The texts for 9 September:
Isa 35:4-7a: Thus says the LORD: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.
Mark 7:31-37 (Protestant lectionary = 7:24-37):
Again Jesus 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.”
Our Gospel reading is at once a distinctive but classic story of Jesus healing, given both its unique features (Gentile location, unique methods, an Aramaic word) and Markan emphases (the crowd’s awe, Jesus’ insistence on telling no one).
Like the passages immediately preceding (7:24-30) and following (8:1-9), Mark 7:31-37 takes place among Gentile peoples: in “the district of the Decapolis,” a phrase that can only accurately refer to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee (see Mark 5:20), where most of the Decapolis cities were. (Nota bene: Many writers have sought to make sense of the unnatural course of Jesus’ travels in Mark 7:31, and without great success. On this topic, see any Mark commentary worth its salt.) Given this location in Gentile territory, the miracle shows Jesus’ presence and healing power being made known to all peoples, not simply Jews.
Mark’s narrative gives no details about the deaf man and his community. Unidentified people simply “bring to [Jesus] a deaf man” with a speech impediment, asking for healing (7:32). Interesting, what the narrative does describe in vivid detail are the earthy techniques by which Jesus heals: he gets the deaf man alone, puts his fingers into the man’s ears, spits, touches his tongue, looks up to heaven, groans, and says “Ephphatha!” (vv. 33-34). Whereas other healings in Mark offer scarcely any details of the process (e.g., 7:29-30; 2:11-12), in this case Mark characterizes Jesus’ actions as lengthy, complicated, and possibly even trial-and-error. The inclusion of an Aramaic word (“ephphatha,” 7:34 [an assimilated pronunciation of an it-paal form of patach, “to open”]; see also 5:41) only underscores the authentic, earthy qualities of the process. Far different from merely speaking the word to heal, as Jesus does in the story immediately preceding (7:24-30), in 7:31-37 it feels as if Jesus has to expend great efforts to catalyze the same results. Similar to the healing process, the narrative describes the result in relatively full detail: “the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly” (v. 35).
Of even greater focus to Mark than the specifics of the healing process, however, is the reaction of the miracle’s witnesses. While Jesus “ordered them not to tell anyone,” Mark points out that “the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it” (v. 36)—a dynamic seen earlier in Mark’s Gospel (1:45; 8:29; but see 5:43; cf. 1:34; 7:24). Even more, Mark relates that the onlookers “were exceedingly astonished” (NAB; “absolutely overwhelmed,” huperperissōs exeplēssonto) at the event. Finally, the crowd comments on Jesus’ work with words that pertain to far more than this isolated instance: “he has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37). While their first statement echoes God’s evaluation of creation in Genesis 1, the crowd’s second statement picks up directly the language of Isaiah 35:5-6: “Here is your God, he comes with vindication. . . to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; . . . then the tongue of the mute will sing.” In effect, the crowd’s acclamation in Mark 7:37 claims Isaiah’s prophecy to describe the healing power and presence of Jesus.
There are fruitful areas for interpretive reflection in this passage, as well as quagmires ripe for running amok. And in some cases, the two are merely two sides of the same coin.
The Methods of Divine Healing (Mark 7:33-34). Many readers find it strange and intriguing—if not repulsive—that Jesus healed by way of spitting, sticking his fingers into people’s ears, touching a man’s tongue, and groaning. Undoubtedly, these tactics were methods of healing far more familiar to ancient readers than modern ones (on this, see, e.g., Gerd Theissen, Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 1983). While these specifics naturally raise questions about ancient methods of healing—and there is no shortage of scholars willing to offer their research on the matter—the wise preacher will avoid extensive commentary on the specifics of spit and tongue-touching (unless the sermon is given to middle-schoolers), since they distract more than edify most hearers of the passage.
