23rd Sunday (B) 5th September, 2021
‘Two ears, one mouth – our activity should be in that proportion’. How many parents or teachers have said that or something similar pointing out that we need to listen more than speak or listen before we speak.
And that’s precisely what happens in this gospel story: first, Jesus gives the man his hearing and then he gains the power of speech. In other words, listen and then speak.
Which of us has not had occasion to regret something we have said? We may have said something very quickly, something we have said in the heat of the moment, something we have said without thinking, without thinking through how our words might affect the other person or the situation. Of course, life is spontaneous and it would be a dull and artificial life if every word that came out of our mouths was the product of cold calculation. But perhaps more important that spontaneity is awareness. Awareness involves listening as well as seeing, listening not only to what is being said but also to what isn’t being said, listening to the atmosphere and reading body language.
In the story it not clear that the man himself was asking for healing. It says, ‘they brought to him this man’. Presumably when Jesus opened the man’s ears he would just have heard an indistinct noise and only gradually he would have focussed his new hearing on the distinct voice of Jesus himself, and of Jesus speaking to him directly and personally. That may be why Jesus took this man aside, away from the crowd. Then Jesus touched him – a big risk because, under Jewish law, to touch a sick person was to incur ritual impurity. But Jesus went even further, he touched him in an even more intensely personal way when he healed him with his own spit, a disgusting prospect to us but an action indicative of the personal involvement. Spit was considered to have curative qualities. And Jesus said ‘Ephphatha’ . Only after this, when the man has been taken aside by Jesus, had his ears opened by Jesus, has heard Jesus speaking to him does the man speak, and he does not just speak but speaks clearly.
Sometimes we don’t hear, we don’t listen, we are in the crowd or other things crowd us. We need to take ourselves into personal relationship with Jesus, to experience the personal quality of his care and concern for each of us, which we can discern from what he said and what he did – to listen to Jesus in our lives, and then live out that healing touch, as it were by speaking, either literally or by what we quietly do. In this way we may take his healing touch forward to others.
This Gospel passage about hearing first and then speaking has a further paradox in it. The man is healed, he hears and then he speaks but immediately Jesus tells the others not to speak, to be silent. Of course, in their exuberance they continue to tell everyone about what has happened. Why Jesus did this is a matter of some conjecture. Often in St Mark’s gospel Jesus gives this command to silence and this is called the Messianic Secret. It is possible Jesus needed time to prepare his disciples for what was to come but maybe his words are a caution against a dangerous enthusiasm that can sometimes take hold which leads to religious excess. Jesus had given this man a great gift, the gift of healing and we too have the potential always to find this healing touch in the very ordinariness of our lives. We will not be transported to some new Utopia where everything will be hunky dory but Jesus’ healing touch offers meaning, acceptance and joy in the midst of the mess, problems and stress of ordinary living. There seems to be much mess and many problems in our world at the moment and maybe there is a challenge for us all to help enable that healing touch that Jesus offers to be a present day reality.