Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the desert, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way, Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
1. Mark's is the earliest of the four Gospels and is the one that brings us closest to the humanity of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels it makes direct statements about what Jesus was thinking or feeling. It contains two miracle stories that are not taken up in the later Gospels and that show Jesus's healing activity as involving a struggle and an element of trial-and-error. In both stories he uses healing techniques that were common at the time, such as the use of saliva. In the healing of a blind man from Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), a story not used in the Sunday lectionary, he leads the blind man out of the village (to avoid showy publicity? to lead him to a place of quietness in the presence of God?); then he spits in his eyes, and touches them, and asks if he can see; the blind man answers "I see men, walking around like trees". Jesus touches the eyes again, perhaps repeating the whole operation, and this time the man sees everything clearly.
In today's story the people ask Jesus to "lay his hands" on the deaf man — referring to the common gesture of healers. Jesus again takes the man aside, touches his ears with his fingers, and his tongue with his spittle. Then he looks up to heaven and sighs or groans deeply (the verb can mean either). Looking up to heaven to gain power is "recommended in several magical texts as a potent action" (D. Nineham, Penguin commentary on Mark). Mark's Jesus reacts to illness and infirmity not by lightly brushing them aside but with a compassion that feels their full weight, and his healing is rooted in that compassion, which calls forth from him an extraordinary effort, rooted in prayerful confidence in God the Father. It is precisely because he is so near to human suffering that he can be a channel of divine healing power.
2. The word of healing is given in Aramaic, the actual spoken language of Jesus, which is heard as well in "Talitha kum" to the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:41) [and also in"Eloi eloi lama sabachthani" (Mk 15:34)]. Such healing words were thought to lose their power when translated into another language. Their dramatic force is increased for us by the feeling of being brought closer to the original atmosphere of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.
3. At the end of stage one in the story of the blind man, the man sees, but not clearly. In today's story the man can speak, but not clearly. The Greek word that Mark uses, mogilalos means a speech impediment rather than absolute dumbness. It is a rare word occurring in only one other place in the Greek Bible, precisely in today's first reading, in the phrase "the tongue of the speechless." Perhaps these stories have a special relevance to Christians today, who are not so much absolutely blind or dumb as suffering from a condition of blurred vision and impeded speech. People who wear glasses will appreciate how the finest details become marvelously clear when they put their glasses on. We need the same kind of clarity in regard to our faith. As to clarity of speech, we are often mealy-mouthed or tongue-tied when it comes to sharing the vision of faith. "Woe to those who are silent concerning You," said St Aug.ine, "for in their loquacity they remain dumb." "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" said St Paul. Let us ask Jesus to touch our eyes and our tongue that we may see him more clearly and speak of him more clearly.
4. The healings of the dumb man and the blind man are presented by Mark as Messianic signs. In the last sentence of today's gospel, "He has done all things well" could mean "he has well fulfilled the Messianic prophecies." The amazement of the crowd is not merely at the healings themselves but at their Messianic significance. They begin to wonder whether Jesus could be the long-promised Anointed One, who is to bring in a new age. In Mark, Jesus keeps his Messiah-hood a secret, but it begins to leak out in spite of his commands to tell no one. Some, notably St Peter, have a glimpse of Jesus's Messianic identity, but they only half understand, and soon fall into crude misinterpretations, thinking of power and fame rather than the way, the Cross. The full revelation of Christ as Messiah is withheld until after his death and resurrection. Can we recognize in Jesus, in his humanity that is so close to ours, the Messiah, the Christ of God? More than that, since he promised that his disciples can do the same signs as he did (Mk 16:17-18; Jn 14:12), can we too, in our human weakness, become channels of the healing power of God?
When it comes to people it is very difficult for us not to make distinctions. We invariable favour some over others. We choose some and not others. A man chooses one woman to be his wife out of several he may have come to know. A woman chooses one man to be her husband. We choose our friends, and some people choose their friends carefully. Parents will favour their own children over other children. It is natural and human for us to make distinctions. In this morning's second reading, James calls on the members of the church not to show favour on the basis of social class, making a fuss of the better off.
St James is saying that certain forms of favouritism are never acceptable within the community of believers. Everyone is to be treated equally regardless of their social background; in the context of worship there are to be no special seats for the more socially prominent. He In all areas of church life everyone should feel equally valued. This is very much Paul's vision of church as well. In his letter to the Galatians he declares that in virtue of baptism, 'there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.' James spells out that vision of Paul in very practical terms. That second reading from James prompts us to ask if any form of unhealthy favouritism is to be found in our own church, our own parish. Are there people we are not noticing? Are they voices we are not hearing? Are there people who would like to be involved in the life of the parish but who feel that they are not welcome, that their potential contribution is not valued? I hope not but it is something we all need to keep alert to.
