by Dayton A. Williams (July / August 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 4)
Here is a fresh look at Jesus' encounter with the deaf man in Mark 7. The story is part of Proper 18 (13 after Pentecost) for September 10
Mark 7:31-37: 31 Jesus left Tyre traveling through Sidon toward the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis. 32 Some people brought to Jesus a deaf man who could not speak clearly. They begged Jesus to touch him. 33 Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd. Then, he put his fingers into the man's ears. Jesus spat and touched the man's tongue. 34 Then, looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," which means, "Open up." 35 Immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke clearly. 36 Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he prohibited it, the more eagerly they proclaimed it. 37 They were astonished and amazed, saying, "He does everything well; he even makes the deaf hear and gives speech to those who could not speak." (Personal translation)
We all learned this story in Sunday School as the "Healing of the Deaf Man." It is worth noting that the word "heal" does not appear in the text. Further, after the man's ears were opened and his tongue released, we are given no examples of any words he either heard or spoke.
Rather than focusing on the healing itself, I believe we can profit from examining how Jesus treated the deaf man before he restored his hearing and speech.
"Some people brought to Jesus a deaf man." The word translated, "brought" is related to the Greek word for "carry" or "tote." They had their hands on him. Why? Deaf people can walk. The deaf man could have walked to Jesus by himself. Deaf people aren't unaware of what's going on around them. If he had wanted to, he could have found and approached Jesus on his own.
Ironically, nothing in the text indicates the deaf man himself tried to ask Jesus for anything, or that he even wanted to meet him. Those people (notice it took more than one person to bring him to Jesus) were the ones making the request. I believe they may have been bringing him to meet Jesus against his own will. Why?
In the ancient world, people believed that deafness, blindness, and disabilities were punishments from God (or the gods). Such a person, or even the entire family, is bad or evil, and getting what is deserved. The Jews believed such people were unclean. They would refrain from associating with them to avoid becoming unclean by touching.
This man had been deaf since birth or infancy, which is why he could not speak clearly. He would have learned his lot in life, his place in society as a person living under God's curse. He would not have felt worthy to approach Jesus and risk making him unclean. I can picture those who brought him, going against convention, dragging this deaf man to Jesus.
Jesus is depicted as traveling southeast of Galilee in Greek territory. The Jewish disciples traveling with him would have been alarmed. "Jesus, don't touch that unclean sinner; stay away from him," they may have thought. How Jesus treats the deaf man is significant. Jesus accepts him and is not afraid of close association. He communicates by actions. He takes him aside, privately, for a personal encounter away from the crowd. What anxious looks of surprise would have shown on the disciples' faces when Jesus turned his back on the crowd to be alone with the deaf man!
Jesus conveys that he is going to help with the man's hearing by inserting his fingers into his ears. This is a personal kind of touch. When is the last time you placed your fingers into someone else's ears? Jesus' touch communicates acceptance as well as his healing intent. (No Q-tips here!)
Next, he shows he will help the man speak. Jesus spits, perhaps onto his fingers. He gets the deaf man to open his mouth, possibly, by opening his own and gesturing. He reaches out with his hand to touch his spit to the deaf man's tongue. The alleged curative properties of spit in the ancient world notwithstanding, Jesus has deepened the intimacy of their encounter with this contact. It may be just as miraculous that the man allowed Jesus to do it. The disciples, perhaps straining their necks to see, would have been mortified. Jesus had crossed over into a close communion with his new cohort.
What Jesus doesn't say next is noteworthy. He doesn't say, "Be healed," "Hear!" or "Let your ears be opened." He says to him, to the whole man, "Open Up." Perhaps, for the first time in his life, another human being (who was also the Son of God) has accepted him. Jesus physically and emotionally touched him. He treated him with respect. The effect was to change the man's whole outlook on life. Now he knows the truth about God and himself, and it is good news. Deafness is not a punishment from God. The deaf man is not evil. He is just like everyone else. God accepts him, loves him.
He's opened; his whole life is opened up, as it never had been before. He's doesn't need to fear God anymore. He's had a close, private, encounter with God's Son, and it was a positive, opening experience!
Jesus could have just given him his hearing and done nothing more. More notably, Jesus gave him special private time, touched him intimately, accepted him, and embraced him as a brother.
In keeping with the secrecy motif in Mark, Jesus orders the crowd to keep quiet about it. It's humorous: Jesus gives a deaf man the ability to hear and speak, but doesn't want him to use his new abilities. He doesn't want anyone to hear or speak of it. No wonder the mouths and eyes of those in the crowd were wide open with amazement!
Dayton Williams is the Metropolitan Chicago Synod's Pastor for the Deaf. He studied interpreting at Gallaudet University in 1976. He was certified as a Sign Language Interpreter in 1979. His e-mail: email@example.com
Other Resources for Deaf Ministry
Additional information, including a complete sermon, "Touch is Important" is available from Pastor Lisa Cleaver, director of Deaf Ministry, Division for Church and Society. Call (800) 638-3522 ext. 2692.
For more on Deaf Culture and Sign Language (including an on-line Sign Language Dictionary), contact http://deafworldweb.org