Sunday, February 9, 2014

Uses of Spit

John 9:6-7
When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing.
Mark 7:32-35
Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
What do you think about the way Christ our Lord uses spit to heal these two men? I suppose some people think this is undignified, or perhaps disrespectful. Some probably shake their heads at this apparently needless jiggery-pokery, or the suggestion that something was lacking in Jesus' miracle-working power that had to be made up with showmanship and pandering to lowbrow magical thinking. But I submit that those people are tough to please. The people who witnessed the Mark 7 miracle "were astonished beyond measure, saying, 'He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak'" (v. 37). Opinion was more divided about the miracle on John 9, because it happened on the Sabbath; so John reports that "some of the Pharisees said, 'This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.' Others said, 'How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?' And there was a division among them" (v. 16). The fact that saliva was involved did not seem to move anybody one way or the other.

Spit, after all, has its uses. If you spit on your eyewear before going snorkeling or SCUBA diving, the lenses won't get fogged up. If you rub tobacco juice on a baseball before pitching it, you can change its aerodynamic properties. A touch of spit adds needed mass to a small paper missile. A little spit helps bring out the shine when you're polishing leather shoes. Spit can still help you seal some mailing envelopes, though you no longer need to lick the stamp. A well-aimed loogie can express disgust, disrespect, and defiance. Shaking hands on a wad of spit can help cement a promise. What mother hasn't applied a spit-moistened hand or handkerchief to her child's dirty face or mussed hair? And of course, without spit, it would be difficult to chew, swallow, and taste food. Spit is a wonderful thing. And the Son of God adds even more honor to spit by including it in His miraculous cure of the deaf-mute and of the man who had been blind from birth.

Why would Jesus need to involve saliva in these memorable deeds? To ask this is to admit our weakness and frailty. We are impatient with whatever we do not readily understand. We question, we doubt, we second-guess. We are ready even to criticize the one Man in all history who is perfectly good and holy. We do not know our place, even in relation to the sovereign God. But I believe the Lord will bear patiently with our weakness and allow us to consider this troubling question.

In the Mark 7 instance, in my opinion, the reason is simply this: Jesus was communicating with the deaf-mute man. Matthew 20, Mark 10, and Luke 18 tell us how one or two blind men approached Jesus near Jericho. Before restoring their/his sight, Jesus asked, "What do you want me to do for you?" He then told them, "Receive your sight." According to Mark 5, Jesus told a woman who came to him with a hemorrhage, "Be healed." Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 5 report how Jesus told a leper, "Be cleansed." In Luke 4, Jesus rebuked a demon who had possessed a man, saying, "Come out of him!" I like to speculate—but mind you, this is only a guess—that when Jesus put his spit on the deaf-mute's tongue and stuck his fingers in his ears, he was saying something to him in a crude sort of improvised sign-language: something between, "What can I do for you?" and "Be opened!"—then he actually said the latter aloud, in Aramaic, perhaps a language that the deaf-mute man could lip-read.

So what use was Jesus' spit in the Mark 7 instance? At the very least, I think it was a form of communication, like the spit in a hand-shake, or in the eye of an enemy. It sent a message that the deaf man could hear loud and clear. It was a sign that carried the force of a word. And with God, a word is powerful indeed.

What about the blind man in John 9? Surely sign-language doesn't come into it. The man wasn't deaf. And he wasn't immediately healed, either; instead, Jesus instructed him to go to a certain public fountain and wash his face. This miracle brings to mind how Elisha sent a messanger to the Syrian leper Naaman, instructing him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5). It bears an even closer resemblance to the healing of Saul who, after being struck blind on the road to Damascus, had to wait three days for one of the Christians he had intended to persecute to come and heal him, and then baptize him. Again, this is more hocus pocus than Jesus sometimes needed to get the job done. He healed the blind man, or men, of Jericho by words alone.

On the other hand, there was the blind man of Bethsaida, in Mark 8: Jesus not only had to spit on his eyes, but had to put his hands on his eyes twice before the man's sight was fully restored. After the first try, the man said he could see men like trees walking around. It's a rare blooper that suggests that a little human frailty bled over into Jesus' divine work, particularly before His glorification from Easter on. It suggests that Jesus held back from doing all that was in His power as God, even while demonstrating that power in acts of renewal and purification. Or perhaps the Mark 8 "blooper" really was as Jesus intended it, a deliberate "double miracle" illustrating the immensity of what he was doing by not only restoring sight to a man who had been born blind, but also repairing his ability to make sense of what he was seeing.

Likewise, Jesus' admission that he "could do no mighty work" at Nazareth (Mark 6:5) is qualified by the added remark, "except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them," and further explained by the unbelief he was up against. While believing wasn't necessarily a prerequisite for receiving one of Jesus' healing miracles, he frequently honored people's faith by saying something like, "Your faith has saved you," as he sent them away healed. Actually it was His power, His free choice to act, and His word of command that healed them. But Jesus evidently did not feel compelled to throw away his miracles on unbelievers. He did not approve of casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). According to Luke 23, Herod wanted to see Jesus do some miracle; but when he had Jesus in his power, he couldn't get a word out of Him. Funnily enough, the blind man in John 9 came to faith some time after being healed by Jesus. Perhaps—and again, this is a guess—this was an instance where Jesus wanted to put some distance between Himself and the patient before the healing took place. It cleared the stage for the big public drama that followed, revealing the conflicting opinions among the Jews, presenting the formerly blind man and his family with an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, and finally furnishing Jesus with an opportunity to call an unbeliever to faith.

Jesus could be subtle at times. It's impossible to know all that He had in mind. Isn't it amazing to think that He began such a far-reaching event by rubbing a little spit in a blind man's eyes? And isn't it also interesting to see that, at least some of the time, He allows stage business, and rituals, and physical means to go between His miracle-working power and the object toward which it was turned? He told the ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests; they went, and on their way they were healed (Luke 17). He dealt with the God-fearing centurion through messengers (Luke 7); and in that case as well as that of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7), He delivered results without even seeing the person He was healing.

You don't have to hear Jesus' audible voice. You don't have to see His visible face. You don't have to feel the touch of his physical hand. You certainly don't need to be moistened with His physical spit. Nor do you need to wash in the pool of Siloam to get the particular cleansing you require of Him. Jesus can send His healing Word to you through intermediaries. He can cleanse you through seemingly pointless rituals. He can reach you even through a corrupt priesthood. He can hit His target at a distance. He can send you, as it were, out of His presence just the same as you are, unhealed, unconvicted, unbelieving, and still His power works on you as you go your way, like the seed that grows in secret (Mark 4:26-27), and like the leaven that penetrates the lump of dough (Matthew 13:33).

Even if you are such a person that God, in His justice, should not even care to spit on you, Jesus freely and willingly applies His blood, tears, sweat, and even spittle for you, just when and how as He chooses. Be reconciled to the Son of God's use of spit. And by all means, be reconciled to God!

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