Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:31–37 – ESV)
This story is unique to Mark. Strangely, Matthew and Luke do not use it.
The miracle occurs within Gentile territory. We do not know anything about the deaf and dumb man and his family.
We are reminded of a similar miracle where Jesus cures the blind man: “Some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.” (Mark 8:22-26). Neither Matthew nor Luke record this incident either.
The messianic prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6 is brought to mind: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” See also Isaiah 42:19 and Exodus 4:11. One commentator writes:
“The story is a prime example of the vivid quality of Mark’s narrative style. The ailment of the man is described in detail, as are Jesus’ initial contacts with him: He takes him aside, puts his fingers in his ears, spits, and touches his tongue. Prior to the healing command Jesus ‘sighs’. Then he speaks in a ‘foreign’ tongue, and the healing occurs. The reaction to the miracle is strongly dramatized. Such details make this narrative similar to magical cures current in the Hellenistic world. Groaning and use of a foreign tongue may reflect techniques found in the magical papyri. The actions seem to be a form of sympathetic magic; placing the fingers in the ears mimics their opening, and spitting and ‘anointing’ the tongue imitate expelling an obstacle to speech. These similarities may explain the omission of the story by Matthew and Luke. More positively, such gestures are appropriate in a Gentile setting in which Jesus appears as both similar to pagan healers and superior to them (since ultimately the healing is due to a command of Jesus).” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 242.)
Then he returned from the region of Tyre etc: The region of Tyre is immediately to the north of Galilee. The town of Sidon was about 35kms further north than Tyre. The region of the Decapolis is over on the eastern side of the lake. If we take Mark’s description literally, this is a very roundabout journey that Jesus has taken! One commentator notes: “Since the Decapolis reached up to the lake only at its south-east quarter, a route from the region of Sidon to the lake in the region of the Decapolis would involve a considerable detour to the east and south. All of this route would be through non-Jewish territory, but there is no obvious reason why Jesus should go on such a long journey through this largely desert region in order to regain the lake. Mark’s geographical terms may not be used with precision.” (R T France, The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002, 301.)
taking him aside from the crowd privately: Similarly the blind man is taken aside in 8:22-26. It is difficult to know what we should make of this. We do note, however, that Jesus has taken the disciples aside on several occasions – see Mark 4:10, 6:31 & 7:17. Are we to suppose that there is a “deafness” and a “blindness” in the disciples that also needs to be healed?
he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue: Saliva is also used in Mark 8:23 & 25, and in John 9:6. Certainly, there are records that show that saliva was used as a healing agent at that time. Perhaps Jesus is using known healing methods to avoid appearing to be a magician? “Hiding” his miracles is a feature of Mark’s Gospel.
looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,”: Notwithstanding the difficult to understand actions described above, Mark makes it clear that it is the word uttered by Jesus and his intercessory power that brings about the miraculous healing. One commentator writes: “The story conveys the impression that it was rather Jesus’ word of command which effected the cure. For looking up to heaven in a healing context cf. John 11:41. Like the upward look at the feeding of the five thousand, specifically mentioned in all four accounts (6:41 and parallels), it emphasises the divine dimension in Jesus’ miraculous power” (R T France, op cit, 303).
And Jesus charged them to tell no one: We have heard this call before in Mark – see 1:44-45. This time it is addressed not just to the individual who is healed but to “them”. Perhaps it could mean the individual’s family or perhaps everyone present?
they were astonished beyond measure: One commentator suggests that this “indicates that the Jewish Messiah is now meeting with wider approbation, and paves the way for a crowd of four thousand, some of them from a distance away, to follow him out into a deserted area in the next pericope.” (R T France, op cit, 304.)
In today’s Gospel – Mark 7:31–37 – we hear about the travels of Jesus. Even allowing for the fact that Mark is not giving us an exact itinerary, he certainly gives the impression that Jesus travelled – walked! – a long way. “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” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, W B Eerdmans, 2002, 223-224). We should also note that the territory covered here is peopled by Gentiles. When Jesus had last been in the Decapolis region – see the cure of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:17 – the people wanted him to go away. It is hard to know whether the challenge of taking his message to the Gentiles was tougher than taking it to the Jews.
In the midst of this busy and challenging schedule, Jesus takes time to be close to a particular individual. The people “brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him”. Note first of all the request, “to lay his hand on him”. The people had come to expect this closeness from Jesus. A gesture of intimacy and care. They knew him to be a caring man. They trusted him.
Jesus took “him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue”. 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). Earlier in his Gospel Mark has reminded us of Jesus’ teaching that 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. Matthew and Luke also have followed Mark in this – see Matthew 12:1-8 and Luke 6:1-5.
“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.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 225.) The important thing, however, is not the medical detail but the healing presence.
Pope Francis reminds us that we “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” (Evangelii Gaudium, #169).