The Spit of the Rabbi

What kind of physician spits on their patient’s wounds in the process of healing them? What minister today would incorporate the act of spitting into a ritual of healing? We can ask ourselves these questions as we confront Jesus’ puzzling gesture in a reading from Mark 7:31-37. The Healing of a Blind Man. 

The Story

Here’s the story. Jesus is north of Israel, in the pagan cities, Tyr and Sidon. He travels southeast and enters another pagan territory, the Decapolis. This is a region of ten cities (from deca + polis – ten cities) southeast of Jesus’ home base in Capernaum. The Decapolis was a large Roman province and generally speaking not a place where Jews frequently traveled. 

But Jesus goes there. And when he arrives, he is already known. This is because in one of his previous excursions (see Mark 5), he entered this region and healed a violent man notoriously afflicted by a legion of demons. After the healing, Jesus sent the man back to his region to tell the story of what Jesus had done for him.

So now Jesus was known in certain circles in the Roman Decapolis. Thus it was that as he entered that region he was soon greeted by a crowd of people who bring him a deaf man who also suffered from a speech impediment. They begged him to lay his hand on the man. 

Perhaps they wanted to see a spectacle. They were pagan. They believed deities with mighty powers could move about among men. If this was their intent, Jesus does not oblige them. He takes the man aside, apart from the crowd. 

One imagines Jesus ducking into a small village home where he could be in private. The next line tells us why Jesus wanted privacy. Because what he was about to do would have shocked a normal observer.

A Private Encounter With Jesus

Here’s the scene. Jesus, alone with the deaf man. He would have looked into his eyes, since the man couldn’t hear. The man had never heard of Jesus before, because deaf men can’t hear stories. But now he was seeing him, face to face, as a friend. He would have seen that sparkle dancing in Jesus’ dark eyes. Would have looked upon that gentle face. That calmness that was at once serene and powerful. 

Jesus gazed back upon the deaf man, like a loving physician who knew what ailed him and who had the power to heal it. The man would have sensed that Jesus was a person he could trust.

Jesus lifted his two hands. He put his fingers into both of the man’s ears. 

Try this now, as you read. Put one finger in each of your ears. Feel that sensation. Now, imagine you are deaf. You have never heard a sound all your life. You have never heard of Jesus. But now you see this man in front of you. He is the very image of confidence, goodness, power. He touches your ears. That sensitive skin on the side of your head. These ears have never served you any purpose, but now you feel the touch of this man who looks to be a healer. Who looks and acts like a man of God, though you don’t even know who God is. 

And then this man does the unthinkable. He spits. Probably into the index finger and thumb of his right hand. He takes that right hand. He gestures to you to open your mouth. You open it. He gestures to extend your tongue. You extend it. He places his thumb and his index finger upon your tongue. 

Nonsensical act! A Jew touching his spit to the tongue of a pagan. It’s no wonder Jesus does this gesture in private. It would have been so easily misunderstood. So easily a source of scandal. 

But Jesus is not finished. He lifts his gaze to heaven. He sighs deeply, the sigh of a man who prays often, alone, before the Almighty. The sigh of a man who can pray in the ineffable groans of the Spirit. 

He then issues a command. In Aramaic: 

“Ephatha!” 

It’s an imperative. In the passive voice. It’s not a request. It’s the Lord of creation issuing an edict to creation, as a King might command the opening of a palace door. 

“Be opened.” 

At once, creation responds. The realm of the physical obeys the order of the Creator. The man’s ears open. His barrier to speech drops. He speaks plainly. 

The people, when they later see this and hear of it, erupt with wonder. They broadcast the news, not suspecting that there may be a deeper meaning here. 

But their reaction is not the story I want to ponder.

Why Spit?

What I want to ask is this: why the spit? Why on earth did Jesus spit and then touch the man’s tongue? On what basis? To signify what?

To me this puzzle is deep. What does it mean?

Three parallels come to mind and then perhaps a deeper backdrop. 

First, just one chapter later, in Mark 8:23, Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida. Again, we see the same pattern. Jesus leads the man outside the village, affirming that he surely did the same sort of thing to the deaf man. He leads the blind man outside the village, alone. He puts spittle on the man’s eyes, an act which leads to his healing. So we can be certain: the odd detail of Jesus using his saliva in the act of healing others is no accident. It’s something he did. More than once.

