Rev. Joseph Keating
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
This week, we’re back on the road trip with Jesus. We continue our journey thru the Gospel of Mark, and this week, Jesus covers a lot of ground. He travels from the Mediterranean port city of Tyre, northward along the coast to Sidon, then back to the southeast, ending up back in eastern Galilee, not far from his home base of Capernaum.
And everywhere he goes, he gathers more and more disciples, teaching them along the way, and healing the sick in various places.
And so, we come to the healing of the deaf-mute man in the Gospel reading today—an event foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, 700 years prior, when he said, “Here is your God… He comes to save you…. The ears of the deaf be cleared… the tongue of the mute will sing.”
I think the thing that is most striking about this passage is the way that Jesus heals the man. He groans in prayer. He speaks a strange word. He sticks his fingers in the man’s ears. He spits. He touches his tongue. You might think this is strange, even a little invasive. Or, you might think, well, that’s just how Jesus does it. But, that’s not always how Jesus does it.
Take, for example, the healing of the Syrophoencian woman’s daughter. Now, this is just two verses before the place where our Gospel reading picks up today. Jesus was up in Tyre, and a woman asks him to cast the demon out of her daughter. You may remember this story as the part where Jesus all but calls her a dog. He says, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). She keeps asking him, and finally she prevails. Jesus says, “…you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter” (Mark 7:29). That’s it! No fancy gestures, no symbols. Just the sheer power of his word. It is Jesus’ word that brings about healing.
So why, then, does Jesus go to the trouble of healing the deaf-mute man in this odd way? Well, we seek the answer by first recognizing that Jesus doesn’t do anything without having a good reason for it. Everything he does has a purpose and a meaning. The focus in the previous example was on the faith of the Gentile woman. But here, the faith of the deaf-mute man is presupposed. The focus here is on what we Catholics would call the sacramental signs.
We are a sacramental people. That means we use tangible, physical symbols to signify an invisible reality. Sacrament, after all, means a sign. Our worldview is that God reveals Himself to us thru nature and the world He has created. We can sense the invisible God thru visible signs of his presence—we just have to look a little bit beneath the surface, to pull back the veil for a moment, to see the meaning that is hidden in every corner of our lives.
Not only does God reveal himself in mysterious ways thru nature, but He has even gone so far as to enter into this world he has created, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word, made flesh. Jesus himself is God incarnate, revealing to us the face of the Father.
And this is why Jesus chooses to use tangible, physical signs to heal the deaf-mute man. He wants to enter into this man’s life, touching him, allowing him to feel his presence intimately. When Jesus touches him, he makes a personal connection. Sure, the man may have known about Jesus, and certainly the townspeople had heard of Jesus, but until Jesus touched him, it wasn’t a personal, intimate connection.
And this, too, is a lesson for us: we must be personally connected with Jesus, not just belonging to his Church as if it were a membership to Sam’s Club or just the socially acceptable thing to do, or because it makes mom happy, but because we have come to know him, and we have come to love him personally. As disciples, we must remain connected to Jesus each day so that we can hear his voice and proclaim his faith. And the way that we will proclaim our faith is to speak about the ways in which Jesus has personally touched each of us.
Jesus heals the man in this way, not only as a sign to him personally, but to all those who witness this healing. He allows them to see and hear what he is doing, so that their faith, too, may be strengthened. In a similar way, when Jesus touches each of our hearts, we are intended to share that experience with those who need to hear about it. Our faith is given not just to keep to ourselves, but to share with others, to “make it real” for them, just as it was real for us.
Jesus uses tangibles signs in this instance in order to signify the reality of this healing. The touching of his ears is symbolic of hearing. The touching of his tongue is symbolic of speaking. The word ephphetha, “be open,” is authoritative and effective when it comes from the lips of Jesus. These actions are all sacramental—an outward sign of an inward grace.
Because we read this passage with a sacramental worldview, for me, it immediately reminds me of the sacrament of baptism. Scripture scholars believe that this passage in Mark’s Gospel was taken as a guide for the sacrament of baptism in the Ancient Church. That is why it is symbolically retained in the Rite of Baptism for Children even today. The next time we have a baptism, watch for it. It is just at the end of the ritual, after the water, after the anointing, after the white garment, and after the candle, the minister touches the baby’s ears and lips. And this ritual within a ritual is called, the Ephphatha Rite—a reference to the word Jesus spoke to the deaf man in the Gospel today.
Now, what does healing the deaf-mute man have to do with Christian baptism? The words of this rite give us a clue as to why this Ephphetha is included in the baptism rite. The minister says, “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.”
Ah, it’s because our baptism makes us sharers of the gospel, the good news of resurrection, and the gospel is meant to be proclaimed to others. Certainly by the way we live our lives, but also by the words we speak. For every Christian, the gospel should be in our hearts and on our lips, that we may proclaim it worthily and well. Our baptism calls us to this sacred task.
In order for us to be able to speak the gospel to others, we must be steeped in it, like a tea bag in a cup of hot water. We need to soak it in, so that it becomes part of us. We need knowledge of Scripture, for by knowing Scripture more deeply, we come to know Christ more deeply. A disciple of Jesus Christ seeks out ways to enrich his/her faith thru personal study and adult faith formation. Our journey on the road of faith formation does not end when we get the sacrament of baptism or confirmation. It has really only just begun. We must continue on the road trip with Jesus, and it’s a long road trip. Knowledge of Scripture and of Jesus is a life-long project. The more we know Jesus, the more we love Jesus; the more we love Jesus, the more our tongues are freed, that we may speak about him.
And so, just as Jesus’ word makes the deaf hear and the mute sing, so too, may his word dwell in us richly and bring us healing. May we grow in our personal connection with Jesus. May he ever be our intimate companion on this journey.