He spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, [and] put this over the eyes of the blind man. (John 9:6)
We are well aware of many miracles in the Gospels, and amongst them many stories of healing. There is the story of the paralysed man who is lowered down through the roof of the house in Capernaum. There is the healing of Peter’s Mother in law who is sick in bed. There is the healing also of the elderly woman who for 12 years had been suffering from a haemorrhage. The servant of the Centurion is healed without Jesus even needing to enter under his roof. We are told also of those who had what may sound to us like epileptic fits, who had the demons cast out of them. There are stories too of those who appear to be revived from death - the 12 year old daughter of Jairus, the son of the Widow from Nain, and of course, his dear friend, Lazarus.
And there are several accounts of the giving of sight to the blind. There is, for example, Bartimaeus, who calls to Jesus from the side of the road, and after whose sight is healed, gets up to join Jesus and his disciples on the road to Jerusalem, where he will see things he could never have imagined.
And here in John’s Gospel, is the story of the man born blind. Again, we read just the shorter version - and again, the full account, in John 9, is well worth reading at home. It deals with many issues, not least the nature of suffering and redemption, the person of Christ, and the opposition which he faced.
It is clear that in all the Gospels, the stories of the healing of blindness are seen as themselves a kind of commentary upon the contrast between light and darkness, between good and evil, between understanding and ignorance. The blind man sees, yet the Pharisees remain blind to the truth.
But this doesn’t mean that this story is just a myth or a legend. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It certainly doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t perform miracles.
But miracles can be a problem for believers and non-believers alike. Non-believers like to point out to us that miracles just don’t happen - the stories are lies, or hallucinations, magic tricks or just plain coincidences. People don’t just suddenly get better, still less rise from the dead. And so we might say - “Yes, you are right normally that is the case - but this is different. Jesus is the Son of God, God himself, he can work miracles.” It seems an answer, but the trouble is that the non-believer might easily reply that if this is so, why doesn’t Jesus heal everyone who is blind, every person who is paralysed, and cast out the so-called demons from every poor epileptic. And come to that, why do people get sick in the first place? If this is a loving God, then why on earth do people need healing at all?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and they may trouble us. We feel uncomfortable, inadequate if we can’t find a response. Yet in reality, these are questions for the philosopher and the student of theology. They are interesting and important questions, which need proper consideration, but - to use a phrase - they won’t butter any parsnips. They are interesting, and serious, yet however much we discuss them, they won’t heal any one who is sick, comfort anyone who is bereaved, give sight to the blind or mobility to the lame.
So, let’s get back to the Gospel. And let’s consider not only what Jesus says, but what he does.
‘He spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, [and] put this over the eyes of the blind man’
Why did Jesus do this? It sounds a bit like a medical procedure, yet of course it isn’t. Surely couldn’t Jesus just have healed him? Said the word? Screwed up his eyes and made it happen? Perhaps he could have done, but he didn’t. Jesus decided to act. Vividly. In a very physical manner. He gets his hands dirty. And surely this is the point.
It’s the way the sacraments work too. We can pray for God’s healing for the sick - and he does - but we also anoint them with oil. We ask God to free us from original sin - and he can - but we also immerse new Christians in holy water. We ask God to be close to us - and he is - but we also share in his body and blood through the transformed gifts of bread and wine. And what Jesus did with spit and soil, and we do with oil and water, bread and wine, we should do also with our hearts and our hands and our feet. We can easily express compassion for the poor, sympathy for the sick, concern for the incarcerated - but it doesn’t amount to much unless we feed the hungry and thirsty and visit the sick and those in prison.
Pope Francis wrote to the Bishops of the Church, in his letter “Gospel of Joy” and said that the Shepherds should get their boots dirty with the smell of the sheep. It’s a message for the Bishops of course … and the priests … and all of us.
Jesus gets his hands dirty … we should too.