Spitting Image

Michael Metzger

The curious case of Mike May, an American professional skier, might tell us why Jesus spit in a blind man’s eyes. And it might tell us something else.

At the age of three, Mike May lost his sight. A chemical explosion destroyed his left eye. His right cornea was scarred. In 2000, a corneal transplant restored his sight—except that May saw only moving lines and blotches of color. He should have seen clearly. Why didn’t he?

May was blind during two critical years of his life. According to psychologist Louise Barrett and neuroscientist Moshe Bar, it’s not enough to simply see something. Sight must be connected to bodily experiences at ages four to five if someone is to see clearly. Mike May was blind during those two years.

These are the years infants come to see clearly. Newborns can only focus about eight to 12 inches from their face. They see black, white and gray. Over the next ten to 12 weeks, they can follow moving objects and recognize things, especially toys with bold, geometric patterns. At five months, they see the full spectrum of colors.

By six months children see about 20/100. They won’t reach 20/20 until they are age four or five. This is when kids develop depth perception (such as catching a ball). In Barrett and Bar’s research, kids that miss ages four to five—the years May was blind—only develop an abstract representation of objects in the world. They see, but not clearly.

Which brings us to a strange incident recorded in Mark 8:22-25.

A blind man is brought to Jesus. Christ spits on the man’s eyes. He then puts his hands on the man’s eyes. “Do you see anything?” The man sees only abstract representations of objects: “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Jesus puts his hands on the man’s eyes again. His sight is restored. The man sees everything clearly.

Spitting on someone’s eyes would have been seen as shocking, humiliating, shaming. Jesus humiliates the blind man. But Jesus will also experience humiliation, “despising the shame” of the cross (Heb.12:2). We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus, becoming like him. Does this include Jesus spitting in our eyes, shaming us?

Yes. In older Christian traditions, we grow by linking what we imagine we see to our history of bodily experiences. We begin as babes in Christ with a history of good, bad, and ugly experiences. Seeing more clearly requires a new history of healthy bodily experiences. These come through practicing spiritual disciplines, like confession.

There are two types of confession. When Christians fall out of fellowship with God, they are to confess their sins to him (I Jn.1:8,9). This can happen privately. But when we sin against one another, we are to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). Not private. You have to go to a sister or brother, confessing and asking forgiveness. This is often humiliating. But it’s how we come to see the faith—and ourselves—more clearly.

We don’t see much confession in contemporary Christianity. Our Western tradition embraced the Enlightenment. Descartes claimed that the mind and body were made from two distinct substances. The mind learns by reason alone. Bodily experiences are unimportant. By using only our mind, we can hunker over the Bible and attain an unimpeded vista of scripture, the world (i.e., worldview), and ourselves. The bodily spiritual disciplines are nice, but not necessary. So few practice them.

But without the disciplines, we only gain a hazy view of the faith. We see this in our language. “Biblical principles” and “concepts” are abstractions, Enlightenment terms.

We also only gain a hazy view of ourselves. We seem to rarely see when we specifically sin against others. So we rarely confess specific sins against specific people.

I speak from experience. I’m a rank sinner (ask Kathy). I have hundreds of experiences confessing my sin to others since coming to faith over four decades ago. Not bragging, as confession is not something to brag about. It’s often been humiliating.

But I can count on one hand the number of Christians who have ever come to me asking for forgiveness. Maybe I only know very mature Christians. Or maybe the Enlightenment has yielded a faith that ignores our physical bodies. Our bodies are embedded in physical cultures. American culture is therapeutic. Our cultural experiences tell us love does not shame, so many feel Jesus never shames me.

But he does. Judah was God’s bride (Hos.2:19). In Ezekiel 16, God denounces Judah as shameless whores. But he adds that he will restore her fortunes “so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done” (53-54). God wants his bride to remember her sin “and be ashamed” so that she’ll grow up (62-63).

The church is God’s bride. But Christianity in America is a mile wide and an inch deep. Shallow. Her fortunes will be restored when she sees the goodness of a little spit in our eyes. It’s humiliating, but it’s how we become holy, the spitting image of Jesus.


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  1. Great reflection. Just wanted to put a note in for the Catholics … As one who returned to the Church in my 20s, I’ve had countless experiences of grace after rather humiliating and shameful confessions to a priest during the sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s the most spiritually “therapeutic” gift in my own life, a life line to the faith and to the Lord.

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