Reading about the travels and earthly works of Jesus in the gospel of Mark has me puzzling over several details. Why did the Lord Jesus tell people not to spread the word about his healing miracles? Why did he heal comparatively few people when there were so many more who desired healing? Why did he compel his disciples to get into a boat to cross the Lake of Galilee when he knew perfectly well that a dangerous storm was brewing? What happened to the demons he cast out of people?
There are good answers to these questions, and some of them may be found in commentaries. But it is noteworthy that sometime the scholars skip right over the questions I would ask.
One such question occurred to me recently as I read Mark 7:33. Jesus was asked to attend to the needs of a man who was deaf and speech-impaired. The verse says that Jesus took him aside. I get that. He was showing this disabled man that he had the Lord’s undivided attention. He cared about the individual.
Then the verse says he put his fingers into the man’s ears. Well, that makes sense too. The Lord was using physical touch to convey his awareness of where the problem lay and that he was doing something about it.
He sighed deeply. I don’t think this implies he had any difficulty healing the man. It shows that he was moved with compassion and empathy for the man’s predicament.
Then Jesus looked up toward heaven. This must have been a signal to the man that he was invoking the power of God. God had created this man and God knew about his problem. Jesus’ upward look was an indication to the patient that his help was from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Jesus spoke the healing word: “Ephphatha!” It was a command in the Aramaic language to the man’s senses to “to be opened!” Verse 34 says, “At this, the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.”
But there is another detail, one that I do not fully understand. (Apparently the scholars do not either because many of them prefer to leave it unmentioned.) We read that Jesus did a strange thing. “He spit and touched the man’s tongue.” Spit? What did this have to do with healing?
Any suggestion I might give is speculative. Did the Lord want to impart something from his human DNA? This physical manifestation certainly undermines the Gnostic denial of our Lord’s full humanity.
Was he demonstrating that he, and he alone, was the one doing the healing? This healing came only through him, by the power of God. He, the Lord Jesus, transferred spittle from his own tongue to the tongue of the speechless man. Did this physical gesture signify that a physical healing was about to happen?
Another possibility has been suggested. Spittle was considered in ancient times to have healing properties. Now the Lord was certainly not imitating the practices of Egyptian and Babylonian sorcerers! But could it be that he was so fully entering the man’s cultural context that he was willing to use a means that was not unexpected in that day and time, because it had meaning for the patient himself?
This is not the only time Jesus used spit in a healing. In Mark 8:23 he put his spittle on the eyes of a blind man as he healed him. In John 9:6 he made a paste with mud and spittle and applied it as a poultice to the eyes of a blind man. What seems strange and unfamiliar to us, may have been familiar to the people of Jesus’ day. I remain puzzled.
Of these facts I am more certain. Jesus really did heal the man. The circumstances of the healing reveal his compassion, his power, his willingness, and his humility. The story also reveals to us one more convincing evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah sent from God. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the coming of Messiah:
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
Pastor Randy Faulkner