(1Sam.16:1b,6-7,10-13a; Eph.5:8-14; Jn.9:1-41)
Jesus often heals people, but not always in the same way.
Sometimes he prays over them (Jn.11:41-42) or utters other words (Mt.9:6-7). At other times he touches them (Mt.8:15) or heals them from afar (Mk.7:29). And on at least three occasions he uses his saliva.
He heals a man who can’t hear or speak by putting his fingers in his ears, and placing a drop of saliva on his tongue (Mk.7:31-33). He also heals a blind man from Bethsaida by spitting on his eyes and touching them (Mk.8:22-26).
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus smears a muddy paste of spit and clay on a blind beggar’s eyes. And after washing it off in the Pool of Siloam, the man’s sight is restored.
Why does Jesus do this? After all, spitting was considered insulting back then (Deut.25:9), and even Jesus was hurt when someone spat on him (Mt.27:30).
Some have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually spit on these people; rather, he spat on their disease. So, they say it was a blessing, not an insult.
Others have argued that Jewish folk-medicine in those days believed that human spittle remedied eye trouble and other ailments.[i] Indeed, the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) once wrote that spittle can heal certain skin diseases.[ii] The Talmud, a Jewish text from the time of Jesus, also mentions the healing power of saliva. (Interestingly, modern medicine does recognise that saliva has some therapeutic benefits.) [iii]
And sometimes, Jesus uses physical actions to symbolize spiritual truth. In the 2nd Century, St Irenaeus noticed that by mixing his holy spittle with clay, Jesus is mirroring his Father’s actions when he created Adam out of dust (Gen.2:7).
John Bergsma writes about this in his book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. (The Dead Sea Scrolls were ancient Jewish manuscripts discovered in the caves of Qumran between 1947 and 1956.) Bergsma says it’s no coincidence that at least four times these Scrolls describe man as ‘a vessel of clay’ kneaded from ‘dust’ and ‘spittle.’
The Scrolls also contain many ‘Hymns of Praise’ where the composer often refers to himself as ‘a vessel of clay,’ or ‘dust, spit and clay.’ Bergsma says that these images of dust, spit and clay clearly refer to the story of the creation of Adam in the Book of Genesis.
He also says that it was Jewish traditional belief that God made the clay for Adam’s body by spitting on the dust, and this tradition is reflected in all the passages of the Scrolls that speak of man as ‘mere spit.’
So, by spitting on the ground to make clay, Jesus is repeating the acts of his Father when he formed the first man. He is recreating this man who was born in darkness, into a ‘son of the light.’
Bergsma also says it’s significant that this man washes in water from the Pool of Siloam, because this isn’t just any old water. The Pool of Siloam received its waters from the Gihon Spring, which originally flowed from Eden (Gen.2:13). This, too, reinforces the theme of a new creation.
But the story doesn’t end there, because these images of flowing water and new birth all point to the sacrament of Baptism, for we are all like this man born blind. Because of the failures of our first parents, Adam and Eve, we were all born into the darkness of ‘original sin.’
We bear no guilt for this original sin, because as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned.’ However, we did inherit from Adam and Eve the absence of the Holy Spirit from our lives, and this is what baptism repairs. It restores the ‘light’ and ‘life’ of the Holy Spirit to us.
St Paul says that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (2Cor.5:17). Baptism, therefore, is a new kind of creation, and this is what we see in John’s Gospel today. Jesus re-creates the man born blind through dust, clay and spittle, and washing in water, and he emerges ‘enlightened’ because Jesus is the ‘light of the world.’ [iv]
By using his divine spittle in his healing ministry, Jesus demonstrates that he is not the distant figure some people think he is. Indeed, he is never remote from our brokenness and pain, because he’s constantly seeking a close, personal relationship with each of us.
Jesus wants us to become whole again, and while helping us he’s even prepared to get his hands dirty.
For touch is a sign of love, and Jesus is the touch of God.
[iv] John Bergsma, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Image Books, NY. 2019:61-64.