32 And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.
33 And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue;
34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
35 And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.
This is not typical of the way Jesus heals. Ordinarily he heals just by speaking; or rather, he announces that the healing has taken place. The thing is accomplished by virtue of the authority of the Son of Man. No fanfare, no ceremony. Certainly no spit.
This incident, though unusual, is not altogether unique. In the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus performs another unusual healing.
22 And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him.
23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up; and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
Similarly, in John’s gospel, Jesus uses spit to heal a man blind from birth. Jesus “spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9:6, 7).
Mark’s gospel does not specify whether the deaf man or the blind man were handicapped from birth, but the two-part nature of the blind man’s healing is, I think, suggestive.
I have read accounts of people blind from birth receiving sight through medical intervention. If I remember correctly, these healings took place around the middle of the last century, before which time the technology to restore sight in such a manner did not exist. These healings provided a wonderful opportunity to study how people learn to process sensory input.
We’ve all heard about the visual capabilities of human babies, how they focus best on a face about twelve inches away (baby-holding distance), and how they recognize the inherent rightness of a proper composition of human features. That is, they don’t like looking at a representation of a face whose features have been scrambled. They have an inborn idea of how faces should look, and they are bothered by distortions.
But they have much to learn. They don’t yet recognize the layout of the house, the family pet. Through exploration and experimentation, they learn to associate certain images with some mental content. The kitty will scratch you if you grab him by his fascinating twitching tail. That older brother guy is a wild card who warrants careful observation. And so on. It is well for babies that they can’t move around right away on their own accord, because they’d hurt themselves. They don’t understand about falling down stairs or burning themselves on hot stoves. They learn slowly, and gain mobility accordingly, assimilating raw sensory data into a meaningful understanding of the visible world.
Hearing is the same way. Babies recognize human voices—particular human voices—from birth or even before. But they don’t yet understand language. The words “come here” and “don’t touch that” have no meaning to them yet. Slowly, they will learn to understand their native tongue, and to put together sentences of their own. Babies and small children have a strong innate ability to internalize language, an ability which fades after age seven or so. Linguists call this ability the Language Acquisition Device, or LAD.
The adults who received their sight after a lifetime of blindness were obviously in a very different situation. Though new to sight, they’d learned about stairs and hot stoves and kitty cats in other ways. But their transition to the world of visual input was far from seamless.
A researcher visited a man, still hospitalized, who had recently received his sight. He placed a sugar cube on the man’s tray. “What is this?” the researcher asked.
The man replied with confidence, “A sugar cube.” He’d learned that much since receiving his sight.
The researcher then picked up the sugar cube and held it in the palm of his hand. “What is this?” he asked again.
The patient looked uncomfortable. Less confidently than before, he ventured, “A sugar cube.”
Next the researcher placed the sugar cube on a tray and shone a blue light on it. “What is this?”
The man, his assurance shattered, replied, “I don’t know.”
Understand that this was the same sugar cube! The subject saw the researcher move it from one location to the next. But he was unsettled by the sight of it in the palm of the researcher’s hand, and altogether undone by the blue light.
The problem was context. The subject had learned to identify a sugar cube in a certain locale. Someone who’d grown up sighted could identify a sugar cube as such whether it was on a china saucer or on a fence post. The newly sighted man could not.
When shown a picture of a triangle, a newly sighted subject studied it, counted the sides, and announced triumphantly, “It’s a triangle!” People born sighted recognize triangles instantly, without having to count the sides.
“I see men as trees,” the man told Jesus after Stage One of his healing, “walking.”
Of course, the receiving of sight, or of hearing, is the main thing. Given time, this man, having been healed to such a degree, could have learned to process the images his eyes were now taking in, and assimilate them into meaningful information. Given time.
But Jesus isn’t content with half measures.
The spit healings described in the gospels may represent healings in which, under ordinary circumstances, a certain amount of therapy would be required before the subject could receive full benefit of his new ability. Well might the people say of Jesus, “He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak” (Mark 7:37).
“For I know, whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well,” wrote Fanny Crosby, blind from birth herself.
Is the presence of spittle—water—significant? I think so. Particularly suggestive is the mud Jesus makes in the passage in John, of spit mixed with dirt. Man himself was made of earth. God, who spoke everything else into existence, actually formed the man. You may say he got his hands dirty, as Jesus did in healing the blind man.
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Jesus, healing the deaf man, looked up to heaven and sighed. Is not this sigh reminiscent of the breath of life?
Of course, Jesus could have healed these three individuals, fully healed them, without using spit and mud, without sighing. But he chose to do it in the manner recorded, perhaps as a reminder that only the God who made man in the first place could accomplish so complete and restorative an act.