Year B: Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Healing of a Deaf Man

Mark 7: 31-37

Again, he left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (That is; “Be opened!”) And [immediately] the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished, and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and [the] mute speak.”

Discussion Questions:

  1.   Jesus does not need to be with us physically to heal us. Looking back on your life, can you recall a time when you experienced healing you attributed to God’s presence?
  2.   One of the meanings in this miracle story is that we are all interiorly deaf and mute in some way. How do you consciously allow God to “open” your heart to new ways of seeing, hearing, and speaking? Explain
  3.   Do you have people in your life who help you to uncover your areas of “spiritual deafness”? How frequently do you share with them? If not, why?
  4.   In what ways are you deaf to God?
  5.   What experiences have you had lately, that have called you to expand your idea of what God might be asking of you?

Biblical Context

Mark 7:31-37
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

As this Gospel scene opens, Jesus has returned to the area where he had healed a man possessed by a “legion” of demons only to have those demons escape to occupy nearby pigs, sending the whole herd hurtling over a cliff (Mark 5:17). Now, the people who then begged Jesus to leave their territory bring him a man who is deaf and beg Jesus to heal him.

Mark tells us that Jesus took the deaf man aside, away from the crowd. The word for taking him aside (apo-lambano) is usually translated as “receive” rather than “take,” giving us the impression that by going apart, Jesus was receiving the man into his private company for an encounter more personal than what can happen in the midst of a crowd. Jesus then performed the healing by putting his fingers in the man’s ears and placing his own spittle on his tongue.

Those healing gestures were typical in Jesus’ cultural milieu. Nevertheless, the willingness to touch an infirm person was a particular sign of solidarity and, even though some people in Jesus’ day considered spittle as a healing agent, sharing his saliva with the man was a gesture of special intimacy. After performing those gestures, Jesus assumed a posture of prayer. He then spoke as God had spoken at the creation; just as light appeared at God’s command, when Jesus said “Ephphatha!” the man’s ears were opened and he could speak clearly.

The healing so astounded the crowds that they could not contain their desire to spread the word about it. Gentile or Jew, we do not know, but the popular verdict was, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Obviously, the healing was much more acceptable behavior than launching two thousand pigs into the abyss!)

Jesus’ healing ministry always went beyond a simple cure. Everyone freed from an infirmity remains subject to other physical problems and ultimately to death. Jesus’ healings did not eliminate human mortality, but they were oriented to the whole person, not just a health condition. Opening the ears of the deaf brought about a transformation on both the human and the theological level. On the human level, dialog, hearing and speaking, characterize and differentiate people from the animals and other parts of creation. When we listen, we freely allow something of the very being of another to enter into us. Speech is one of our primary ways of communing with others. Theologically, we understand God’s communication with human beings as word and with the Word made Flesh. Opening the deaf man’s ears enriched his ability to relate to others. On the theological level, the healing was symbolic of allowing the word of God to communicate with his heart.

Mark is careful to let us know that the man’s speech became clear only after his ears were opened. On both the natural and the theological levels, hearing must precede speech. Mark drives home that idea in what is usually called the messianic secret. Jesus ordered the witnesses not to tell anyone, but “the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.” In explaining this, Mark is highlighting two dimensions of the same reality. On a superficial level, the people who witnessed the healing refused to hear/obey Jesus’ admonition to keep silent: They felt qualified to speak about him even though he asked them not to do so. On a more profound level, Jesus’ reason for the prohibition was that they hadn’t truly heard/understood his message. Like the deaf man with a speech impediment, their proclamation could not be clear because their understanding remained shallow. Jesus repeated this prohibition to the disciples at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:9) and at other moments for the very same reason: Those who were amazed at him didn’t yet really understand who he was. (Remember that in Mark 1:24, a demon was the first to proclaim that Jesus was the Holy One of God.) Taken together, this week’s readings remind us of how much we have to learn and how cautious we should be in making judgments. The first reading and the Gospel promise that God will open our ears if we ask. The second reading advises us that God’s word will often come from what we consider the least likely sources. In some ways, these readings are a prelude to what will come next week. For now, we need to remember that salvation comes with a hook: The more we want from God, the more like God we are called to become.