However, while the specifics surrounding Jesus’ healing the deaf man (spitting, touching his tongue) are strange, they remind us of something profound: oftentimes God does not heal by way of a bellowing voice from the heavens, but rather through the seemingly mundane methods of the created world. For instance, while we pray for healing from depression, God may respond through a doctor’s prescription for anti-depressants. While we pray for healing for a relationship, God may respond by bringing a licensed counselor to our attention. In answer to our prayers, we look expect identifiable divine intervention; what we often get are things ordinary and mundane, but nonetheless extremely helpful. The manner by which Jesus heals in Mark 7:31-37 is a reminder that no method of healing, no matter how strange or peculiar, should be excluded from consideration as a gift of God.
The Value of Indirect Proclamation (Mark 7:36). Countless readers have asked precisely why Jesus here—and elsewhere (1:45)—commands people not to tell anyone about his miracles (“He ordered them not to tell anyone,” 7:36). Scholars and interpreters have speculated, theorized, and suggested answers, with solutions ranging from “Jesus was never the Messiah, nor did he intend to be perceived as one” to “Jesus was using reverse psychology” (i.e., “Don’t tell anyone” guarantees they will). Studies such as William Wrede’s Messianic Secret (1901 Germ.; transl. Eng. 1971) have rightly pointed out that there are dissonant tensions in Mark’s Gospel, between bold proclamations of Jesus as both Messiah (8:29) and God’s Son (1:1; 9:7; 15:39) on the one hand, and on the other strong words to discourage open proclamation of the same ideas (1:45; 7:36; 8:30). All told, the topic is appropriate for an extended Bible study of Mark’s Gospel, but too massive to be given due justice in a brief homily. Simple answers to so complex an issue cannot but be unsatisfying.
However, while Jesus does not state directly his significance here—nor does he invite others to proclaim it far and wide—still he masterfully clarifies his identity and mission indirectly: by healing a man plagued with illness, by choosing to heal among Gentiles as well as Jews, and perhaps even by insisting against swift and simple proclamation of these events elsewhere. Through these actions, Jesus proclaims who he is in ways that are subtle yet clear, subversive to cultural norms yet remarkably caring. Jesus’ actions are neither self-promoting nor loud—countercultural to the norms of American culture, where the loudest and most vocal prevail. Rather, Jesus offers an example of ministry that speaks loudly without using words, inviting the careful observer to see the profundity of the moment, while careless masses brazenly plead for quick and easy answers. This miracle story is one of many examples of a ministry that makes an eternal impact through seemingly insignificant dealings (healings, teaching, self-sacrificial love) with insignificant people. This is how Jesus lived, and his message is clear to all who stop and seriously contemplate its significance.
The mystery that surrounds God’s presence and power. At the close of Mark 7:31-37, witnesses describe Jesus’ ministry using words reminiscent of Isaiah: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37; cf. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; . . . then the tongue of the mute will sing,” Isa 35:6). Their words imply the messianic nature of Jesus’ presence and power. However, neither Mark nor the crowd is so bold as to say, “Here is God’s Messiah,” or “See, the Messianic Age has come.” Much to the contrary, Mark 7:31-37—and Mark’s Gospel as a whole—allows for a healthy degree of mystery surrounding the nature and identity of Jesus, who commands evil spirits with authority (1:27), performs unprecedented miracles (2:12), and commands the forces of nature (4:41), simply to name a few things. In short, Mark’s Jesus is not easily pinned down to a simple dogmatic definition, or even a singular title, for that matter. In Mark, Jesus’ divinity and power are elusive yet pervasive, indirect yet clear, hidden yet readily apparent.
In a world that still pleads for simple and quick answers “for dummies” as to who Jesus is, Jesus refuses point-blank. As Mark’s Gospel implies, simplistic answers cannot accurately describe the presence of God in Jesus. Only prayerful attentiveness to God’s presence can. Likewise, we today ought to heed Jesus’ words “not to tell anyone” (Mark 7:36) about this Jesus, unless first we ourselves reflect seriously on his presence and power, lest we boil down the mystery to clichés that cannot convey his fullness. Jesus’ presence is known through time, attentiveness, and open eyes and ears. Apart from these investments, divine illumination can scarcely happen.
The Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben is a pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church (E.L.C.A.) in Grand Forks, ND, and an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota.