“and he put his fingers into his ears. Then, after spitting on his fingers, he touched his tongue.” This record shows the great sensitivity and compassion that Jesus had for people. People brought this deaf-mute to Jesus. It is almost certain that he had never heard or spoken in his whole life, because if he had become deaf he would still be able to speak. That means that he would not have understood much about what was happening as his family and friends led him to see Jesus. He likely picked up in the people’s excitement, but no doubt would have been confused and perhaps cautious as well. In that state, Jesus did not want him to be distracted by the crowd, but took the man aside by himself, where the two of them could make eye contact and the man could calm down and focus on Jesus.
Jesus understood the confusion the man would have been in and wanted to calm him and also communicate to him what was going to happen, but how? The man was deaf. So in this situation Jesus communicated in the best way he could, using “language” the man could understand. Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, indicating that something was going to happen that would involve them. Then he spat and touched his tongue.
Jesus would have spat on his hand and then touched the man’s tongue with the wet fingers, and he did that because it was believed in the culture that the spit of a holy man had healing power. Robert Guelich writes: “We do know, however, that the spittle supposedly had a therapeutic function in Greco-Roman (e.g., Pliny, Nat. Hist. 28:4.7; Tacitus, Hist. 6:18; Suetonius, Vesp. 7) and the Jewish world (Str-B, 2:15-17)” (Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26). The Bible itself has evidence that people believed in the healing power of the spit of a holy man, and Jesus has used his spit in the healings recorded in Mark 8:22-23 and in John 9:6-7.
Two other pieces of the “silent language” that Jesus used to communicate about the healing were that he looked up to heaven and that he sighed. That he looked up to heaven would indicate that he was looking to get, and perhaps asking for, help from God above. The sigh would communicate the relaxed state the man had no doubt longed for. To us, a “sigh” is generally a sign of resignation, and is associated with disappointment, defeat, frustration, sadness, and perhaps also longing. But much of that comes from the sound we make, and the man was deaf. He could not hear the sigh, and furthermore there is a “sigh of relief,” which is no doubt what this was. The man could see Jesus’ body relax after he breathed out; a relaxation that would have indicated freedom from frustration and pain.
Jesus’ non-verbal communication would have been clear enough to the man that he understood what Jesus was going to do, which shows Jesus’ desire that the man be calmed and not at all fearful. Furthermore, Jesus’ healing was much more than just a “surface healing” of some physical organs. When a baby is born it hears what is going on around it, but not knowing any words, all the talk and background sound around it is just disassociated noise. Over months of development, the sounds begin to be organized in the brain of the child, and it can begin to differentiate and eventually understand spoken language. But clinical work has now generally shown that if physical hearing is restored to someone who has been totally deaf into their mid-teens, the brain can no longer organize the mixed sounds of talk and background noise into discernable verbal communication, so the person can “hear” sounds but not learn or understand speech. So in this healing, not only did Jesus heal the man’s hearing, but the man’s brain was actually rewired so he could both understand what was said and speak. Thus this is one of the truly great healing miracles in the Bible, and it happened to a Gentile in the Gentile region of the Decapolis.