Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1 IS 35:4-7A
Responsorial Psalm PS 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
- (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
Reading 2 JAS 2:1-5
Alleluia CF. MT 4:23
- Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MK 7:31-37
Homily—September 8 & 9, 2018 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today we hear about a frankly odd miracle story that occurs only in the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a source, apparently thought they had other miracle stories they could tell that would make the same point without repeating this one. And the Gospel of John tells us only seven “signs” that Jesus performed, and this is not one.
I have been blessed with good hearing despite the time I spent on a tractor or mowing the lawn without any ear protection. I do remember once going to an outdoor concert with big speakers that blasted the music out and the next day I had trouble hearing and that did scare me a bit.
As this Gospel scene opens, Jesus has returned to the area where he had healed a man possessed by a “legion” of demons only to have those demons escape to occupy nearby pigs, sending the whole herd hurtling over a cliff. Now, the people who then begged Jesus to leave their territory bring him a man who is deaf and beg Jesus to heal him. Obviously it would have been difficult for the man to know who Jesus was or even to know what or how to ask Jesus for healing.
Mark tells us that Jesus took the deaf man aside, away from the crowd. The word for taking him aside is usually translated as “receive” rather than “take,” giving us the impression that by going apart, Jesus was receiving the man into his private company for an encounter more personal than what can happen in the midst of a crowd. Jesus then performed the healing by putting his fingers in the man’s ears and placing his own spittle on his tongue.
Those healing gestures were typical in Jesus’ cultural milieu. Nevertheless, the willingness to touch an infirm person was a particular sign of solidarity and, even though some people in Jesus’ day considered spittle as a healing agent, sharing his saliva with the man was a gesture of special intimacy. After performing those gestures, Jesus assumed a posture of prayer. He then spoke as God had spoken at the creation; just as light appeared at God’s command, when Jesus said “Ephphatha!” the man’s ears were opened and he could speak clearly.
The healing so astounded the crowds that they could not contain their desire to spread the word about it. Gentile or Jew, we do not know, but the popular verdict was, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Obviously, the healing was much more acceptable behavior than launching two thousand pigs into the sea!)
Jesus’ healing ministry always went beyond a simple cure. Everyone freed from an infirmity remains subject to other physical problems and ultimately to death. Jesus’ healings did not eliminate human mortality, but they were oriented to the whole person, not just a health condition.
To give hearing and speech back to a deaf and mute man is tantamount to giving him back his very self. Why? The act of looking at another person without speaking to him constitutes a rudeness we call staring. However, “one can look at another without limit of time so long as a conversation is going on” (W. Ong). That transformation from alienation to relationship is the way Christ saves the deaf man. Our voice reveals our interior self, reinforces the fact of our presence, and communicates a sense of mystery. The “poor in the world” who obey Christ’s command to “Be opened!” become “rich in faith.”
How good is our hearing today? Have you noticed selective hearing happening around you? When parents seek to communicate certain things to their children—such as the need to clean up their room (now!), or to finish their homework or get ready for bed—the children often seem to become strangely hard of hearing. On the other hand, when parents are trying to share with each other information they want to keep to themselves the same children seem to develop super hearing. Sometimes it is hard to hear what someone else says about politics, race, morality and religion when it is not what we agree with. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
Taken together, this week’s readings remind us of how much we have to learn and how cautious we should be in making judgments. For now, we need to remember that salvation comes with a price: The more we want from God, the more like God we are called to become.