(Mark 7: 31-37)
So when I read our scripture today, this healing of the deaf man in the gospel of Mark, there are two main questions I have for Jesus: The first one is, what is up with all the secrecy? That’s the first question. The second is, what did Jesus mean exactly when he told the deaf man, as The Message translation puts it, to “Open Up?”
See, I’ve never understood the secrecy thing. Not in nearly 20 years of ministry, four years of seminary, thousands of sermons written and preached and read and listened to. For the life of me I cannot understand why Jesus would go to such great lengths to keep a lid on this thing.
I mean, there are other miracles where Jesus commands the cone of silence. But here, first thing, Jesus takes this deaf man out of the public eye, “away from the crowd,” we are told. Then he heals him, then he commands the cone of silence.
And I don’t get that. Mainly because it didn’t work. Obviously. The fact that we’re reading about it two thousand years later means someone didn’t exactly follow the plan. In fact, Jesus’ request had the opposite effect. Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. This isn’t something you can keep a lid on, right? Surely Jesus knew that. Why set those miracle-amazed folks up for failure?
Besides, doesn’t this seem like the kind of thing Jesus would want people talking about? God at work, healing people? Not making it about himself; not posting a selfie with the healed man on Instagram, hashtag #anotherdayanothermiracle. No, just letting the word get out there on its own. He’s making people whole again, making their lives better. Surely that’s a good thing for people to talk about, right?
Don’t tell anyone. And yet they told everyone. Because a miracle happened. And Mark gives us the play-by-play. Jesus, putting his fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting on his fingers and touching the man’s tongue. A little on the gross side, to be sure. Maybe that’s why he wanted it private!
But there’s a verbal part to the miracle, too. There usually is – some command, some phrase. Here, Jesus offers one very simple word: EPHPHATHA. It’s a fun little word to say. Tell you what: I’d like for you to say it with me. Ephphatha (Ephphatha). Now you can tell your friends that you spoke Biblical Greek in church today, congratulations!
Ephphatha. That’s what Jesus tells this man, and we know that because the writer of Mark points it out directly in the text. In the original Aramaic, with a translation. It’s like using a highlighter, first-century Palestinian style. He wants us to pay attention. The word, we are told, means OPEN UP. Open up. And the man’s hearing is restored.
All of which leads me to my second question – what did Jesus mean exactly when he told the man, OPEN UP?
I mean, who or what is he talking to here? He doesn’t appear to be speaking to the man himself. If he were, it’d make more sense to say something like “Open your ears” or “let your ears be opened.” Besides the fact that this deaf man can’t hear anyway! So he’s not commanding the man to do the opening. Jesus says, “OPEN UP” – he’s commanding that which needs opening to be opened. That which needs healing to be healed.
I mean, granted, it’s a subtle difference, but these gospel writers love nuance. And here, Mark has Jesus going straight to the source of the problem. Commanding a deaf man’s ears to hear the wonder and beauty of the world around. To hear the voices of family and friends when they speak. To take in the sounds of nature and of community. We hear stories about people who lose one of their senses and eventually have their other senses make up for it. If they lose their sight, their sense of hearing or smell increases. How incredible the reverse of that must be – to gain a sense you didn’t have before and have this whole new world opened up for you!
Which makes me wonder if Jesus is speaking to more than just a pair of ears here. I mean, most of Jesus’ miracles don’t stop at the biological transformation. They go deeper. Because Jesus was about taking people deeper – deeper into themselves, deeper into their community, deeper into their faith. You don’t stick your fingers in someone’s ears and touch a little of your saliva to their tongue if you’re not about going deeper.
Our God is a God immersed fully in our lives, in our experiences, in our work and our play and our relationships. Every bit of it. The good and the bad. The parts of us we’re happy to put on display, and the parts of us we keep secret. Day 2 of the Montreat Youth Conference I led music for back in July, the theme of the morning keynote that day was “God Is In The Mess.” I love the image that conjures in my head. Sometimes it feels like God is just one part of many parts inside us, all jumbled up together, like jellybeans in a jar. And because God is in that mess, the command to “open up” is not imposed by sheer brute power or force. It is whispered from within; a healing balm on just the right places of our soul, where the healing is needed the most. It moves from there outward, curing other broken parts as it goes.
Ephphatha. Open up! What a wonderful miracle – and not just for a deaf man some two thousand years ago that Jesus happened upon on the way to Galilee. No, a wonderful miracle for us, living today. For our society, our culture, our church. Open up.
