Gospel for the Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (5 September 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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. Though Matthew makes reference in a general way to such healings – see Matthew 15.29–31.
“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.)
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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre etc: The region of Tyre is immediately to the north of Galilee, on the Mediterranean coast. The town of Sidon was about 35kms further north than Tyre. The region of the Decapolis is over on the south-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, 2002, 301). “The movements of Jesus here are not “logical,” since if he is on his way to the Decapolis, a further journey north would be unnecessary. Mark wants to have Jesus move north, then east, and finally south to compass the whole of the southern Phoenician (Gentile) territory prior to his journey to Jerusalem in 8:22–10:52” (Donahue & Harrington, op cit, 239).
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. What might this gesture mean? Perhaps there is a hint in the general failure – amongst the Jews, including his disciples, but not amongst the Gentiles – to understand Jesus’ teachings and actions and the misrepresentation of what he is doing therefore. Thus when Jesus walks on water the disciples are fearful and confused – see 6:45-52; “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52); Jesus openly criticizes the disciples for their lack of understanding – see 7:18; the situation seems to get worse as their journey continues: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? (8:18). And so Jesus “takes him aside from the crowd privately” because there is more chance that be himself, as it were, and less chance of misrepresentation by a skeptical crowd?
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 in understanding the 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: Perhaps 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.)
Reflection – “Solitude”
Today’s Gospel – Mark 7:31–37 – reveals something quite extraordinary. According to Mark, Jesus travelled – walked! – from Gennesaret – on the north-western edge of the Sea of Galilee – west-north-west to “the region of Tyre” – where he encounters the Syrophoenician woman. Mark tells us that Jesus “returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis”. Sidon is in fact about 35 kms north of Tyre. The Decapolis – where he encounters the deaf-mute man in today’s Gospel – is on the south-eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. That would be close to 200kms in all. Scholars vary on their interpretation of this extraordinary journey. However, it is entirely reasonable to assume Mark did not make a mistake, and that he is telling us of a real journey made by Jesus with his disciples.
The journey is mostly through Gentile territory – places where a Jew could feel very lonely and vulnerable. Add to that, Jesus’ action in healing the deaf-mute: “He took him aside in private, away from the crowd”. The same gesture is described in Jesus’ healing of the blind man – see 8:22-26. And, on more than one occasion, Jesus took his disciples away from the crowds – see 4:34, 6:31–32, 9:2 & 28 and 13:3.
We can recognize here the place of solitude in Jesus’ life. The English word “solitude” has its roots in the Latin word, solus, meaning “alone”. It is, however, quite different from simply “being alone”. Solitude is about being present to yourself – really present. That can indeed be aided by being alone. However, we can also experience solitude in a crowd. And we can resist solitude when we are alone. Solitude is a choice. It is facing the truth within. Solitude is an essential part of becoming human.
This is in fact the central issue in Baptism where we find our true identity in Christ: “From the very beginning it is evident that the most fundamental question raised by Baptism is our true identity. When an adult presents himself or herself for Baptism …. they are supposed to have entered within themselves, to have struggled as far as they could to dispel all their illusions about themselves, to come to some rough answer to the questions: ‘Who do I think I am? What do I think I am doing? and Why do I think I am doing it?’” (Thomas Merton, The New Man, London: Burns & Oates, 1964, 149).
In speaking of Jesus’ journey and his manner with people who seek his healing presence, Mark describes a man of presence, a deeply reflective man, committed to the truth of who and what he is. The journey would no doubt have been punctuated by times of silence. The naivete of his companions would have . . . what? . . . grated? Lying on the ground under the stars at night would have evoked reverence and awe – and perhaps fear? His real journey would have been the journey within – as it is for each of us.
Place yourself with Jesus and his companions on the way. How do you experience yourself?