Even after the disciples have seen Jesus calm the storm and walk on the sea, even after they have eaten miracle bread, they don’t understand. They don’t know what we know – that Jesus is Son of God.
The problem isn’t a lack of evidence. They have plenty of evidence to draw the right conclusion.
The disciples don’t understand because they have a heart problem that produces an eye and an ear problem. They have hard hearts; and because of that they are blind and deaf to things that are right in front of them.
Hard-heartedness is the disease of Pharaoh, and of Israel when she becomes an Egypt. Israel becomes blind and deaf when she worships eyeless and earless idols.
The disciples come down with the same infection. Despite seeing Jesus still storms, walk on water, give food to thousands, despite the fact that Jesus explains His parables to them, they end up as hard-hearted, blind, and deaf as the rest of Israel. They can’t share the work of Jesus the deliverer until they are first delivered. They can’t help Jesus deliver Israel until they are first delivered.
Not even Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God. Matthew gives us the full confession of Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Mark gives us only the first part: You are the Christ. Even at this high point, Peter doesn’t recognize that Jesus is the Son. Even when they confess Jesus as Christ, they’re blind to Jesus’ full identity. Even as Peter confesses, he’s of the devil’s party without knowing it.
We have a hard time sympathizing with the Twelve when they don’t understand the miracles on the sea or the miracle of the bread: “How dense can they be?” we wonder. When Peter recoils at the thought of Jesus being rejected and killed, we’re likely to recoil along with him.
Playing the stronger man – that’s what a Messiah is for. Going to Jerusalem to be arrested, rejected, mocked, tortured, on the other hand – that’s the least Messianic fate we can imagine.
At this point especially, Peter and the rest of the Twelve need to be given new hearts, eyes, and ears. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter gets the answer right: Jesus is the Christ. But Peter doesn’t know anything unless he sees the full answer: “Jesus is the Christ who must suffer and die and rise again.”
Neither do we. Unless we know Jesus the rejected Christ, we don’t know Jesus at all. Knowing that the Son of God is the stronger man who casts out demons, stills storms, feeds multitudes isn’t enough. Unless we know that being “Son of God” means being mocked, rejected, scourged, spit on, our hearts are still hard, our eyes blind, our ears deaf. Unless we know that Jesus is strongest in weakness, we don’t really know the stronger man.
But the disciples’ condition isn’t hopeless. Peter does get partway to a confession of Jesus when he identifies Jesus as the Christ. His answer to Jesus’ question is incomplete, but it’s correct.
Besides, Jesus heals the blind. Just before Peter’s confession, Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida. It’s a strange healing. Jesus spits on the blind man’s eyes and lays hands on him, but the man is only partially healed. He sees, but men look like trees walking. Then Jesus lays His hands on his eyes, and he can see clearly.It’s another parable, like Jesus walking on water, like Jesus feeding the multitudes. Jesus is showing his disciples how He’ll heal them. Right now, they have only partial sight; right now, everything is fuzzy. Jesus looks like a tree walking. Eventually He will heal their hard hearts and give them eyes to see and ears to hear. Then they will see Jesus as He is, and know the full answer to Jesus’ question.
But their healing is just as paradoxical, just as jarring, as Jesus Himself.
Jesus isn’t going to Jerusalem alone. These hard-hearted, blind, deaf disciples, including Peter the channeller of Satan – they’re all going to follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, where they have to be prepared to take up crosses of their own. Like Yahweh leading limping captives from Babylon, will lead a procession of the blind and deaf to Jerusalem.
For the Twelve, “take up your cross” isn’t a metaphor. They have to be ready to take up real crosses and literally share the sufferings of Jesus.
This is the only way to gain life. Trying to preserve life by holding back, being self-protective, seeking your own interests, being ashamed to be associated with Jesus – that is the way of death because it is the way of the devil. Life will come only if they follow Jesus to the cross, so they can share in His resurrection.
This is how they will come to see, hear, understand. This is how their hard hearts will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Not by parables, not by miraculous signs, not even by hearing about the cross of Jesus. They will see clearly only as they enter into the cross and share in the sufferings of Christ.
What goes for the Twelve goes for us. This is the second Sunday of Lent. Lent is a 40-day season of preparation for Good Friday and Easter. Lent is the time during the Christian year when we devote sustained attention to the sufferings of Jesus.
In the light of this passage, we can say that Lent is set aside for overcoming hardness of heart, blindness, and deafness. We spend forty days a year seeking a renewal of our senses, learning to see and hear and understand.
For us as for the disciples, the way of healing is the way of the cross. We don’t get fresh eyes and ears by seeing the strong man in His strength. We don’t get hearts of flesh by listening to Jesus explain parables. We can’t learn the answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” in a classroom or from dazzling signs. We can’t know Jesus rightly if we try to know Him from a distance.
We are healed only if we, blind and deaf as we are, take up our cross to stumble along beyond Jesus on the way. We learn the right answer to Jesus’ question by sharing His sufferings. We discover Life only by losing it.