Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-B
There is a lot of geography at the beginning of today’s gospel, place names like Tyre, Sidon, Sea of Galilee and the Decapolis. Jesus is understood to be making a tour of the area until he arrives at his destination east of the Sea of Galilee. What Mark gives us would not follow the logic of any tour. He travels north to go south and east. But does the geography really matter? Other than a few familiar place names in the Gospel, we probably pass over any geographical references.
Mark is not a map-maker but a Gospel-maker. And for him Gospel geography matters. There is gospel in the geography. There is gospel in Jesus’ strange tour. In the Gospel Jesus has just healed the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman in the district of Tyre. His itinerary keeps him in Gentile territory. The dumb man who cannot speak plainly is also in the Gentile territory of the Decapolis (Greek for ten cities). Mark has Jesus heal in foreign territory.
It is clearly Mark’s intention that Jesus mission to the Gentile world, the non-Jewish world, did not begin after his return to the Father. It was not something that came solely as a good idea from his disciples. Jesus has God’s breadth of vision. His redemptive activity is not limited to the people of Palestine, in other words his own! Jesus steps across the border and does not just take a quick look around and hurry back. No, the little tour Mark outlines for us makes us aware that Jesus invests in people other than his own kind. And it is a major investment.
When Jesus heals a man in Gentile territory who cannot hear and cannot speak clearly, it is a sign that God is opening the ears of the Gentiles to hear God’s word. If they were deaf to God’s word up till now, then the time has come for them also to be able to hear God speaking to them. Now they can acknowledge what God is doing for them in Jesus. And as the gospel clearly says, the man can now speak clearly, presumably about Jesus. And those around him acknowledge that Jesus is restoring humanity by opening ears and loosening tongues.
It is the prophet Isaiah who provides the background and the deeper meaning of what is happening in the Gospel. The prophets had a clear vision of what God was doing. They could somehow envision God working in broader strokes than their contemporaries. And so Isaiah sees God coming to vindicate and make right a broken humanity. The prophet sees a humanity transformed. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing…” The prophet sees God working in the very places where we humans feel most helpless, when we cannot see; when we are deaf and hear no word, no music, no sound, only silence; when we are paralyzed and cannot walk, cannot move a leg or arm or back, when muscles are atrophied. When we are powerless, the prophet hears God saying “Be strong and fear not!”
Surely the prophet’s words gave a community of faithful hope. It gave the community the hope to pick up and move on. The broken world they knew and experienced was not the final word about humanity. Humanity is meant for wholeness, for sight, for hearing, for speaking. The prophet Isaiah’s context was the hope and promise of a return from exile. And the prophet remind the community it will happen, God will restore his people and his creation.
When Jesus reaches out to touch the deaf man’s ears, when puts his own spittle on his tongue and speaks the words “Ephphata” “Be opened,” he is bringing out God’s vision for humanity. Hope is real, God is faithful. When Jesus touches the man’s ailments, his ears, his tongue, Mark says that immediately his hearing was opened and he spoke clearly and plainly. What has happened really? What has happened is that the man is made whole again. He is complete. From being cut off from humanity because of his deafness, he is now restored whole. With hearing and speech restored he can enter into human relationships; he is no longer silent, misunderstood, standing outside, alone.
There is a clear hint here of a creative act. The people’s acclamation to what they see is “He has done all things well” It is a clear hint at the creation story where after every creative event, the story teller says, “And God saw that it was good.” And when he had made us human beings, “God saw that it was very good.” The people see what Jesus is doing and they take up the refrain in their day in their pagan country side and say: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” They clearly recognize who is at work and acknowledge that what the prophet Isaiah had spoken of as coming, has truly come, “the deaf hear, the dumb speak.”
Jesus speaks a word, “be opened,” and it happens; hearing opens up for the Gentile man. Is it too much to say that when Jesus says, “Ephphata” “Be opened,” in our gathering this morning, he is opening up our ears to hear his word. Is there not some sense in which our hearing has become dull; maybe even blocked? Ask ourselves, do we want to hear the truth? Do we want to hear what our brother, our sister, our spouse, our confrere is really saying? Have we turned them off, as w say?
Jesus command “be opened” goes a long way. At its deepest level it is meant to be a healing of our hearing so that we can hear God’s word and work to understand it. The fact is we all live by a word. We need a word in order to find our way through life’s complexities. We need a word in order to know in the heart that we are loved, that we are cherished, that we are bonded into humanity.
The Gospel story today is preserved in the tradition for several reasons. (It is the only gospel story in the gospels which specifically and graphically and dramatically speaks of Jesus healing a deaf person). For sure it is about healing our ability to hear and thus it is about healing our ability to understand. It applies to our human relationships. But here in the Gospel it is also about healing our ability to hear God speaking in our lives; it is about opening ourselves up to hear God’s voice in his Son Jesus. It is also hinting that God’s word may very well be entering into the hearts of others whom we have written off as deaf as beyond hearing his word. It maybe the people over there on the other side who are receiving and understanding God’s powerful word of hope and love.
The story is preserved in the tradition to alert us to the fact that unless we hear and hear well, we cannot speak. Unless we listen closely, then our speech may be garbled as was the man in the Decapolis. His hears were opened, then Jesus anointed his tongue and he spoke. If we hear well, then and only then can we proclaim what God is doing. When we listen well, then our words become a proclamation of the goodness of God. The goal of a disciple of Jesus is to listen well so that we can proclaim who he is and the good he is bringing about.
Jesus’ gestures of putting his ears into the man’s ears and anointing his tongue with his own spittle left such an impression on those who heard the story, that the actions of Jesus even found their way into the rite of baptism. After a child has been baptized, anointed, given the new clothing, and after the candle has been lit, the celebrant cannot leave the newly baptized merely to see the light of Christ, he must also lean over and open his ears and mouth; sight and hearing together. May these simple words from the baptismal rite remind us again today of what the gift of hearing and speaking is all about:
“The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith to the praise and glory of God the Father Amen.”