Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Twenty Third Sunday (6 September 2015)

Gospel for the Twenty Third Sunday (6 September 2015)

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. 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.”

Introductory notes

This is one of only three stories of healing in Mark that do not appear in Luke and/or Matthew. Matthew does have what may be a brief summary of Mark’s story – see Matthew 15:29-31.

During Jesus’ first visit to this area, the people were not so friendly – see Mark 5:17.

“From the region of Tyre Jesus travels over twenty miles north to Sidon, then southeast across the River Leontes, and from there further south through Caesarea Philippi to the Decapolis on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. The horseshoe-shaped itinerary is not a step shy of 120 miles in length. It is a puzzling itinerary, rather like going from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia, by way of Philadelphia! Not surprisingly, all the other Gospels omit it. The circuitous journey has elicited various attempts to explain it. Some commentators suggest that the disappointing response of Galilee caused Jesus to experiment with a further and perhaps substitute mission to the Gentiles. Given the expressed purpose of his mission to Israel in 7:27, this suggestion seems unlikely. Other commentators suggest that Mark was either ignorant of Palestinian geography or that the journey is a fiction to underscore that the gospel is also available to Gentiles. Both of these suggestions are very improbable. It is difficult to imagine Peter, who is arguably a key source of Mark’s Gospel (see Introduction, 3–6), and who elsewhere is the probable source of information that is problematic (e.g., 9:1) or disquieting (14:66–71), allowing such a fabrication. Moreover, it would be highly unusual for Mark to fabricate a journey that makes him look ignorant of geography, and perhaps even foolish. Contrary to the judgments of some scholars, I find Mark’s geographical designations to be both defensible and accurate in every instance where they can be checked. That includes the present description. The journey of v. 31 may be odd, but it is not without precedent in Scripture. 2 Kings 2 records not one but two equally remarkable hairpin journeys, neither of which is entirely explainable. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee has been distinguished by constant movement around and across the lake, and the present journey continues the same strategy in Gentile regions. This journey, in fact, can be plausibly explained by a desire on Jesus’ part to escape the growing opposition of the Pharisees and Antipas. Jesus is not simply evading opposition or buying time, however. The journey deep into Gentile territory—indeed notorious Gentile territory—indicates his willful inclusion of the non-Jewish world in his ministry.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark W B Eerdmans, 2002, 223-224.)

The Greek word used here to describe the “impediment in his speech” is mogilalos (μογιλάλος). It is used only one other time in the Bible – we find it in the Septuagint version of Isaiah 35:5-7: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” The English word “speechless” is used in this translation. This text of Isaiah eschatological, a proclamation of the glory of the Lord and the joy of the redeemed. In 35:10 Isaiah concludes his proclamation: “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

In touching the man Jesus is probably violating the laws of purity or at least common practice. Recall Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities over their various “traditions” in last Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-13). We are not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath is made for us – see Mark 2:23-28. This is a common theme in Mark.

However: “But why the particular contact of touching the man’s tongue with spittle? As a bodily excretion, spittle normally fell under the category of polluting fluxes, along with menstrual blood, semen, urine, and pus (m. Zavim 1–5). The spittle of certain persons, however, was considered by the Jews to have healing power, especially when it was accompanied by conversation, applied to the area of sickness or injury, and accompanied by a formula or prayer. These signs occur in our healing, thus implying their healing effect.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 225.)


The focus of this story is the man, this individual person. Jesus takes him aside, singles him out from the crowd. By this gesture he is saying: “You are unique! I care about you as you!”

Custom forbad Jesus to get so intimate with this man who has an ailment. When it comes down to choosing between custom and people, we know what Jesus’ choice is going to be.

He gets close to this man. Physically close. Emotionally close. His very closeness is a powerful teaching. There must be love and respect, care and compassion in such closeness or it is a violation. There is no violation here and everybody sees that: “They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak’.”

This is incarnation.

“The Christian ideal will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us. Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #88.)

“All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #121.)

“This setting, both maternal and ecclesial, in which the dialogue between the Lord and his people takes place, should be encouraged by the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures. Even if the homily at times may be somewhat tedious, if this maternal and ecclesial spirit is present, it will always bear fruit, just as the tedious counsels of a mother bear fruit, in due time, in the hearts of her children.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #140.)

“In a culture paradoxically suffering from anonymity and at the same time obsessed with the details of other people’s lives, shamelessly given over to morbid curiosity, the Church must look more closely and sympathetically at others whenever necessary. In our world, ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze. The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this “art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #169.)

“Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #171.)

“To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and he sends us to his people; without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #268.)

“Jesus himself is the model of this method of evangelization which brings us to the very heart of his people. How good it is for us to contemplate the closeness which he shows to everyone! If he speaks to someone, he looks into their eyes with deep love and concern: “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him” (Mk 10:21). We see how accessible he is, as he draws near the blind man (cf. Mk 10:46-52) and eats and drinks with sinners (cf. Mk 2:16) without worrying about being thought a glutton and a drunkard himself (cf. Mt 11:19). We see his sensitivity in allowing a sinful woman to anoint his feet (cf. Lk 7:36-50) and in receiving Nicodemus by night (cf. Jn 3:1-15). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world. But we do so not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, #269.)