This coming Sunday, the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year B, we will hear the Gospel of Mark 7:31-37 proclaimed. It is an encounter with “a deaf man who had a speech impediment.”
31 Again he left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. 32 And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; 34 then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”) 35 And (immediately) the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. 36 He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. 37 They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and (the) mute speak.”
This narrative appears only in the Gospel of Mark, although Matt 15:29–31 contains a summary of Jesus’ activity along the Sea of Galilee that includes healing of those who are unable to speak. As in the story of the paralyzed man, friends bring the deaf man to Jesus. Unlike the friends of the paralyzed man, these friends begged Jesus to heal him. Like the story of Jairus’ daughter (5:42), Jesus takes the person away from the crowd to perform the healing. And like so many Markan accounts, Jesus commands the person to remain silent about the miracle (5:43) – and as in the other accounts, to no avail. But one should note that ignoring Jesus’ command for silence on the matter seems counter intuitive since only way for the deaf man to show that he is healed is to talk to others
The man suffers with defective hearing and speech. The man was not born deaf else he would not have been likely to learn speech. Thus, it is most likely that injury or illness robbed him of his ability to hear. Mark uses a rare word to describe the man’s “speech impediment” (v.32; Greek mogilalos literally “difficult speaking”.) Many scholars find an allusion to Isa. 35:5 and following which celebrates God as the one who comes in order to clear the ears of the deaf and to provide song for the man of inarticulate speech.
What is Asked. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.
The request for Jesus to lay hands upon the person is not absolutely clear in what is intended. In the encounter with Jairus the intention is clear, as the request is specific: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” (5:35). So too when Jesus is rejected in Nazareth (6:5), “So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.” There is a warrant for assuming that healing is also being requested for the deaf man if one assumes that the crowd, friends, and the man are Jewish – but then they are in the district of the Decapolis, predominantly Gentile territory. In other traditions, the laying on of hands is primarily a blessing action. Is this important? Perhaps. Looking ahead to v.37 we read “They were exceedingly astonished…” If “they” refers to the crowds then astonishment seems appropriate. But if “they” refers to the friends, then astonishment only makes sense if they were (a) asking for a blessing and received a miracle, or (b) really did not think a miracle was possible but “no harm in asking.”
Personal. In Mark’s narration there is a common element to Jesus’ encounter with Jairus, the deaf man, and others – he often takes the people aside, away from the crowds. Lane [266-67] comments on this: “He [Jesus] regarded the personal relationship between himself and the sick to be of supreme importance, and in this instance all of his actions are intelligible in the light of the necessity of communicating with a person who had learned to be passive in life. Through touch and the use of spittle Jesus entered into the mental world of the man and gained his confidence.”
The actions described lend themselves to the intimacy of the encounter: “He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue.” These are actions that can only be done in a very personal one-to-one encounter. All the actions of vv.33-34 were mirroring the man’s present need, the process of healing, and the source from which such healing alone could come, in a way which even a deaf mute could understand. Jesus’ gestures are “sacramental” in that they effect what they symbolize, the opening of the man’s ears and the loosening of his tongue. This is all very personal.
There is even the suggestion of intimacy in the other of Jesus’ actions: “then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”).” The gesture of “looking up to heaven” is less one of prayer than a sign of Jesus’ intimacy with God (cf. 6:41; Jn 11:41; 17:1). Similarly, Jesus’ “sighing”; it might simply be a sign of his deep emotion over the man’s condition. But then as some scholars hold, it may be a sign of Jesus’ transcendence, which is constrained by human limits foreign to it. In other words, the sighing might reflect a deeper longing for a return to the Father where Jesus too can experience the fullness of existence.
Mark has retained the Aramaic ephphatha. It’s Greek equivalent, dianoigō, relatively rare in the NT, occurs 33 times in the LXX, most notably in Ez 24:27: “Your mouth shall be opened, and you shall speak and shall no longer be dumb.” The act of healing itself was accomplished with the word of liberation addressed not to the defective auditory organs but to the man as a whole person. The results of Jesus’ actions are simply described: the ears were opened, the tongue was loosened, and the man began to speak clearly.
The Reaction: They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and (the) mute speak.” This allusion to Is 35:5-6 brings out the theological lesson of the cure: the age of Messianic salvation, announced by Isaiah, has arrived with Jesus.
Final Thoughts – from Pheme Perkins :
Hearing and speech have a symbolic role to play in Mark’s narrative. The Syrophoenician woman was so skilled in speech that Jesus healed her daughter. Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, have shown increasing difficulty in understanding what Jesus is telling them. They clearly need some form of healing that will enable them to truly hear—that is, to understand.
Understanding, on the other hand, can be expressed to others only if we speak. Young children learn how the world around them works, whether that is the physical world or the world of human interactions, by repeating everything they hear. Schoolteachers once required that pupils recite their lessons. Now that such training has become rare, college and graduate students often fail to understand what they read, and trying to explain it without using the words of the source material creates havoc. It is fair to say that unless people can tell others what they know, they do not really know it. Believers need to recognize the need to speak about their experience of salvation. They speak to others in testimony and to God in thanksgiving and praise.
A final-final thought: “Believers need to recognize the need to speak about their experience of salvation. They speak to others in testimony and to God in thanksgiving and praise.” There are other ways in which believers have difficulty speaking.