Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
With today’s Gospel reading we enter into a central part of Mark’s Gospel. The section begins with the healing of a deaf man and ends with the healing of a blind man. These are not just miracle stories about Jesus’ power but have a teaching purpose.
Jesus has just been in the Gentile area of Tyre and Sidon (on the Mediterranean coast in modern Lebanon) and has moved on to the area of the Decapolis (Ten Towns), on the east bank of the Jordan River. It was basically a Gentile, a non-Jewish area.
There a man is brought for Jesus to heal. He was deaf, that is, he could not hear and he had an impediment in his speech, that is, he could not speak properly. It does not say he was like that from birth.
The healing process Jesus uses is almost like a ritual and, in fact, it was. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ear and puts spittle on his tongue. (Spittle was believed to have healing properties and today we know this is actually true.) At the same time Jesus looked heavenward – to his Father – and said, in Aramaic, "Be opened".
Immediately the man was healed: he could hear and speak perfectly. The people around were astounded. They cried out almost in chorus: "He has done all things well; he makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak." They were echoing the lovely words from Isaiah in the First Reading: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy." The future promised by the prophet has now arrived.
Model of baptism
The way Jesus heals the man reminds us of the Sacrament of Baptism. Through the gift of faith which precedes adult Baptism, our ears are opened to hear the Word of God and our tongues are loosened to speak about Christ to others. Before we became germ-conscious, not to mention AIDS-conscious, it was part of the baptism ceremony for the priest to touch the ears of the person being baptised and to put spittle on the tongue.
Baptism is a sign of our full incorporation into the Body of Christ, his Church. It involves a total commitment on our part to the way of life that Jesus calls us to follow. A constituent part of that commitment is a growing openness to hear what Jesus says to us and a growing ability to be able to share our faith with others. Unlike the man in the Gospel story we don’t normally find ourselves immediately endowed with these gifts.
Poor listeners? Poor speakers?
If we are honest, many of us are not very good at either listening or speaking, where God is concerned. Some have even stopped hearing. In catechism class they heard all about the 7 sacraments, the 10 commandments of God, the 6 commandments of the Church, the 7 deadly sins and they now feel there is nothing more to learn.
They may not realise it but they have become deaf! And, being deaf, they cannot speak either. They have nothing to say, nothing to share. Alas, it is not infrequent to meet Catholics who are highly qualified in their secular profession but are basically illiterate in their faith. What really is distressing is that, in their ignorance, they are often not slow to pontificate and tell others what Christianity is about.
Others, though, are good at listening. They want to know more about the meaning of Jesus and his Gospel in the changing circumstances of their lives. But they, too, though good at hearing may do very little speaking, very little sharing. Yet, to hear the Word of God and not to proclaim it is, in the mind of the Gospel, a contradiction. As Jesus said once, there is not much point in lighting a lamp and then hiding it away. A light is supposed to share its light.
In the Gospel, really to hear the Word of God is to carry it out. "Hearing" implies: listening, understanding, making the message one’s own and living it out in word and action.
A committed evangelist
Although Jesus tried to restrain the man in today’s Gospel, the cured man and all those around proclaimed what had happened everywhere they went. Really the man just had to do it. After all, he was now hearing and he was now able to share with others what he had heard and experienced. If we were really excited about the Good News of Jesus Christ, if we were really excited about the experience of having the Christian vision of life, we would have to do exactly the same.
If we were like the disciples after Pentecost, if our being Christian was truly a deep and liberating experience and not just a set of doctrines to be conformed to, we too could not keep ourselves from letting other people know.
The problem is that for a long time we see our religious as something personal between ourselves and God: being morally good, keeping in the state of grace, going to Church at fixed times and receiving the Sacraments. The rich man in the Gospel told Jesus he had kept all the commandments. Do I need to do more? he asked. Yes, he was told, let go of everything you have, share it with the poor and needy, and then come and follow me.
Have we heard that message yet? Have we, for instance, heard today’s Second Reading? How do we treat different kinds of people in our society? If we are honest, we know that there have been times when we have treated people in exactly the way James describes: obsequious to our well-heeled friends or people we think are important and off-hand and even rude to strangers, especially those who are obviously at the lower rung of society.
What are our attitudes to wealth and poverty? Which people do we regard as really rich and enriching? What kind of wealth are we in pursuit of? Are we totally free of discrimination in areas of sex, race, religion, class, occupation…?
Our answers to these questions will tell us how much we have really heard the Word of God. They will also tell us how we communicate to others by our words and our actions and attitudes.
Yes, we are often deaf and we are often dumb. We have lost the capacity both to hear and to speak. We have lost the ability to recognise the voice of God calling to us in the many changing situations, both good and bad, of our society. God is shouting at us through the happenings described in our newspapers and television programmes. When we see something we don’t like we say, "Tut, tut" or "What is the world coming to?" and just switch channels to the never-never world of soap operas or sports.
So, let us pray today for the gift of hearing, to hear the voice of God calling to us in everything that will happen this day. Let us pray for the gift of speech, that is, to be so filled with the liberating experience of knowing Jesus that we simply cannot refrain from sharing that experience with all those around us.