23rd SUNDAY, YEAR B – 2021
“EPHPHATHA” – BE OPENED!
Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
The first reading of today uses the image of the deaf hearing, the dumb speaking, the blind regaining their sight, the lame leaping like the deer, etc. This shows what God would one day do for his handicapped people, Israel. In the desert, the Israelites had shut their ears, eyes, and mouth to what God wanted to communicate to them. They no longer listened to what the Lord wanted to tell them. But one day, God would cure their impairments. This prophesy is being fulfilled in Mark’s account of Jesus restoring the speech and hearing of a man in Galilee.
Jesus has just been in the Gentile area of Tyre and Sidon (on the Mediterranean coast in modern Lebanon) and has moved on to the area of the Decapolis (Ten cities), on the east bank of the Jordan River. It was basically a Gentile, a non-Jewish area. There, a man is brought for Jesus to heal. He was deaf, that is, he could not hear and he had an impediment in his speech, that is, he could not speak properly. The text does not say if he was like that from birth.
Jesus took the handicap 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 (Mk 7:33-35). This is a not a habitual ritual of Jesus. He does not cure this man as he normally cures the sick. Here, he is using rituals that resemble magic. This ritual is loaded with meaning.
- WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE DEAF OR DUMB?
A deaf and dumb person is generally incapable of communicating with others (using speech), of keeping in contact with others. Physically, such a person cannot hear what others say, cannot react since he/she does not hear a thing. A person of this sort lives in isolation, alone. While the blind are able to relate with others through conversations, listening to the radio, attending talks and even reading books in Braille, the deaf-mute are almost completely cut off from society. They have no part in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Good and loving they may be, but they are unable to share their love and goodness with others in a normal way.
At the time of Jesus, every illness was considered a punishment from God, a nemesis that caught up with a sinner. Deafness was also seen as a curse because it prevented one from hearing the word of the Lord, proclaimed in the synagogues. This reminds us the incidence in John’s gospel where the Jews once asked Jesus about a certain man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
In common parlance, when we say that someone is “deaf” who is really not deaf physically, we mean that the person is stubborn or he/she does not listen to sound advice when it is given. In the same vein, when we say that person is “dumb” who is really not physically dumb, we mean that the person prefers to remain silent when he/she should speak up. Furthermore, deaf and dumb are not only the people handicapped in speech and hearing as in the gospel story, but also the social deaf-mutes – those who have no voice or influence in society, those to whom no one listens.
In the gospel of Mark, this deaf and dumb person stands for all those whose ears are shut; they cannot listen to the gospel of Christ and cannot praise the Lord with their mouths. Paul says that humans do not acquire their faith through vision or angelic messages but through HEARING THE WORD OF GOD proclaimed by the announcers of the gospel (Rom 10:17). Anybody suffering from “spiritual deafness” does not have faith.
- “EPHPHATHA” IN THE BAPTISMAL RITE
This ritual that Jesus uses in healing the deaf and dumb man is reflected in the baptismal rite of the church. Towards the end of the liturgy of baptism, there is a little rite where the celebrant touches the ears and mouth of the newly baptized person, saying: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf to hear and the dumb to 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.”
That ceremony repeats the gesture of Jesus in today’s gospel, when he opened the ears of the deaf man and loosened the ligament of his tongue to enable him speak clearly. There is, of course, a significant difference between the baptismal rite and the gesture of Jesus in the gospel: the man in gospel story was physically deaf and dumb; that is, he could neither hear, nor utter a spoken word. So, Jesus gave him the power to hear and speak physically. In the case of baptism, the recipients are not normally physically deaf and dumb; that is, they can hear what people are saying, as well as speak clearly. Therefore, the gesture by the celebrant is not intended to make them hear and speak physically. It is rather intended to make them hear and speak the word of God in a more than merely physical sense.
- BEING DEAF AND DUMB TO THE WORD OF GOD
Where the word of God is concerned, someone would be deaf if he/she refuses to listen to it. Once in a while, we come across people like that, who find the word of God simply offensive and refuse to listen to it. Such is the case with people who describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. It is the case also with adherents of other religions who are hostile to Christianity and everything it stands for.
Another sense in which someone can be said to be deaf or dumb to the word of God is if he/she refuses to do what the word tells him/her. That is, he/she hears the word alright, but that word is not reflected in his/her life. He/she makes no effort to communicate the word to others. Assuming that he/she is not deaf, and has received the word, he/she does nothing to pass it on to others. He/she is too shy, afraid or nonchalant to pass it on, not even to their own children, or friends and relatives, talk less of strangers. Furthermore, such a person’s way of life is diametrically opposite to what the word of God tells him/her. Regrettably, there are many, perhaps too many, people like that among us who claim to profess the Christian faith today. They are the kind of people that St. James (in the 2nd reading of last Sunday) referred to as merely HEARERS but not DOERS of the word of God (Jas 1:22-23).
We are often deaf when we shut our ears in the invitation of Christ speaking through another brother or sister of the community in order to stop certain bad habits or to change our behaviours. A community is said to be deaf when its members do not hear the cry of the poor, of the outcast, of all those who are victims of injustice (c.f. 2nd Reading today). Quite often, we are deaf and mute to our faults and wrongdoings. We abuse our speech faculty by lying, by calumny or slander, or when we destroy the good name of others through false rumors. We should use our gift of speech: to bless rather than curse; to compliment rather than criticize; to highlight the good qualities rather than focus on the bad. We are also dumb whenever we fail to proclaim the gospel, when we are ashamed to say that we do not agree with certain opinions against or not in line with the gospel. Are there not communities and families whose members refuse to listen and speak to anybody, who despise and offend anybody wanting to advise them, and who are aggressive towards those whose opinions differ from theirs? Are there not husbands/wives who never converse with each other, or children who just follow their passions and remain deaf and dumb to their parents?