Which begs the question – open up what? What is the Ephphatha miracle most needed in our day and time?
You can go lots of ways with this, of course. We need our minds opened up. We need our hearts opened up. We need our churches opened up. On and on. But my mind, at least, wants to go a particular way.
My mind wants to drift back a few months ago, back to the basement of a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Make no mistake – the unquestioned tragedy of that shooting was the loss of nine lives gathered around the table for a Bible study. But there was another tragedy that night, one that haunts me just as much, if not even more.
For years, God knows how long, that young man had been culturally immersed in the world of white supremacism. A narrative – a narrative which convinced him that whites were superior and blacks inferior; that blacks in our country were seeking to claim a power and authority that was not theirs to claim. That black men were taking jobs, rights, taking a way of life they were not entitled to. Woven into this, a narrative of violence as a justifiable means to make the wrongs right. For him, this narrative grew so strong that, in his mind, he had to act.
So, in line with that narrative, he chose a historical black church known not just for being black but for being at the center of important conversations about race and civil rights. He chose to attend their Wednesday night Bible study, because for him, his Christian faith played a part in that narrative too.
And then something unexpected happened – what he found in that basement was not at all what he expected to find there. He didn’t find people who wanted to take over the country or steal jobs or win a supremacy battle. He didn’t find people who were inhospitable or unwelcoming. He found the exact opposite. They gave him a place at their table. They created community for him and with him. A whole different narrative that ran contrary to the one that defined his life.
In his confession to the police a day later, Dylan Roof reportedly said that, at one point, he started having second thoughts about following through on his plan because “the people were so nice.” And so for a moment – who knows how long, who knows how sincere – but for a moment, a little voice inside Roof’s head dared to think: You know, maybe all I’ve been brought up to believe about these people is not who these people really are.
In the end, though, tragically, he chose to follow the narrative that had taken deep root in his heart, rather than the truth that was sitting right around the table with him. He chose a narrative promulgated by fear and misunderstanding, instead of the flesh and blood in his midst. I’m sorry, he told one of them, but I have to do this. And he did.
The narratives that define us, the narratives we are brought up in or align ourselves with, these narratives are immensely powerful, rooted deep deep within us. They have the power to sway our thoughts and actions in a way little else does. Most of the time this is a good thing. The problem – and the danger – is when these narratives are defined by fear. More and more, it seems, we are seeing these kinds of narratives play out in dramatic ways – in state legislature votes, in political candidate stump speeches, in pulpits, in Kentucky county clerk offices. And in church basements. I mourn that lives were lost that day, but I also mourn that the narrative won. I mourn that a community of faith was making room for an EPHPHATHA miracle and it didn’t happen.
Let me ask you something: what narratives do you live by? What narratives define your life, define your thinking, define your actions? Are they narratives that anticipate a miracle to happen anytime, in both the huge and the sublime? Are they narratives that readily acknowledge the fact that more times than we realize, our ears aren’t fully opened, our eyes aren’t seeing clearly, our hearts aren’t loving completely?
Ephphatha, Jesus commands. Open up! Open up to my healing powers, so you can truly hear what I am saying and speak the words your healed heart wants so much to speak. Open up to my narrative – not a narrative trumpeted by hate-filled preachers or politicians on either side of the aisle with ambitions that are far from mine.
Open up, Jesus says, to the possibility that my grace that is sufficient for you is also sufficient for the very person you may not feel it’s sufficient for. Open up to the possibility that you may not be right. Open up and let love fill your whole being, take root there; instead of fear, which is the very opposite of love. Open up and see and hear things in a whole new way.
Open up, Jesus says, so you can look deep within yourself, deep into those places you dare not look. Look there and see the mess, and then see me in there. For that’s where I am, Jesus says, within you and with you in the mess, in the muck; the beautiful, complex, chaotic swirl of what it means to be made in my image.
And when you look there, Jesus says, open up to being opened; to allow my healing powers to make you whole all over again. Because that is who you were created to be – a child of my narrative. A narrative of love and grace and mercy. A narrative so you can see with fresh eyes, hear with new ears, speak with new words clearly and confidently the love that has transformed you through my healing touch.
Ephphatha, Jesus commands. Open up!
Is it any wonder that this miracle could not be kept a secret? Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. Maybe in this instance, just maybe, it’s okay to tell the secret anyway. For the world needs this miracle, my friends. Today. And it begins with us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!