Mark 7:31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
This story takes place in Gentile territory and portrays Jesus as a missionary, restoring hearing and speech. In contrast to his disciples and other fellow Jews (who hear but do not listen), this deaf and mute Gentile becomes a herald of God’s mighty deeds in Jesus.
Kind of writing
This is a regular healing story with the following format:
There is a sick person, whose symptoms are described
Jesus and the sick person meet
A gesture is made, often with an accompanying healing word
The cure is immediate
Various reactions are registered
All the above “moments” are present in this story. What is intriguing here is that a Gentile is brought by Gentiles to Jesus. Gentiles were those to whom the word of God had not been given: He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. (Ps 147:19-20)
Old Testament background
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. (Isa 35:5-6)
Therefore the righteous plundered the ungodly; they sang hymns, O Lord, to your holy name, and praised with one accord your defending hand; for wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute, and made the tongues of infants speak clearly. (Wis 10:20-21)
The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. (Ps 146:7-8)
New Testament Foreground
The only other story that resembles this one in Mark is the cure of the epileptic boy in chapter 9, which closes with this scene:
Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. (Mark 9:24-28)
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Rom 10:5-13)
Verse 31 A glance at the map will show just how odd the directions for the journey are. Sidon is some 32km north of Tyre and the Decapolis lies east and southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps another indication that Mark is unfamiliar with the Holy Land? Tyre is mentioned a few times in this Gospel (Mark 3:8; 7:24, 31). The Decapolis (lit. the Ten Cities) was also mentioned earlier in Mark (Mark 5:20). If Mark were written in Syria, he may simply have wished to place stories in the vicinity of his audience. Verse 32 The description is very complete and in the right order—perhaps he had an impediment in his speech because he was deaf? In rabbinic sources, a deaf person is often placed in the category of the mentally ill, i.e., someone who is excused from keeping the Law. The laying on of hands is a traditional gesture. Saliva was thought, according to Pliny, to have healing power. This healing is one of the Markan stories omitted by Matthew and Luke. This could possibly have been because their copies of the Gospel did not contain this tale. However, it is more like that they were wary of the “magical” elements and therefore chose to leave it out. Verse 33 The physical gestures would not have surprised Jesus’ contemporaries. Healing stories are common in Hellenistic writings and often the healer uses some such action or gesture. Verse 34 Looking up to heaven is a gesture of prayer. Sighing was thought to indicate the drawing down of spiritual power. The healing word is spoken in Aramaic, a witness attesting the original language of the oral tradition and the antiquity of the story. “Be opened” applies to both the man’s ears and his mouth. There may be reference to Is 42:6-7 and 49:8-9. Verse 35 As often in Mark, the immediacy of the cure is evidenced. Mark has the sequence of the cure exactly right: condition, healing, proof. Verse 36 This command is often disobeyed in Mark: 1:34, 44, 45; 7:24. It is probable that the historical Jesus was indeed wary of misunderstandings in relation to what kind of Messiah he was called to be. It is also probable that Mark has increased the command to silence as a theme in his Gospel, the so-called “Messianic Secret.” It is an attempt to answer the question, how was it that after all the preparation, the chosen people did not in reality recognise Jesus at all? The (difficult) answer is, in order that salvation might be opened to the Gentiles. Cf. Romans 11. At the level of the narrative, the contrast between the command (v. 36a) and the spontaneous reaction of the crowds (v. 36b) creates a strong effect of irony. Asking a man who has just recovered the power to speech to be silent seems on the harsh side! Verse 37 Being astounded is part of the reaction of the crowd in Mark. Apparently engaged, astonishment turns out to be a static reaction, actually going nowhere. The quotations echo Isaiah 35:3-4 and Wisdom 10:21. “He has done everything well” echoes similar statements elsewhere, such as: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Gen 1:31) “All the works of the Lord are very good, and whatever he commands will be done at the appointed time.” (Sir 39:16)
Pointers for prayer
1. The healing of the deaf mute provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of communication in our lives. The healing touch of Jesus brought the man from isolation into community. Who have been the people who touched you when you felt isolated and alone and helped you to come out of painful aloneness? For whom have you done this? 2. Deafness is symbolic of being unable to hear what is being said to us. What a difference when our ears are opened! Perhaps you can recall a time when your ears were opened and you heard in a new way that you were loved — by God or by another person. 3. Words are not the only form of communication. Actions can speak louder than words. Recall times when this was brought home to you. 4. Being able to say what is in you is the other side of communication. Perhaps there have been occasions when you have struggled to find words to express what is deepest in you—your faith, your values, your love. Then something changed and you found the words. What was it like to be able to express your deepest self?
Open our ears to your redeeming word and move our hearts by the strength of your love, so that our every word and work may proclaim as Messiah, Jesus the Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
The five senses enable us to engage with others, with the world and with reality in general. We realise their significance when for whatever reason our senses no longer “work” as well as before.
The senses are also used in a transferred meaning, especially hearing and seeing, to point to faith.
Hence it is that at Baptism a special and quite beautiful prayer is said over the newly baptised. It is prayer we can use again and again all our lives. Prayer (from the rite of Baptism) “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen.”