Brief synopsis of the readings: Beginning with the prophet Isaiah we find the Lord telling those with faint hearts to have courage and not be afraid. God will come and “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy.” In Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus “through the Decapolis region” where he met a deaf man with a speech impediment. His friends asked Jesus to lay hands on him. Jesus took him aside, placed his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue with spittle. Jesus then said: “Ephphatha” which means “be opened.” He was then able to hear and speak. Jesus then instructed those gathered not to tell anyone about this. But the more Jesus insisted, the more they proclaimed what Jesus had done.
Let me being by stating that when someone is described as “deaf and dumb” that person is actually “deaf and mute.” This matters because when someone can’t speak or speak well we often assume it reflects badly on their intellect. So let us all stop using the phrase “deaf and dumb.”
On the surface this looks much like every other miracle Jesus performs: someone has something physical wrong, Jesus heals the person and now he is healed. But the people of Jesus’ time had a different view of healing.
We see healing as something purely physical that has no connection to our emotional or spiritual health. If someone needs glasses, hearing aids, or an artificial hip it’s solely mechanical.
But during the time of Jesus nobody made those distinctions. The man’s deafness may have been a punishment, or a curse, or whatever. Regardless, he was in need of a healing that Jesus could provide.
And Jesus did, but in way that fascinates me that for many years I overlooked. In the course of my life and ministry I’ve met a few priests who claimed to be “healing priests” and bragged about the number of people they healed. And while they claimed that healing came from the Holy Spirit, they were the only ones in the photo.
Jesus, on the other hand, took the man aside “in private, away from the crowd” to heal him. There he said “be opened” and the man was healed. What if they had a longer conversation that nobody heard?
I think we can agree that deafness isn’t only what we can’t hear but also what we won’t hear. Admittedly we won’t always hear those things that inconvenience us, but sometimes we won’t hear those things that cause us fear. Sometimes we are mute because speaking calls us to a courage we don’t feel we have.
I like to think that when Jesus took the man aside he encouraged him to embrace the words from Isaiah in our first reading: “Courage! Do not be afraid.”
People of Jesus’ time had a great deal of reason for fear. In the end it was Jesus’ courage and speech that caused him to be put to death, and the next generations of his followers suffered the same fate. It’s a fate we’re unlikely to experience or even approach.
But how many times have we felt we had to hold our tongue? And more to the point, how many times have we been advised to keep silence by people who held power over us? I have lost respect for a few people I used to work for, and I’ve lost respect because they told me to keep silent in the face of what I saw as harm to others.
I’m not wishing to blow my own horn and God knows I never had my life or my future hanging in the balance. But at one hospice my immediate boss told me that I was using my position as chaplain to sow discord on my team while another manager told he he’d hate to see me shoot myself in the foot over what I was saying. I was advocating for patients and coworkers who I felt were not being treated well. Simply put, if I had just shut my mouth I’d still be employed but I wouldn’t be the type of chaplain I respected.
Pressure to remain mute comes from many directions. I’m currently reading a book about the years before the American Civil War and I’m troubled by the pressure of politicians to tacitly accept the lies of slavery when they must have known better. In defending slavery they needed to parrot the belief that these Africans couldn’t care for themselves while seeing that many of them were skilled as blacksmiths horse trainers, and the like. They also recognized that they needed to outlaw the literacy of their slaves while pretending that they’d never be able to read and write.
As teenagers we called this “peer pressure” and were warned against this out of fear that we would abuse tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. But prophetic voices remind us that peer pressure does not expire when we reach adulthood.
When a coworker or a supervisor asks if we are a “team player” when we are troubled by a new policy that we know is wrong, we are called to the courage that Isaiah speaks of. When a family member or a neighbor suggests that “those people” aren’t worthy of our love (or has a hidden agenda) we are called to the courage that Isaiah speaks of.
The blessing and the curse of readings where Jesus heals someone is that we don’t know the details of what brought them to Jesus or the what happened after. I’m heartened that despite Jesus instruction to keep this secret, the formally deaf and mute man didn’t.
I like to think that he didn’t keep Jesus’ secret, that he didn’t remain mute, simply out of the joy of being able to speak and hear, but also because he embraced the courage to speak his truth despite his fear.
We don’t know how his life went. Maybe he spoke to others that were deaf and nothing happened. But but maybe his enthusiasm called others to follow Jesus. I like to think his newfound voice allowed others to find their voice. Because let’s face it: we are who we are and we believe what we believe because of those who didn’t listen to the call to be quiet.