"Ephphatha! Be Opened!"

Ordinary 23B

Mark 7: 31 37


If you are following, with us, the Three Year International Lectionary, you will observe that our readings from the Holy Gospels according to St John and St Mark have shown us Jesus as he progressively revealed himself and his mission. This is the last of those for now. Next we will have our attention focussed on the Way of Jesus, Son of Man.

To introduce us to the theme of our Gospel text and related readings (Is 35: 4 — 7 and James 2: 1 — 5), Mary Betz asks a poignant question:

To whom shall we look to see the presence and power of God? Today's readings tell us not to look to the powerful, the rich, the people whom our world looks up to because they have "succeeded". Jesus teaches us to look for God's presence in and among those who are most shut out of the mainstream of society. They are not only where God's healing presence and power most needs to be recognised and made manifest (by themselves and by others), but are also the keys to God's transformative reign for the rest of humanity.

This account is unique to Mark. It is fascinating, and was seen by the early Church as deeply symbolic. The early writers noted it is bad enough when a person is blind, deaf, and hardly able to speak. They saw in our Lord's action the challenge to ask: "What happens when the eyes, the ears and the tongue of the heart are blocked?"

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 31

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

All the commentators have difficulty with the geographical details. Jesus obviously approached, even if he didn't actually enter, a gentile locality which had many Jewish centres. It was seen from early times as symbolic of his message being made accessible by the whole gentile world. It was also seen as another attempt by Jesus to go to great lengths to get the disciples to a place of quiet seclusion where they could give their full attention to him.

Verse 32

There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man.

Wherever Jesus in fact was on this occasion, it was accessible to people (especially Jews) living in the region of the Decapolis (the Region of Ten Cities). The group who brought the deaf and mute man to Jesus were almost definitely Jews or Jewish sympathisers. We note that their faith preceded that of the unfortunate man. The man they brought had not been born deaf and mute. He could speak, but only partially and with great difficulty. All his friends ask of Jesus is merely a blessing.

Verses 33 and 34

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue.

He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means, "Be opened!").

Seven distinct actions took place during this unique cure (based partly on Charles Erdman's analysis):

1. Jesus took the man aside, away from the crowd. The original text adds, "by himself" emphasising aloneness with Jesus. Solitude always played a significant role in the life of Jesus. In this case it is both a symbol of deeper spiritual relationship, as well as a practical opportunity for our Lord to establish a personal rapport with the man.

2. Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. This was seen as symbolic of stretching his ears, i.e. increasing his capacity to hear.

3. Jesus then spat, presumably on to his fingers. Here we see an undeniable intimacy and strength of intention.

4. He touched the man's tongue with his spittle. Jesus thus made it clear to the man in mime (i.e. meeting him on common ground) he had a very strong desire to make his tongue alive with new life - in fact his own life.

5. Jesus looked up to heaven, acknowledging openly the source of his power.

6. He sighed deeply. This was always seen by our ancients as an inner, silent wordless prayer of intense yearning and of desire for God's mercy to be manifested powerfully. We therefore see Jesus praying with the man and for him.

7. After all this, Jesus then pronounced, "Ephphatha! Be Opened!" Again we recall that the ancients interpreted this as a command not just to the inner ear of the man, but the whole person.

Verse 35

At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

We do not know what the man said, and we never hear of him again. What we know with certitude is that whereas he had previously only spoken with extreme difficulty, spluttering and stammering, he could now speak clearly and gracefully. But the emphasis moves quickly to verses 36 and 37.

Verses 36 and 37

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."

Well! Our Lord commanded the tongues of the group to be silent. But their tongues have also been loosed, and even he who created them cannot keep them silent! The more he commanded, the more they kept talking, or more correctly in St Mark's language, declaring, announcing, proclaiming.

It is true our Lord commanded the group "not to tell anyone". The fact that they did exactly the opposite is, of course, in this case, not disobedience. The situation carefully constructed by Jesus was designed to show forth to the world the love, power and mercy of God.

As the prophet Isaiah declared:

"Then shall the mute tongue shout for joy"

(Isaiah 35: 6 Greek Septuagint)

Our ancients asked the question whose tongues were really the ones that were tied? Was it the deaf mute's or those of his friends who had the ability to publish and proclaim the works of God, but never did?

We read, the people were "overwhelmed with amazement". They asked our Lord for a blessing on their friend, and he performed an intensely ceremonial healing.

How fitting was the final accolade:

"He has done everything well"

The group may not have linked their comment to Genesis 1: 31, but the early Church did; for they saw in this great act of kindness the manifestation, the dawn, of the new creation.


The group also uttered another prophetic remark:

"He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak"

So, who are the deaf and the mute? Really, it is any whose eyes and ears of the heart are blocked, and who therefore fail to give praise to God. The "New Bible Commentary Revised" (Inter Varsity Press 1970) gives us food for thought:

"Dumbness usually results from deafness. If our ears are open to listen to the word of the Lord, then our tongues will surely be unloosed in praise, prayer and testimony. Furthermore, only as the Church hears the Word of God has it anything worthwhile to say".

Like the Apostles and first disciples, if we wish to proclaim the wonderful teaching of Jesus to the world, we need to let him take us aside and restore our ability to listen to him and hear the truth of his message. Then we will have something to say to the world which will be of eternal value. And like the people in this incident, we will not be able to keep silent! That is the real gift of the Holy Spirit which the world is desperately in need of: not a whole lot of weird noises and gestures preferred as some supposed sign of God's presence. Will Christians not wake up to the fact that the more they parade that sort of religion to the world, the more they will be written off as indulging in their own fantasies.

But this will require of the modern day disciple to take great care to put aside an excessive attention to the pleasures and interests of the world in order to pay constant attention to God's mouthpiece. Meditation on the Word of God is one of the "traditions of the elders" which our great saints from Apostolic times have faithfully passed down to us. This is one of the ways they taught us to give first place to Jesus, the Word of God, and to make his values our own. If we find ourselves yearning for a new world order, this will start with changes in our own life style rather than by ramming bizarre religion down other people's throats.

We offer a short clipping from the great Biblical sermon of St Augustine (5th Century) on this text. He uses an interesting approach to explaining our Lord's symbols, in an age when there were no ready-made commentaries and reference books to turn to.

Why was it that God, the Creator of all things when He sought to cure the deaf and dumb man, put His fingers into the man's ears and, spitting, touched his tongue with spittle? Simply because the Redeemer's fingers represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit. On another occasion He said, after casting out a devil, "If I cast out devils by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."

This same passage is given by another Evangelist in these words: "If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." By comparing these two texts we see that "finger" and "Spirit" are equivalent terms. Therefore, to put His fingers in the man's ears means to open the mind of the deaf person to obedience by means of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

There we have it! What God wants is for us to be freed by his healing touch to go forth and declare to the world, the good works of God. St Augustine says it so potently when he declares we should use the gifts of the Holy Spirit to obey God. Then we will, as was the deaf mute, be given the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit, to speak plainly so that all can hear and understand and obey!

A Prayer

Grant, O Lord, that the grace of holy Baptism
may reach its full development in me.

A Meditation

Next Page Home Site Map Search Disclaimer

Copyright 2000 Community of Affirmation