Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mark 7.34-35)
One of the worst sicknesses I’ve ever endured occurred a few years ago, when I contracted a sinus infection that spread to my left inner ear. Pressure built up behind my eardrum, creating unbearable pain that left me in yowling in agony. I was stranded in a Dallas hotel, in the care of a local physician who called on me once a day for nearly a week and room service staff who brought me juice to wash down an arsenal of high-power antibiotics and painkillers. Before the doctor would release me to fly back to Chicago, he wanted to be certain the infection hadn’t spread to my right ear and hinted it might also affect brain tissue. Although my partner, Walt, called constantly, I was totally alone, in a strange place, facing the possibility of being hospitalized far from home. Inability to hear in my left ear compounded my sense of isolation. I lay there, in insufferable pain, helpless, contemplating terrible outcomes. Deafness. Brain damage. Very possibly waiting for Walt to get to me while strangers herded me through the ER and hospital admissions.
My condition’s most awful aspect, however, was how I sounded to myself when I spoke. The voice that came out of my mouth no longer matched the one in my head. It seemed to belong to someone else and, after a while I became unsure I could trust it. (This was partly due to the haze of medication, I’m sure.) But as my condition dragged on, I began to feel less and less in control of my situation. There was the Tim in dire pain and the Tim trying to put words around his pain, and they weren’t the same Tim. I was fragmented.
Astounded Beyond Measure
The deaf man in Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7.24-37) is in a similar situation. Inability to hear has impeded his ability to speak clearly. The voice behind his clogged ears bears little resemblance to the one he utters. My brief experience with his type of affliction drives home how fragmented his daily existence must be. Obviously his neighbors feel for him. When Jesus passes through their region, they bring their deaf friend to Him, begging Him to touch the man. What happens next is most irregular. Rather than curing the deaf man on the spot, Jesus pulls him to the side, out of the crowd’s sight. As though diagnosing his illness, Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears, spits—an odd gesture Mark doesn’t explain—and touches the man’s tongue. He looks up to heaven, lets go a deep sigh (we’re not sure what to make of that, either), and, in the man’s native Aramaic, Jesus says, “Ephphatha,” or, “Be opened.” Immediately, the obstructions in the man’s ears dissolve, his tongue is released, and he’s able to speak plainly. All of the disjointed pieces inside his head come together. Suddenly being able to hear again is a miracle all its own. But being able to hear himself—having his speech reunited with his inner voice—is what makes him whole.
Even more than that, the deaf man’s restored speech brings healing to his entire community. Family, friends, and neighbors who couldn’t understand him now hear him clearly. They no longer have to compensate for his disability. They’re free from the guesswork and stress of parsing his inarticulate self-expression. Freeing the man’s ability to hear and speak is how Jesus makes the community whole. One whom they’d lost has been returned. And that miracle loosens their tongues. Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about the miracle, but they can’t keep quiet. Verses 36 and 37 read, “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.'” Astounded beyond measure—I so love that! It is exactly what happens when we approach Christ on others’ behalf. What Jesus does for them somehow spills over into us. We can’t possibly contain ourselves, because the wholeness Christ imparts to others inevitably makes us whole as well. We can’t help ourselves from proclaiming, “He has done everything well!”
In the wake of the US political conventions, I’ve also been astounded beyond measure—though not in the good way witnessed in Mark. I’ve been thoroughly astonished, in some cases disgusted, by the prevalence of clogged ears and twisted tongues in our community. From the highest podiums of power to running commentaries flooding social networks, we are encompassed with people whose hearing and speech are severely hampered. Their ears are clogged with inflammatory rhetoric that impedes their ability to express themselves clearly and effectively. Hearing and reading what they say, I think, “Surely that’s not what they believe.” Surely their inner voices cry out for an end to poverty, violence, and injustice. Surely they hear a booming call for righteousness in the depths of their being—a resounding declaration that callous indifference for the least among us must cease. Surely something within them wants to convey concern for others beyond themselves. But the deafening roar of tyrants and charlatans has robbed their freedom to express their faith and humanity in understandable ways. And, all contrary evidence aside, I must believe this is true, lest my ears also become infected and clogged, lest my own speech also becomes harsh and nonsensical, lest I too become a burden to my community, a liability that makes those I live with less than whole.
At the same time, I’m convinced the political deafness and jabber polluting current discourse are merely magnified symptoms—an outbreak, if you will—of a more invidious contagion. We no longer care to listen to one another, let alone the voice of God that calls to us from deep within. We’re no longer concerned about what we say, let alone how we say it. We have become a culture of voluntary deaf-mutes, purposefully closing our ears to anything we don’t want to hear and disregarding the confusion and harm our words create.
We’re becoming increasingly fragmented as people, with the holy person inside us bearing little resemblance to the vain, self-serving one portrayed in our words. We need to find Jesus and beg Him to touch us. We need Him to diagnose our sickness, penetrating the garbage cluttering our ears with His pristine fingers, loosening our twisted tongues with His mighty hand. We need Him to speak to us in language we understand, commanding us to be opened. When our ability to hear and speak clearly is restored, we will be made whole. Our communities will be made whole. Peace, justice, and compassion will be restored. We will be astounded beyond measure and say, “He has done everything well!”
Lord Jesus, if ever we needed healing it’s now. We beg You, come to us, pull us aside, lay Your hand on us, and command us to be opened. Amen.
We have become a culture plagued by clogged ears and slurred speech. We need Christ's healing to be made whole.