not to run from the frustration of prayer, but to embrace it. We are in good company with our frustrated friend Job who laments, “16 My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness,17 although there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure” (Job 16:16–17).