Mark 7: 31 – 37 Jesus heals a deaf and mute man
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’) At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosed and he began to speak plainly.
Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’
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When I first read this passage, there were three things that puzzled me:
- Why did Jesus anoint the man’s tongue with spittle?
- Why did Jesus sigh when he looked up to heaven and said ‘Ephphatha’?
- Why didn’t those who witnessed the healing obey Jesus’ command not to tell anyone?
Anointing with spittle is the sort of thing a charlatan would have done. Jesus didn’t need to do it. He could heal people without touching them, without even being present. So why did he do it this time?
I think the answer may be because of the nature of the man’s disability. He was brought to Jesus by other people; I would guess they were relatives. He was deaf and could hardly talk, which suggests the condition had started early in life and had persisted. I wonder how somebody deaf would have been taught in 1st century Palestine? Did they have any form of sign language? How would those who brought the man to Jesus explain who Jesus was, and what he could do?
Jesus needed a way of communicating to the man what he was doing. When he placed his fingers in the man’s ears, and spat and touched his tongue, he was using simple but powerful ways of showing that he intended to heal him.
Alright, but surely he didn’t need to tell the man? He could just have healed him and left it at that, couldn’t he?
I shall come back to that point, but I need to consider the third of my questions before I do.
Why didn’t those who witnessed the healing obey Jesus’ command not to tell other people?
We’ve seen Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, and we’ve seen him walk on water and we’ve seen him heal physical and mental illness. He’s in charge of the natural world. And yet the witnesses disobey him.
And the answer comes down to our free will. God created each human being with the capacity for making moral choices between good and evil; between obedience to God and disobedience. The witnesses of the healing of the deaf and mute man were told explicitly by Jesus not to tell anyone else. It’s a simple instruction. There’s no doubt or ambiguity about what they are asked to do. But God, through Jesus, doesn’t compel obedience.
Doesn’t that show how easy it is to sin? If we can disobey such a simple command from the mouth of Jesus himself, it’s not at all surprising that we frequently fail when confronted by more difficult tasks. We must cultivate the habit of obedience in everything we do.
I think it is this element of free will that accounts for the way Jesus carried out the healing. Although his supporters had brought the deaf man for healing, the man himself may have hardly understood what was going on. Perhaps he would have rejected the healing without Jesus touching his ears and anointing his tongue. Again, if we are to receive Jesus’ healing, we must cultivate the habit of listening and recognising his voice at all times.
Perhaps this is particularly true for any form of healing ministry. Healing always takes place in a wider context of family, friends and neighbours. When Jesus sets someone free from illness, whether physical or mental, he sets them free to take their place in the world.
Which brings us to the deep sigh that Jesus gave when he looked up to heaven. Is it inconceivable that it was a sigh of sadness that people should be so slow to believe, so slow to trust, so slow to obey?
When I think of my own slowness in all these ways, it wouldn’t surprise me.
And yet Jesus persists. He does everything necessary, selecting the way he deals with every individual according to their needs.
What a great Saviour we have!
Thank you for my Saviour, Jesus, and for the love that you show me through him. Please help me to listen and obey you to the limits of my capacity, because you want only the best for me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.