In many parts of the world, including the West, spitting is widely frowned upon as rude, a health hazard and a social taboo, while in other parts it is considered as socially acceptable. At the age of twelve my father’s job was at risk and the choice open to him was either to take the redundancy money on offer or move to Scotland and take up a similar position in Fife. He chose the latter, which meant that I had to move with my parents from the south-east of England to a new home, a new school, and a slightly different culture. One of the first differences we noticed was the public service notice on buses announcing: Spitting strictly prohibited. My mother found this particularly alarming, and since we did not own a car, every bus journey presented to us the danger of fellow passengers forcibly ejecting saliva or other projectiles from their mouths on to our unprotected flesh.
I shudder to think what my mother would have thought of Jesus spitting on the ground when he encountered the man born blind in John’s gospel (9:1-41), according to the Jerusalem Bible translation. This passage features as the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent in year A and, where the three scrutinies of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) takes place within Mass, it is the preferred reading also in years B and C.
The story of the man who had been blind for years and who sat at the side of the road begging is of prime importance because, according to Old Testament prophecy, the giving of sight to the blind would be a feature of the messianic age (see Isaiah 35:5 – “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened”). Until this encounter, the blind man’s life had been indelibly marked. Neither he nor his parents, nor anyone else thought it could be changed. He was resigned to being led to the same spot where he sat every day, hoping that some passer-by, out of pity, might throw him a coin or two. How many people had he heard pass by, perhaps stumbling into him as they did so, and no coin would be tossed in his direction? But then one day one man, Jesus, stops and as he does so the disciples immediately question him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to be born blind?” For the disciples the blind man was a case which could lead to a discussion, it raised a serious matter. According to the belief of the time, an affliction such as blindness was always the effect of a sin that had been committed. God punishes people in proportion to their guilt. The disciples did not seem at all interested in the man, his daily drama, his sad resignation; instead we could say they were preoccupied with theories and principles. The gaze of Jesus is quite different. His response seems curt, “Neither he nor his parents sinned,” The Father, whose face Jesus reveals, is not a master who searches for human weakness in order to strike men and women the moment they fail. The opposite is true.
Jesus wants to reveal, first to the blind man and then to the disciples and everyone else, God’s attitude towards evil, or more precisely, towards those who have been struck by it. While many passed by that man and continued distractedly on their way, and while the disciples stopped only to have a discussion about who had sinned, the man or his parents, both revealed a blindness of heart. Jesus sees him and is moved; he approaches the man and carefully, tenderly touches him. He takes some dirt, moistens it with his saliva and then spreads it on the blind man’s eyes. It is a carefully thought out gesture. The hand that touches the man’s diseased eyes is the very hand of God. This action takes us right back to Genesis, to the origin of the world and the human race, “The Lord God shaped man from the soil of the ground” (2:7). The mystery of God’s love is not something abstract; it is concrete and consists of touches, tenderness, and affection. The force of love that heals is made present in the hand that carefully rubs the man’s eyes. That is not the moment when he began to see, but Jesus told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam (meaning “Sent”) and, without a moment to think about it, we can imagine him fumbling and stumbling his way to the pool where, we are told, “the blind man . . . washed himself and came away with his sight restored.”
Then began the enquiry, the inquisition, there were still difficulties for the healed man to overcome. John notes that when the people saw him some thought it was a different person, not him. For the world it is impossible to change; impossible to become different than before. The Pharisees are particularly annoyed by the change. Instead of rejoicing with the man, paradoxically, they became progressively blinded to the miracle that had taken place, they were angry. At this point it would be an easy matter to draw a parallel with certain individuals in the Church who are resolutely opposed to the direction taken by Pope Francis. To do so, however, is to miss something that is applicable to all of us: that is, we can all become blind and give in to the temptation to focus on ourselves, on what is familiar and safe.
Unsatisfied by the answers they were getting from the man, the Pharisees expelled him from their presence. Hearing of this, Jesus, the evangelist notes, again goes to “find” the man, as if to underline a love that does not abandon or exclude us. All of us need to meet Jesus again; it is not enough to be touched just once in our lives. It is not enough to listen and obey once. At each encounter he asks new questions, not about our theoretical understanding, but his requests are for love, his requests are for us to grow as we follow. That is the meaning of the words, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” In speaking in this way, Jesus is looking for a friend, a disciple to love, a companion to help him change this broken world. The man responded, “Tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.” These are the words we need to ponder: how can we know Jesus better, how can we see his face more clearly, feel his touch more readily, and know his love more fully? The words that continue to resound tell us, “You are looking at him; he is speaking to you.” In the word of God and in the sacraments of the Church he reaches out with his love and touches us, shows his face and reveals his love. Together with that man whom Jesus healed let us say, “Lord, I believe”? Our aim must always to step out of the darkness into the light of him who calls us to be his “spitting image”. That is one sentence that I simply could not resist.