Openness Cures Deafness

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

The gospel does not tell us much about this man. We don’t know his name, where he is from, or what he does. We don’t know when or how he became deaf. The only thing we know is that he is deaf and has a speech impediment.

This isn’t simply a story about Jesus turning a particular deaf man into a particular hearing man. This is a story about each one of us. Deafness is the human story. This man could be anyone and, likely, he is everyone. He is every man. He is every woman. He is every child. He is you and me.

Today’s gospel is a story about one who was closed but is now open, one who was deaf but now hears, one who was dead but now lives. It is more about our heart than it is about our ears. It is more about spiritual deafness than it is about physical deafness.

Hearing and deafness are not determined by our ears, but by what’s in our heart; the way we love and relate to one another. The old Verizon commercial – “Can you hear me now?” – reminds us that it is all about the connection. So, it is for the man in today’s gospel. So, it is for us as well. We are either open or closed to the connection with God, one another, and the world. Sometimes we choose to be open or closed depending on people, places, and circumstances. We hear what we want to hear. Selective hearing.

Regardless of how it comes about, the tragedy of spiritual deafness is that the connection is broken. We can no longer hear the voice of God or another person. The only voices we hear are the ones in our heads. The only conversation we have is with our self. Spiritual deafness is ego centered. When we are spiritually deaf, we assume that ours is the only or the most important voice to hear. We are cut off from God and other people. We are closed to new ideas, understandings, and experiences. Unopen to new ways of thinking, behaving, and relating, we continue business as usual, and nothing ever changes. It is a lonely, isolated existence.

I can’t help but wonder if spiritual deafness isn’t one of the primary causes of conflict in our marriages and families, in our relationships with one another, in our nation, and in the world. It’s not hard to see how deafness destroys relationships.

  • We are deaf to the dignity of all human beings when we show favoritism and make distinctions based upon appearance, wealth, and status.
  • We are deaf to the teaching of Jesus when judgment triumphs over mercy, and indifference rather than love defines our relationship with our neighbor.
  • We are deaf when we become self-occupied and self-enclosed because of pride, anger, jealousy, or the refusal to forgive another.
  • We are deaf to our spouse and children when we are too busy or too self-important.
  • We are deaf to God’s justice when we refuse to recognize and do something for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and those who suffer the devastation of war.
  • We are deaf when agendas, prejudice, and assumptions tell us all we need to know.
  • We are deaf when we have no need of another because his or her views, politics, religion, or lifestyle differs from our own.
  • We are deaf when we choose not to listen to the cry of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalized and oppressed.
  • We are deaf to God’s grace when productivity, winning, and profits determine our choices and guide our lives.
  • We are deaf to God’s presence when we refuse to be still, be quiet, and listen.

Deafness abounds in today’s world. Talking heads are a dime a dozen. Listening hearts are few and far between. So, what about us? What are the places in which we are closed? Where is our life disconnected? To whom or what are we deaf?

The cure for our deafness is not to hear but to be open. Hearing follows openness. “Ephphatha.” That’s what Jesus tells the deaf man. He doesn’t say, “Now hear!” He says, “‘Ephaphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” He says the same thing to you and me. Jesus is always speaking, “Ephphatha,” to the closed parts of our lives.

  • Let our ears be opened to hear Christ’s word of forgiveness of our sins and his love for us.
  • Let our eyes be opened to see the beauty of creation and the possibilities God sets before us.
  • Let our mouths be opened to speak the good news of what God is doing in our lives.
  • Let our hands be opened to do the work God has given us to do.
  • Let our minds be opened to new ways of thinking and understanding.
  • Let our hearts be opened to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • Let our lives be opened that God might dwell in us.

“Ephphatha” is Jesus’ prayer to God, his commandment to the deaf man, and his longing for all human beings. The openness to which Christ calls us transforms and heals our lives. It reconnects us to God and one another, offering new life, new beginnings, new hope, and new possibilities. … “Can you hear me now?

Reflection Excerpt from: Interrupting the Silence,  Father Michel K Marsh