Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but 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.” (Mark 7:31-37, New Revised Standard Version)
Years and years ago, when I was trying to make my mark as a journalist, I used to look at the supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer and the Star, and I would think to myself what a blast it would be to work for that kind of newspaper. If there was nothing exciting to report, you could just make something up! Like Angelina Jolie being a secret cannibal (I always expected Brad Pitt to mysteriously disappear). Or Elvis Presley faking his own death to live in a trailer park near Waco. Or George W. Bush and Barak Obama meeting with space aliens. Or that someday there would be a space alien living in the White House.
Of course, sometimes the tabloids don’t have to make stuff up. All they need to do is follow certain celebrities around (not mentioning any names), and they quickly uncover truth that is much stranger than fiction.
A tabloid journalist would have been the perfect reporter for the events recorded in Mark 7:31-37. First-century supermarket patrons would be attracted by the banner headline: “I’m cured!” In smaller print, they would read, “Nazarene spits, says magic word.” There would be a full-color photo of the miracle’s fortunate recipient, with instructions to turn to page two for the full story; gossip, titillation, drama, miracle—this surely fits the tabloid genre.
But there’s a catch. Jesus does not want this story in the tabloids—or anywhere else, for that matter. Mark reports two statements that Jesus made here: “Ephphatha” and “Don’t tell anybody!” Don’t let anyone know about this.
Actually, if you’ve read the gospels, you’ll know that Jesus often tried to hush up his miracles. There’s a lot of speculation about why he did that, but usually—as in this case—his “gag order” was ignored. Mark reports, “The more he ordered them [to tell no one], the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36). And that’s human nature, isn’t it? There’s something about a secret that makes us want to tell it.
As I said before, there’s been a lot of speculation about why Jesus so often tried to keep news of his miracles from leaking out. One theory that makes some sense to me is that he wanted to avoid sensationalism. He didn’t want people to get stuck on the headline and miss the good news. He wanted them to view each miracle as one more indication that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
Jesus’ ministry was not a magic show. His miracles were not sleight-of-hand carnival tricks. No. They were meant to show forth the Reign of God. So it must have frustrated him that people so rarely honored his request for secrecy. It must have irked him to realize that people thought of him as a worker of wonders—a “faith healer”—but ignored the message he wanted to bring them.
Even so, his compassion was stronger than his frustration. In today’s passage, although Jesus wants to avoid publicity that would reveal his power, that does not prevent him from healing the deaf man. Mark says: “They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).
So—off in private, away from the curious public—Jesus touches the man and heals him. Notice that this is no sterile, clinical, medical procedure. It involves touching, spitting, putting his fingers inside the man’s ears, laying his fingers on the man’s tongue.
The story is so carefully preserved that even the Aramaic word Jesus speaks to the man is recorded: Ephphatha, which means, “be opened.” Then he says, “Don’t tell anybody.” But, really, if Jesus had healed one of us, giving that person the gift of words, wouldn’t we want to shout that good news from the rooftops?
Ephphatha. The word is like a cool breeze. It opens the man’s ears. It releases his tongue. It enables him to speak plainly. And on one level, that’s all this story is about—it is the story of one man’s healing. However, on another level, this miracle has a significance that goes far beyond what seems obvious.
In recent years, we have come to better understand that hearing and speaking are two parts of one whole. If you cannot hear, then your ability to speak is profoundly impaired. This is true in a literal, physical sense, but it also has wider implications.
Over my years of ministry, one thing I’ve noticed is that, as a rule, folks in mainstream denominations (like my own) speak very little about God. We don’t seem to have much to say about how the Lord has acted in our lives.
I’m sure that most of us would agree that our faith is important to us, and that God is very real to us. Some of us might even say that our religion touches every part of our lives. And yet, if we were asked to explain what we mean—to give details or examples—I suspect that most of us would be tongue-tied.
Just like the deaf man in our gospel reading, we seem to have a speech impediment when it comes to talking about God. Even if we cherish our relationship with the Lord, we can find no words to express how we feel. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be that we are deaf to the Spirit’s voice? Deaf, perhaps, because we have not yet learned how to listen for it? Could it be that because we do not listen, we also do not hear? Do not pray? Do not open our hearts to God?
The thing is, we have to make time to listen. We have to be willing to allow Jesus to take us aside in private, away from the crowds and the busy-ness; away from the background noise that drowns out his words.
Something is definitely wrong with the rhythm of our lives when we have no time for quiet contemplation and prayer. Because without that—without a daily discipline of waiting on the Lord and resting in the Lord—we will never learn the language of the Spirit.
We all need to spend time away from the crowds, having our deaf ears opened and our speech impediments removed. And as we learn how to listen, we will hear the gospel being spoken ever more clearly. Its sounds might appear strange at first, even difficult to recognize. Its message to us may not be quite what we imagined. But if we keep listening, our understanding will grow, and—before we know it—we will have our own gospel words to speak.
Make no mistake about it: the gospel is stuttering its way to life among us. When our words fail, Jesus’ word of grace blows over us, like a cool breeze from heaven: Ephphatha—“be opened.” Listening for that word won’t get us into the tabloids, but we may begin to understand more fully that the gift of words is part of what Jesus offers when he tells us, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”