It is, therefore, clear that the gestures and prayer of the celebrant at baptism are asking that the newly baptized person would not join the already over-swollen ranks of inert Christians, whose lives are not affected by the word of God that is spoken in them, and who are not involved in communicating the word of God to others (that is what we call Evangelization, and others call Evangelism).
It is not infrequent to meet Catholics who are highly qualified in their secular profession but are basically illiterate in their faith. What is most distressing is the fact that, in their ignorance, they are often not slow to pontificate and tell others what Christianity is about. Others, though, are good at listening. They want to know more about the meaning of Jesus and his Gospel in the changing circumstances of their lives. But they, too, though good at hearing may do very little speaking, very little sharing. Yet, to hear the Word of God and not to proclaim it is, in the mind of the Gospel, a contradiction. As Jesus said once, there is not much point in lighting a lamp and then hiding it away. A light is supposed to share its light (C.f. Matt 5:14).
- THE SYMBOLIC MEANING OF THE GESTURES OF JESUS
The gestures of Jesus were not just some imitation of the acts of some village magician. They were deliberate act that were pregnant with meaning:
- a) The miracle performed away from the crowd (vs 33). In the first place, this shows us most vividly that Jesus did not consider the man merely a “CASE”, as our modern hospitals would normally label a sick person. Jesus considers him as an INDIVIDUAL. The man has a special need and a special problem, and Jesus treats him with tender considerateness. Jesus deals with him in a way that spares his feelings and in a way that he can understand. He is compassionate and sympathetic to the plight of this deaf person. Psychologists tell us that deaf people are always a little embarrassed. In some ways, it is more embarrassing to be deaf than to be blind. By taking him aside, Jesus shows considerateness for the feelings of a man for whom life is already very difficult. The second reading of today stresses this theme as it tells us what happens to a community that is deaf to the word of God and to the voice of the poor.
Secondly, it is for the same reason that Jesus orders the people “to tell no one about it” (Vs 36). Jesus does not want the news to get around that he is the Messiah. The crowds would certainly have misunderstood the nature of his identity, as they had misunderstood the meaning the multiplication of loaves. His disciples began understanding the full identity of Jesus only after his death and resurrection, and only when they begin proclaiming that he was the Son of God.
- b) Putting fingers in the ears of the man. There is hardly any organ in our dealing with God stressed so much as our ear. The deaf man is not only one who can listen to the gospel but also one who must announce the message that has been heard.
- c) The placing of saliva on the tongue of the dumb. To understand this act, we must remember that at that time the saliva was considered the concentration of breath, the physical embodiment of the breath of a person. So, it is as if Jesus had given the dumb his own breath, his own spirit. This is what takes place also at baptism. The Christian receives the Spirit of Christ that makes one a prophet, that is able to announce the word of God.
- d) The sighing and the raising of the eyes to heaven express the certainty that Jesus has of receiving the Spirit from his Father. And he is receiving this power to work miracles as signs of salvation. It shows that it was from God that help came. Next, he spoke the word and the man was healed.
- e) “Ephphatha” is a word in the language spoken by Jesus (Aramaic). It means “Be opened”, “Open up!” Jesus used this un-translated Aramaic word to indicate that there was hearing impairment in the physical order. It is an invitation to every person to accept Christ and new life.
- HE HAS DONE EVERYTHING WELL (35-37)
The last part of the gospel describes in detail the “result” of the miracle that Jesus had worked. It also brings out the “final chorus” showing the people singing their joy since God has truly made the deaf hear and the dumb speak, as promised by Isaiah (Is 35:5-6). This is what the First Reading is talking about. By describing the healing done by Jesus, he is shown as the fulfilment of the messianic time, promise by Isaiah. And of course, the people concurred by saying: “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak” (Mk 7:37). Needless to say, they were astonished because this is a totally new experience for them as contemporaries of Jesus. He has done everything well, by opening ears and loosening tongues to announce the gospel and to keep up dialogue between peoples.
Just before the proclamation of the Gospel during Holy Mass, the congregation stands, saying or singing the “Alleluia” verse. Then the priest or deacon proclaims the Gospel taken from either Matthew, Mark, Luke or John (in the New Testament). He says, “The Lord be with you.” We Respond, “And with your spirit.” Priest or deacon goes on: “A reading from the Holy Gospel according to ______.” We respond: “Glory to you, O Lord.” At this point, we use our right thumb, and we trace a small Sign of the Cross on our forehead, lips, and chest. (Demonstrate this gesture to the congregation) By this gesture, we are praying that the Word of God will always be in our thoughts, spoken on our lips, and “written” upon our hearts. When listening to the Word in the gospel, we mean to “understand it, make the message one’s own, and live it out in word and action.
Today, therefore, we acknowledge that we, as individuals and as Church, are sometimes deaf. Let us pray for the gift of hearing, to hear the voice of God calling to us in everything that will happen this day and always. Let us pray for the gift of speech, that is, to be so filled with the liberating experience of knowing Jesus that we simply cannot refrain from sharing that experience with all those around us.