Second, John’s Gospel reports a similar tale, in a different place. John Chapter 9:6. Jesus is in the midst of his journeying and passes a man blind from birth. He spits on the ground, makes moist clay with his saliva and smears it on the eyes of the man. Then sends him to wash his eyes in the pool of Shiloh. The man is healed and can see from that moment.

Again, saliva used in the act of healing.

So I ask: why? In multiple places in the Old Testament, spit is given a negative connotation. I find no obvious prophetic backdrop to this act of healing with saliva. Nothing like Jonah’s experience, 3 days in a whale, which lends prophetic meaning to Jesus’ 3 days in the tomb. No, it seems to me that the puzzling use of spit has no clear prophetic basis. To the contrary, it would naturally have lent itself, then as now, to being misconstrued in a negative way.

So why does Jesus do this?

A third passage, from John 8, begins to suggest the response. Here’s the gist of what I want to say:

Jesus is not a typical physician, not a typical preacher. He doesn’t need to couch all of his actions in modes readily deemed acceptable by the crowd, by the medical establishment, by religious norms. He can sometimes defy all these. 

The fact that he does so, the fact he sometimes flies in the face of convention, is powerful evidence of his magnificent and serene authority. 

Here’s another way of putting it: If this man who walked the earth and said to his disciples: take this bread in you, it is my flesh. Take this wine in you. It is my blood. And when you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will dwell in interior communion with me and the Father who sent me (see Jn 6:55-57 and Lk 22:19-20). If he can say this about his flesh and blood, then does it not also stand to reason that his saliva possesses healing powers? 

If he is the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, if the touch of his hand upon a leper disperses leprosy, what will be the effect of the touch of his saliva upon a mute tongue or a blind eye?

So now to my third parallel. John 8:1-11. A band of Pharisees brings a woman before Jesus who just moments earlier had been caught in the act of an extramarital sexual encounter. The law, they said, commands that she be stoned. 

“What say you, Jesus,” they demand. 

Jesus does the non-sensical. The non-sequitur. The baffling. 

He says nothing. He bends down and writes in the dirt with his finger. 

They persist in their questions. Jesus rises, he says “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” He then bends down again and continues to write in the dust.

To write what?

He spits on patients. He writes in the dust with his fingers when challenged to give an interpretation of the Law. Why?

Because he wrote the Law with his finger. He etched, in tablets of stone, in communion with the Father, the 10 Commandments. He is the author of the Law and he is the interpreter of its Spirit. So he knows that the Law ultimately is oriented toward its highest expression, towards mercy and the transmission of life, not the taking of it. 

This passage holds the key to our question. Jesus defies our categories. He transcends them. He is the Logos, he is the second person of the Trinity. He uses his saliva to heal people because every aspect of his sacred humanity has the dunamis of life, the power to transmit life. There is nothing impure that comes from his mouth. Nothing improper. All of his nature is spirito-phoric. It transmits the Spirit. 

He does all things well, in ways different than any human person could.

What About Me?

I wish I could be like that deaf man. I wish I could come in contact with any physical aspect of this wondrous person. Perhaps that is the message. That we should draw near to any means we have of making physical contact with the Logos. 

And here lies the great gift of the Eucharist. The man who touched the ears of the deaf man, who raised his eyes to heaven and sighed a deep desire of his heart, who touched the mute man’s tongue with water from his own mouth, he, the icon of the invisible, the second person of the Trinity, he has left for us a Sacrament of his Presence. A concrete point of contact. Raw physicality capable of imparting his divine life to us.

Just as God the Father once did to Adam, physically blowing the breath of life into his nostrils. Imparting life to him (Gen 2:7). 

Prayer

Jesus, draw me apart, in my heart, away from the crowd, into a personal encounter with you. Draw me to the Eucharist, this encounter where you give me your flesh and your blood, where you touch my tongue with the power of your divine love. 

Let your word echo over me; let it be to me according to the way you speak into the hearts of your saints.

Neal Tew

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