Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of 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.”
Jesus restores hearing and speech to the deaf man. He didn’t just pat him on the head, as he was asked to do. The poor and the outcasts of society are so used to being patronised that they are often glad even of that. But Jesus restored his hearing, enabling him to know what was going on; and he gave him a voice with which to make himself heard. He brought him from beyond the margins into society.
In the gospels, deafness is not only a medical condition; it has overtones of spiritual deafness, being unable to hear God. We still speak of ‘spiritual deafness’. “You called to me,” St Augustine said to God (in his Confessions), “you called to me; you cried aloud to me; you broke through my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for you. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I burned for your peace.”
Notice that Augustine uses all five senses in that sentence: hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch. All the senses aspire to God, everything in us reaches upwards, our whole being is a longing for God. And conversely, if we were truly seeking God we would be alive in all our senses. Many of us are half dead: sleepy, heedless, habitually bored…. We are called to be fully alive.
At the end of his gospel John says, “There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book” (John 20:30). No doubt there were also many things he said that were never recorded and that have been forgotten forever: his preaching in Chorazin and Bethsaida for example is not recorded. He preached there and worked miracles of healing for them, but nothing whatsoever is heard of them; there is complete silence. Even the towns themselves have disappeared. Chorazin (now Keraze) is a pile of ruins, Bethsaida is nothing but a location. Yet the Son of God walked their streets, healed their sick tormented people, spoke to them about a new hope and a new world. Gospels could have been written, filled with his words and his deeds…. Instead, there is total silence. There is good silence, but this was not good silence. It was the silence of the barren ground where the seed of God’s Word could not find soil. It is the barrenness of the heart.
There is a detail here worth noticing in passing: Mark, writing in Greek, nevertheless records the Aramaic word that Jesus used in healing the man (as he did in the case of the healing of a little girl, in 5:41). Aramaic was Jesus’ mother tongue. Matthew omits this (and both Matthew and Luke omit the Aramaic words, talitha kum, from the healing of the little girl). This omission, the specialists say, was probably due to a fear of superstition. Magic is never far away from religion, and there is a great need to be careful. (In our own time there are ‘prayer chains’, moving statues, messages, and the like….) We are never to forget that religion is not about things or words but about a personal relationship with God.
Notice a very human touch: Jesus took the deaf man aside from the crowd. Deaf people are easily embarrassed because they know you have to speak more loudly than usual and everyone can hear. The mark of true religion is not power or magic, but loving-kindness.