The Gospel Reading for this Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle B comes from Mark 7:31-37, and concerns the event that took place in the district of Decapolis. The text tells us that the people brought a man who was deaf and also had a speech impediment to Jesus, and begged Him to lay his hand on him. We then read that [Jesus] “took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!”– that is, “Be opened!” — And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
There’s nothing I hated worse as a kid than wet kisses from my aunts, or when my mother would use her own spit as a cleaning agent or cosmetic for my face. UGH! I still get grossed out thinking about it today. I’m not bothered by my own excess saliva, but other people’s spit on me is downright disgusting! In fact, the Hebrew Bible not only informs us that spit from a person afflicted with genital excretions is unclean (Cf. Lev. 15:8), but that spitting on someone is considered to be an insult (Cf. Num. 12:14; Dt. 25:9):
Leviticus 15:8 – If the man with the discharge spits on a clean person, the latter shall wash his garments, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.
Numbers 12:14 – But the LORD answered Moses: Suppose her father had spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be confined outside the camp for seven days; afterwards she may be brought back.
Deuteronomy 25:9 – Thereupon the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her, his sister-in-law, in the presence of the elders, shall go up to him and strip his sandal from his foot and spit in his face, declaring, “This is how one should be treated who will not build up his brother’s family!”
Spitting, as an intentional insult, still has a place in Judaism today. We find it in Chapter 33 of the Shulchan Aruch, known in English as the Code of Jewish Law, is a written manual of halacha (Jewish law), authored and published by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the 16th century:
No. 4: A person should always remember that, to smell food, you should spit ascended saliva, rather than swallow it, because if he had swallowed, may expose themselves to danger, Gd forbid.”
We also find spitting included as part of the Aleinu Prayer, which concludes every service for Chabad Jews. They spit immediately after the first stanza that ends “For they worship vanity and emptiness” (Hebrew: שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וָרִיק). There is also the Jewish custom to spit three times in reaction to something especially good or evil, by either literally spitting or figuratively by saying “pooh, pooh, pooh.”
So how do we understand Jesus using His own spit as a healing agent in the light that spitting on someone is an insult? The first thing point out is that there are three spitting-miracles narratives in the Gospels (two in Mark 7:31-37 and 8:22-26 and one in John 9:1-41), and the fact that the Gospel of John accounts for one of those events is very important. Theologians like to pay close attention to the Gospel of John because it was written a generation after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That being the case, we find that the stories contained in John informs us about what particular events in Jesus’ life that the more mature Christian communities found to be most meaningful. It’s comparable to the memories I would share about my father to my daughters, versus the stories that my daughters would tell about my father a few decades after my death. The stories they tell about him would be the ones that they heard from me that had the most impact on their life, or the stories they found had the most significant meaning. Therefore, because John includes a spittle-miracle, we know that this is a narrative that has rich theological meaning.
I believe that the more Scripturally consistent way to understand the spittle-miracles would be in same way that we understand Jesus doing things on the Sabbath that were considered to be against the law, or how we understand His teachings to correct the Mosaic Law (e.g. on divorce). Jesus did these things to not only to establish His authority, but to also demonstrate His authority, which often came by the way of giving teachable paradoxes. Jesus’ teaching method can be summed up in this way: What you think is real, is NOT actually real, and what you think is true, is actually NOT true. And the spittle-miracles fit right into that didactic construct. Essentially Jesus was saying, ‘So, you think spit is an insult – you think spit is unclean? Well, let me show you what spit was capable of from the beginning – before sin came into the world.
I think the best way to take this teaching and apply it to our daily lives is not going out and spitting on people with cancer and impaired vision, but, rather, by the way of another paradoxical saying; that, who you are is not who God is drawing you into being, and who you are is exactly who you will be. Meaning that we ought not understand this teaching through the one who spat, but, rather, by the one who was spat upon. In the way we will see that what Jesus is saying here is that all that I AM and all that I HAVE is what you are and will be, and do have and will have, if you would just faithfully live with your eyes fixated on my Father through Me.