Exploring the surrounding context can help us to understand a particular Bible passage. It is worth noting that Mark’s Gospel contains two episodes involving blind men (Mark 8:22-26, Mark 10:46-52). Even more noteworthy is that the two accounts bookend, or frame, a section of the narrative. Often referred to as the “way section”—since Jesus and the disciples are making their way to Jerusalem—the unit begins with the two-staged healing in Mark 8:22-26 and concludes with the healing of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52. Not only is the section set off by two healings, it also incorporates three passion predictions (Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:32-34). In each instance, Jesus reveals that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Following each prediction, the disciples fail to grasp Jesus’ teaching.
This intentional literary structure suggests that Mark has a rhetorical effect in mind. The healing accounts that frame the section, along with the repetitious passion predictions and misunderstanding, indicate that the episodes are best interpreted together.
As Mark’s story unfolds, the clarity of the divine plan develops. However, Mark reveals Jesus’ fate from the early stages of the narrative (Mark 2:20, Mark 3:6, Mark 3:19). The irony is that while the audience becomes aware that Jesus must die, the disciples remain confused or at times directly opposed to the notion of a crucified Messiah.
The tension between Jesus’ teaching and the disciples’ misunderstanding is an undercurrent of the narrative that is never resolved. To emphasize the disciples’ lack of understanding, Mark uses a number of techniques to expose their inadequacies. For example, Mark sometimes employs a character’s physical condition (such as imperfect sight or hearing) to symbolize a broader theological concept. In particular, during Mark’s “way section,” blindness functions as a metaphor for the disciples’ lack of understanding. This relationship is made explicit by Jesus’ own words in the scene immediately before the two-stage healing: “do you still not perceive or understand?…Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” (Mark 8:17-18).
In view of these connections, many scholars argue that the two-stage healing provides implicit commentary on the disciples’ spiritual blindness. Their confusion about the mission and identity of Jesus, as well as their own role within the kingdom, indicates that, like the blind man, their vision is still partial. Though called to be with Jesus (Mark 3:14) and invested with the mysteries of the kingdom (Mark 4:11-12), the disciples are in need of a second touch.
The literary section of Mark 8:22-10:52 offers hope that, like the blind man, the disciples will be restored to full sight. The audience may not find that restoration in the “way” section or the remainder of the Gospel, but texts like Mark 14:28 and Mark 16:7 allude to it. At this juncture in the narrative, the passion predictions and final two encounters in Mark 10:35-45 and Mark 10:46-52 reveal the disciples’ continued lack of understanding. In the exchange with James and John (Mark 10:35-45) and his conversation with blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), Jesus addresses the parties with essentially the same question: “What is it you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36; see also Mark 10:51). To their shame, James and John request positions of power. In stark contrast, Bartimaeus simply requests to see. The profound irony and discrepancy between the responses is not lost on the audience, who recognizes that only Bartimaeus has responded appropriately, for to “see”—to discern spiritual matters—is far more important than political maneuvering.
Although the two responses further expose the disciples’ impaired vision, the Gospel of Mark is not concerned with resolving the tension. Rather, the disciples’ incomprehension emphasizes that the Markan Jesus can only be understood in light of his death on the cross.