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.’
Regional boundaries were not clearly drawn as they are today, but in this reading Jesus is in another piece of foreign territory, the Decapolis. Unlike yesterday’s, today’s is a ‘hands-on’ healing. They asked for just that: they asked Jesus “to lay his hands on him.” He did more than that – much more. “Gestures and the use of a foreign word were commonplace among contemporary healers, and even suggest a sort of magical ritual,” writes a scholar. We might add the use of spittle to that list. But what is missing is even more surprising: there is no mention of faith, nor of casting out a demon.
Again, what are we to make of this? Jesus appears to be measuring himself and searching for his style. Does it upset one’s image of him? That might be a good thing. But it need not upset one’s faith. If in his youth he had to “increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour” (Lk 2:52), why should he not have to continue to grow throughout his life?
In the past, anyone who was deaf would also be unable to speak, never having heard speech. One problem became two problems. Then, people associate speech very closely with intelligence (despite all the stupid talk in the world), so a person who could not speak was in danger of being considered stupid (“dumb”). Two problems became three problems. Very soon a deaf person was not engaged at all in any communication and became a permanent ‘third person singular’. Three problems become four. Somebody in that situation wrote a book about his life, with the title, “Does He Take Sugar?”
Notice in today’s gospel passage how Jesus treated the deaf man. First, he took him aside from the crowd, from the people who were used to seeing him only as a third person singular. This was the reverse of what he normally did: see for example Luke 6:8, “Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone.’" One senses great sensitivity towards the deaf man. Another thing: he didn’t shout at the man, making him feel his deafness even more. He acted everything out. He put his fingers in the man’s ears, and touched his tongue, he raised his eyes to heaven, indicating to the man that it was from God that healing was to come…. He treated him as a second person singular.
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