And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.
Three times Jesus used His spittle in a healing miracle, twice with a blind man, once with a deaf man. Two instances are in the Gospel of Mark. In our instance this week, it merely says Jesus spit, without a clear indication what the target was. In the Mark’s account of Jesus healing the blind man, Jesus spit on the man’s eyes. John’s account is when Jesus made clay with His spit and applied it to the man’s eyes.
Spitting is an action of contempt. There’s an interesting account in the book of Numbers where Aaron and Miriam got uppity over Moses’ mixed marriage to an Ethiopian – evidently doing so carried things too far in their eyes, so they suggest God might better speak through either of them. God says, “no.” And then gives Miriam leprosy (she wants to glory in the lighter skin, I guess, and Got lets her have it). Moses begs mercy for her, and the Lord says, “If her father spits in her face, she’d be shamed for seven days. What she has done merits at least that amount of shame.”
In another account, if a man dies and leaves a widow, his brother should take her in so his brother’s name may continue. If the brother refuses to do so, the widow and the brother meet at the gates, she takes his sandal, spits in his face, and says, “So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.”
Spitting is clearly an action of contempt. So why is Jesus spitting at the blind and deaf?
Let’s begin with this prophecy from Isaiah: “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.”
Note the unstopping of deaf ears is the consequence of God coming with vengeance. Why vengeance? Who’s God going after? As with all prophecies, there are layers of meaning, from the immediate context of Israel’s exile to the grand context of the fallen cosmos. God’s going after Israel’s enemies, but also the cosmos’ great enemy, the powers of evil.
God holds our enemies in contempt. Now look at this passage from the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus cast out the demon from the man’s son: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!”
The demon – the power of evil – is called “deaf and dumb.” If it’s the case that another demon was at work behind the deaf man in our Gospel for this week, this gives us a clue why Jesus is spitting. He’s spitting at that which He holds in contempt, our enemies. He’s taking vengeance on our enemies, just as Isaiah prophesied.
But a question surfaces, rooted in the Lord’s words to Moses, when Moses tried to weasel out of being God’s messenger by saying he couldn’t talk. The Lord said, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.”
If the Lord made the mute and deaf man, why is He avenging that which He has made? This is not an irrelevant question. Let’s pose it another way. If the Lord made the homosexual, why does He avenge that sin, as St. Paul teaches, “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Has not God made all such as these? We all live in a fallen world. We’re all born with various disease, imperfections, and handicaps. Why does the Lord avenge what He has made? Why does the Lord spit at His own creation?
Obviously, because it’s fallen. Without going down the rabbit hole of who’s ultimately responsible for the fall, the bottom line is God holds a fallen world in contempt, whether it got there by accident or by design. He spits at it. And sometimes that “it” is us! That is, the devil in us. The devil spit back at Jesus, at His crucifixion, which shows us we’re in the middle of a grand cosmic battle. But the Lord Jesus wins in the end; He has authority over the demons.
And how wonderful for us, no matter what demons beguile us. Not all deaf were healed at baptism, when exorcisms happened, but baptism sets us on a course for total healing in the life of the world to come. In the meantime, we pray Psalm 38, a wonderful Psalm bringing many of these themes together. A few highlights:
“O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your wrath, Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure! …There is no soundness in my flesh Because of Your anger, Nor any health in my bones Because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. …I am feeble and severely broken; I groan because of the turmoil of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before You; …But I, like a deaf man, do not hear; And I am like a mute who does not open his mouth. Thus I am like a man who does not hear, And in whose mouth is no response. …For I am ready to fall, And my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be in anguish over my sin. …Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!”
This is the prayer of the broken man seeking salvation from the Lord. The broken man looks forward to the Lord’s contempt for his sinful self. He looks forward to the day when the Lord sends His angels to “gather out of His kingdom all things that offend,” including those fallen aspects of our own selves.
Yes, God makes the deaf and the mute, but recall that Satan is an instrument of the Lord’s anger (compare I Chronicles 21: 1 and II Samuel 24: 1). There’s a primary work of God – to have mercy – and an alien work of God – to have wrath. Sometimes one spits at the other.
And Jesus always wins that spitting contest. In the early church baptismal liturgy, one of the rites was to face the west and spit. The idea was, Jesus was coming from the east – “as lightning comes from the east to the west” – so toward the west must be His enemy, the devil. As part of the ritual of exorcism, the candidate for baptism would spit in the devil’s face.
Jesus always wins that spitting contest. Throughout our life, He may spit at us again and again. It’s His chastening. It’s His work in us to drive away our demons, or maybe, as in St. Paul’s case, not. But the day will come – for the deaf and blind of this world not as blessed as those in Jesus’ day; for all of us who struggle against evils of all sorts – when the Lord will indeed remove all that offends, and causes us to sin. It’s the baptismal promise.
As another Isaiah prophecy says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert.”
Spit from the Lord is like a baptism, the flood waters burying the corruption, the Red Sea drowning our enemies. May the Lord always spit at us!