Text: Mark 7: 31-37
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.”
If we look at this text critically I think we find some clues within the story that encourage us to look at this story more as metaphor than an actual event. This is important for us to recognize, as the metaphor of any story can be much richer, much more diverse and longer lasting than any singular event. I recognize that some Christians consider the idea of metaphor an attack of the scriptures, but I don’t look at it that way. I actually believe the metaphorical is richer and offers more abundance than does a literal interpretation. There is also a very real possibility that the metaphorical story grew out of an actual event and has been modified here and there through the oral tradition before it was actually written down.
One clue to the metaphorical is something I was not aware of before I began to study this text in more detail. The opening sentence, it turns out, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not a New Testament scholar by any means, and my New Testament geography is probably in the lower percentile. So I was interested to learn that the outline of the route that Jesus reportedly had taken to get to this area doesn’t make sense. If we were to translate the opening sentence for our local region it would read something like this: “Then he returned from the region of the San Juans, and went by way of Boise, towards the Pacific, and ended in the region of the LC Valley.”
As I mentioned, I was not aware of this strange route outlined in the opening sentence of this story, but it communicates, at least for me, what happens during the years from an actual event to the time the story is finally composed. Another inconsistency that is hard to explain for me, is the idea that in the beginning the man apparently had been deaf most of his life. I say that because often people who have been born deaf, or lost their hearing early in life, have trouble speaking. They have never heard language, and do not know how to form words and speak the way that we speak. With advanced teaching methods, sign language and other tools, the deaf can learn, but I don’t think any of that was available in the first century of the Common Era. So my assumption is the man in the story has been deaf either his entire life, or the vast majority of his life. It is unlikely then that even though his ears were opened at that time, that he would somehow magically learn the language he could not hear all those years and begin speaking “plainly” as the text indicates.
The last point I wanted to call your attention to is in the text, Jesus takes the man away from the crowds and heals him privately. In this setting, without anyone watching, the text tells us that Jesus looked to heaven and sighed. I find that little detail to be quite interesting. When do we sigh? For me, a sigh usually indicates some level of frustration or resistance. Like you sigh before you begin your tax preparation, or you sigh when you need to tell your toddler for the umpteenth time to wipe their shoes on the mat outside, and not inside on the new carpet. You sigh when you are late for a meeting and you’re stuck in traffic. A sigh for me is an interesting observation about this particular scene as it unfolds; why would Jesus sigh?
We will never know why Jesus sighed, if he did, or why this detail was included in the text. But because it is there, we can assume it was written into the story for a reason, but we can only speculate as to what that reason may have been on the part of the story teller. My impression of the sigh, is an indication of Jesus communicating a feeling of repetition; like a non-verbal statement of “here we go again.”
I only say that because that is what fits with my overall interpretation of this particular story when we begin to look at the metaphorical layers present in what actually takes place. I think this story is about our almost universal human condition of not being able to hear, and then once we do, how easily we forget what we have learned. Allow me to elaborate just a bit.
There are a number of points that make sense to me that we find in this story that relate to our universal experience of spirituality or our experience of the Divine. The first point is that enlightenment or true “hearing” as an example, seldom comes to us in a crowd. I think it is much more likely that true insight, or true enlightenment, or true “hearing” to continue the metaphor, comes to us in those private moments of prayer or meditation rather than when we are part of a crowd. In other words, Jesus took the man away from the crowd and worked with him in private, and I think there is a lesson there for us as well. We will be more effective when we approach Jesus, or we approach our own spirituality, in private, rather than part of a group. This is not to say that all group experiences are invalid, but the personal time can be more intense and perhaps more productive.
I also think it is important for us to consider what Jesus says to the man and what a broad metaphorical interpretation is open for us when we consider the words; “be opened”. Of course in the story, we are to assume that Jesus was speaking only to the man’s ears and commanding them to be opened. But what are the metaphorical implications of having our ears opened for the first time? Not only our ears, but our minds, our attitudes, our assumptions, our prejudices, our very disposition are all impacted by the words “be opened”. We can be opened to new thoughts, new understandings, new ways of being and new outlooks on life. To receive the words “be opened” from Jesus, for me, means a whole lot more than simple physical hearing.
Another thought for me that is present in this text, is the idea that the man begins to speak plainly after the healing. Now I have already addressed the unlikely idea that we should view this situation in a literal sense. So we can explore what it might mean for someone to have a personal encounter with the Divine, and after the encounter, what they may have to say begins to make more sense than it did previously. In other words, they begin to speak plainly. What they say has substance and meaning, it is profound or stimulating or makes you think. When we are transformed by an up close and personal experience with God, often our speech is different from that time forward. We speak with greater clarity and with greater substance. We begin to speak plainly.
The last point I have time to make is this idea that Jesus asks the man and those with him not to say anything to anyone. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the New Testament. Often when Jesus did something for someone, particularly a physical healing, he instructs that person not to say anything to anyone. Of course, as is the case with this text, they usually go out and tell everyone they know. There are a lot of theories about this.
The observation I want to make is how quickly after a close encounter with Jesus the people involved forget what he told them. I don’t think the metaphor is actually about telling or not telling others about the healing. I think the metaphor is about how quickly we lose our way; how quickly we forget the instructions of Jesus.
For, me, this is commensurate with the human experience. We find enlightenment in private meditation and then a few hours later we forget our enlightenment and fall quickly back into our old habits, our old ways of thinking and our old attitudes of privilege or non-compassion. This part of the story underscores for me how important it is that we spend time daily if not more often in prayer and meditation. We need to visit the divine often because we forget so quickly. I believe the story carries an important message that we fail to follow instruction regularly and we will probably fail again. True change is slow and methodical and hard work. Even though in our private devotions one day we may see a glimpse of what it means to “be opened”, it takes a lifetime of work and practice to actually live into that high calling.
Food for thought. Amen.