31 Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 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. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 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)
While we have been listening to Ephesians for the last 8 Sundays our Gospel readings have spoken about Jesus – as they always do – mainly from Mark with a brief word from John – and I think we all tend to just hear the accounts of Jesus from the point of view of the words he is saying – the teachings or the controversies – or the deeds – think usually miracles – and we concentrate on them. And, of course, they are important! However it is also important, I think, to be aware of the context – in this case the geography which really means people – the audience, the group around Jesus – that also need to be kept in mind.
If you look at any map at the time of Jesus you will see Jerusalem in south, just above the Dead Sea, and maybe Bethlehem a little dot next to Jerusalem. There’s the Jordan River, a line north south, and above the Dead Sea is the Sea of Galilee that huge inland lake. Around the Sea of Galilee are places like Capernaum and a bit south west away from it places like Nazareth and Cana. Now the whole map is not homogenous with just one tribe – there are the remnants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel there plus stacks of Gentiles – Greeks, Philistines, Phoenicians, and more, and let’s not forget the Romans because the whole map is under the military occupation of Rome. The more south you go there is a greater density of a Jewish population and it is probably easier to live according to Judaism, to live as the Pharisees desired, and the more north you go the more you might be in cities that are Gentile dominant that have histories and cultures that were usually enemies or sometimes friends of Israel. And Jesus, in all these readings, has always been in the north – with his disciples, with curious Jews around him, and with stacks of Gentiles in the crowds as well!
Jesus’ words and actions were controversial from many perspectives but particularly because in the end he didn’t point people to Jerusalem and the Temple but to himself. His words and actions for those with ears to hear kept banging the drum, echoing again and again, and the logic kept pointing to the illogical and blasphemous conclusion that Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. This message is for all who hear. It isn’t coded for certain people only – it isn’t a religious apartheid – yet it is in the context that Jesus is a Jew and he is addressing the people of God with the God’s original message – that God wants to bless all people (Genesis 12:3) and for everyone to live with him and be blessed by him.
And so today we are above the Sea of Galilee to the west of it on the coast (Tyre) and further north on the coast (Sidon) and then southward to the eastern side of the lake the Decapolis – the Ten Cities – all of which had a Gentile history for thousands of years and where the Gentiles are prominent – well, more so then in the south. Jesus is only recorded as praising two people for their faith in him. Do you recall who? Both are Gentiles – the Roman Centurion (Luke 7:9) and the Syrophoenician mother (Matthew 15:28) who both want help, healing or exorcism. And the other thing to keep in mind is that all these Gentiles have their own gods, their own temples, their own religious practices day by day but people are curious – especially if you’re not sure about your religion – and so they gather around Jesus or go to him if they are desperate. Asking, after all, is a key part of faith when such a thing comes through words. We know that in Sidon for centuries the main temple was to Eshmun, a god of healing, and yet the Syrophoenician mother didn’t get help from there but from Jesus – and I think it is a fair bet she would have gone to her temple first.
And now we have Jesus in the region of the Decapolis – these ten Gentile cities – and we have a crowd and an individual – a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment – and it is simply an interpretation with basically no evidence to say that they are all Jews in this scene. Yes, Jesus says, ‘Ephphatha’ – Aramaic, the spoken language of the time, so that might give us an indication as to the disabled person’s identity but, I think, it more likely Mark is wanting to make it clear that Jesus isn’t a magician with a magic formula but that the power is in him and not what he says.
Of course what Jesus does is wonderful. He heals the deaf man who can now hear and speak clearly. Of course everyone is excited and even though Jesus tells the crowd to keep quiet – and he does this it seems repeatedly – the crowds don’t keep silent. Why would they? I have spoken many times before that a major problem of people with regards to God is the desire for God’s gifts and blessings, his miracles, but not a relationship with him. People, by nature, don’t want God offside but at the side and a step of two behind in the butler or maid position. People don’t want God in control – not a God who says, ‘Deny yourself and take up [your] cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34) or ‘Let the children be fed first, it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’ (Mark 7:27) or “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of [a person], come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23) or at forgiving after the end of the parable of the unforgiving servant, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Shall I go on?
Do we hear Jesus? That’s always the issue – how we hear him in our lives each day. And the most important question becomes ‘Do I trust him?’.
No matter who you are – what labels you give yourself – what categories you come under in this world – what Jesus’ ministry in these chapter over the past weeks and in the weeks to come – until the end of October when Jesus heads down to Jerusalem – emphasises that he is for you – for all people – but he is not plasticene you can mould to suit yourself. Jesus takes you as you are – accepts you and loves you – and speaks to you – opening our ears and our mouths to hear the truth and to speak the truth and the context is always his love.
People, by nature, don’t take Jesus as he is because, at some point, he makes it clear that we are to follow him and not the other way round. And we only really follow someone when we get something out of it – or if we are in love or truly loved. The miracles stories are not blank cheques for us to cash in – yet at the same time many followers of Jesus will say that they have had the unexpected, the good moment, a miracle happen for them. Rather the miracle stories draw the crowds – either those who see it or those who hear about it – and the goal is to draw attention not to the power, not even to the recipients of the miracle (of course we wish them well), but to the person Jesus. Who is he?
Who is he for you?
The crowds then said, “He has done all things well” – an allusion or reference undoubtedly to God in creation whose work is very good (Genesis 1:31) – and that’s what Jesus is doing – restoring creation – recreating creation with words, water, bread and wine – so that we can live and live well in our situations, circumstances, and skin. The cross and empty tomb remain the best signs of Jesus’ identity and purpose – forgiveness of our sins, rescue from what enslaves us, liberation from what imprisons us – according to his way of doing things. The followers of Jesus can live with him – never perfectly, we always want another miracle – but what counts remains Jesus because he changes, flavours, enriches, helps us to hear and see and speak – in our world preoccupied by fear and death – the truth that God loves us and has rescued us – and his name is Jesus.
- Mark 7:31 - 37