23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2021

My Dear People, 

When Jesus arrived in the Decapolis, He received a very different reception than on His first visit, when the people begged Him to leave (5:17). Perhaps His way had been prepared by an unlikely evangelist: the liberated demoniac, who broadcasted to the whole region what Jesus had done for him *5:20). Now, the inhabitants recognize Jesus as a worker of mighty deeds who has compassion on the afflicted. So, they bring to him a deaf man, and beg Him to lay His hand on him (as 5:23). 

The rare word for speech impediment (mogilalos), appears only once elsewhere in Scripture, in the Greek translation of a prophecy by Isaiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing Isa 35:5-6).  This exultant promise refers to the joyful return home of the Jews after their exile in Babylon. But Mark is hinting that the Gentiles, too, are now heirs to these blessings. Previously deaf to God and mute concerning His saving deeds, now, in response to His mighty works of healing, they are able to hear His voice and sing His praises. 

For some people it is important to have a private encounter, away from the stares of the crowd, so that Jesus can minister to their needs one-on-one. Many of Jesus’ healings take place in full public view (see 3:3), but in this instance, Jesus intuitively understands the unique needs of the deaf man.  

 Jesus performs the healing in no less than seven steps, as if speaking in sign language so the deaf man can follow what He is doing. After taking him aside, He puts His finger into the man’s ear, spits into His hand, touches the deaf man’s tongue, looks up to heaven, groans, and says to him, Ephphatha! The spitting should be interpreted as Jesus’ spitting on his own finger, then touching it to the man’s tongue, so that both of his impaired organs are healed by Jesus’ direct touch. In the ancient world, saliva was considered to have therapeutic qualities. Looking up to heaven is a gesture of prayer (see 61), expressing His total reliance on the Father. It is the only place in the Gospel where Jesus is said to groan, perhaps because of His grief over a person so ravaged by the effects of the fall. St. Paul uses a form of the same word to speak of the “inexpressible groaning” of the Spirit as he intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26).

Some of Jesus’ gestures may strike a modern reader as crudely physical.   In fact, in every age, the Bible’s profound respect for the body as a vehicle of divine grace has scandalized some  who would prefer that God act on a purely spiritual plane. But this healing illustrates once again the sacramental quality of the body—its ability to be a visible sign and instrument of the divine grace and the fact that Jesus’ work of salvation involves the whole human being, soul and body. 

Jesus completes the healing with a word of power: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”  (As in 5:41) Mark’s preservation of the original, or in Aramaic, shows how deeply this healing impressed itself on the memory of His Disciples. Jesus’ ministry to the man was unusually elaborate, but the healing is instantaneous and complete. His faculties are restored to the full functioning for which they were designed, and he is then able to communicate freely with others. 

But, oddly enough, Jesus now enjoins strict silence on the man who can now speak. Why would Jesus not want people to spread the news? Probably because of His messiahship.   His miracles point to the truth of his messianic identity—but they are only part of the truth. The full truth of what it means to be Messiah will be revealed in the second part of the Gospel. But ironically, Jesus’ injunction falls on deaf ears. The word  proclaimed is the same used for Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel in 1:14, and for the Church’s later preaching of the good news (13:10). Even though their understanding is incomplete, the people of the Decapolis cannot contain their excitement about the marvelous deeds done by Jesus. 

This healing, like others, is followed by an exclamation of astonishment, but also by a mini confession of faith, alluding to Isa. 35:5-6:  “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Once again Jesus has performed a role that Scripture ascribes to God alone: “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb?  Or who gives sight to one and makes another blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exod.  4:11; see Wis. 10:21). 

Yours in Christ, 

Fr. Vincent Clemente


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