The letter of James claims to be written by the brother of the Lord. If so, then James knew the Lord's mind and heart well and his outlook on things reflects that of his more significant relative. The gospels strongly suggest that Jesus was not partial to people on the basis of social class. Indeed the portrait of Jesus we are given in the gospels suggest that he favoured the vulnerable, the poor, the weak, the defenceless. He was partial to the voiceless and the afflicted. This morning's gospel bears that out. A man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech was brought to Jesus by his friends. In an oral culture where people were largely illiterate, not to be able to hear or speak properly was an enormous liability. Those who could neither hear nor speak were invisible; they could not be communicated with in any meaningful way and they could not communicate. This man was fortunate to have people who cared enough about him to bring him to Jesus who had a reputation for giving new life to the broken. The personal attention that Jesus goes on to give this man is striking. He takes the man away from the crowd, so that the two of them could be alone. Although the man cannot hear of speak, he can experience the sense of touch, and so Jesus touches the man's ears, putting his finger into them, and touches the man's tongue with his own spittle. Jesus also looked up to heaven, in prayer; it was Jesus' relationship with God that would bring new life to this man. Jesus invests himself in a very personal and tactile way with this man's healing. It is worth noting that this man was a pagan, not a Jew. The Decapolis where the healing story is set was a predominantly pagan region. Jesus favoured the voiceless and the afflicted, whether they were Jew or pagan.
The behaviour of Jesus in the gospel is an even more powerful message than the words of his relative James in the first reading. If, as people who have been baptised into Christ, we are to have favourites, they are to be the voiceless, the afflicted, the vulnerable and the weak. The friends of the man in the gospel can be our inspiration in that regard. They brought man to Jesus, and, in so doing, they opened him up to a whole new life, a life that was richer and fuller than he had ever known. They were strength in his weakness. Their voice, their speaking to Jesus on his behalf, led to him coming to have a voice of his own. Even though he could not speak, his friends heard him; they heard the stirrings and longings of his heart, and their attentive listening lead on to him being able to hear for himself. Their attentive listening to him was prior to their speaking on his behalf. If they had not first listened to him, they would not have taken the initiative to speak up for him. Very often, our own sharing in the Lord's life giving work, in response to our baptismal calling, begins with attentive listening to someone, a listening to the whole person and not just to the words they speak.
Samuel was one of the most remarkable gospel preachers in his village in Africa. This man was blind and never went to school. Later in life he joined the Jehovah's Witnesses and had to memorize large portions of the Bible since he could not read. Samuel's little boy would lead him to your house and Samuel would begin his preaching with the words, "I was blind but now I see!" It was fascinating to see this blind, illiterate man challenging educated and sighted people, and saying, "Now let us turn to John 3:16 and read." His presence bore testimony to the fact that in Christ, seeing and hearing mean much more than the use of the physical senses of the eye and the ear.
The similarities as well as differences between our external senses of seeing and hearing as compared to the internal faculty of knowing and obeying the message of Christ is the key to understanding Mark's use of the healing miracles. Mark wrote to a community of believers under persecution. In such a situation speaking up for Christ was a dangerous thing. It could cost you your life. The story of the deaf-mute in today's gospel is apparently aimed at those members of his community who could not bear witness to Jesus because they would not hear his word. Because they are deaf to the words of Jesus, that is why they have a speech impediment in speaking about him. There is, therefore, a parallel between the deaf-mute in today's gospel and Jesus' disciples. The man can neither hear nor speak properly. The disciples cannot understand the message of Jesus, and this constitutes an impediment in their proclamation. They, too, need healing.
Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly (vv 33-35). Why did Jesus take the deaf man away from the crowd? And why did he have to go into such a detailed and graphic healing process when he could simply have said a word and the man would be all right? I think that in these details of the story, Mark is saying something to his readers.
By taking the deaf man far from the madding crowd in order to heal him, Mark is probably saying to them that in order to be healed of their deafness to the word of God they needed to distance themselves from the masses around them, since the healing encounter with Jesus happens in the private intimacy of one's heart and that of their small Christian community. Remember that Christians were then a small minority and their meetings took place not in big churches but in the private homes of members.
This healing is different from the healing of the Canaanite woman's daughter which preceded it. In that story, Jesus did not take any action other than to announce the healing to the woman (v. 29). But in this case he goes into an elaborate ritual in seven acts: (1) He takes the man aside. (2) He put his fingers into the man's ears. (3) He spits and (4) touches the man's tongue. (5) He looks up to heaven and (6) he sighs. (7) He issues the healing command, "Ephphatha." Why does Jesus go into all this? More importantly, why does Mark record all this? Probably Mark's church was beginning to develop their rituals of anointing and the use of special formulas. In that case this was a way, saying to the readers that by participating in these early liturgical ceremonies they would experience healing. And then, after one has experienced this healing, nothing on earth could stop one from proclaiming Jesus, even in the unlikely circumstance that Jesus himself would ask them to keep silent.
Do we realize that we are deaf? Does it occur to us that, as individuals and as church, we do not yet fully understand the message of Jesus? Is that not the reason why we have a speech impediment and the people of our time no longer understand us when we try to tell the Good News? As individuals and as church we need to come to Jesus for healing. And this can happen here, far from the madding crowds, in the privacy of the Eucharistic celebration