MARK 7.31-37 (see below)
Note: This Homily is built upon the teachings of New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright.
The Lectionary Gospel Reading for today brings to us the rather astounding account of Jesus healing a deaf man who also had a speech impediment. St. Mark tells us that the miracle occurred in the district of the Decapolis, that predominately Gentile area east of the Sea of Galilee where, you will recall, the demonic of Gadara was also healed.
The text explains that some people (who?) brought this man to Jesus and begged him to lay his hand on the man. And Jesus, moved with compassion (he looked up to heaven and groaned), but also seeking to avoid more public acclaim (?), secrets the man away from the onlookers and touches the man in the ears and on the tongue, and the man is healed, to the astonishment of the people.
Here, Jesus amazes, and if this story seems old-hat to the listener, one wonders if, perhaps, we might need to reread the account with fresh eyes.
THE KINGDOM PRESENT IN JESUS
That is, it seems to me, if we are to get anywhere at all with this text, we must avoid the temptation to make Jesus into a superman whose secret, supernatural powers identity him as GOD and, therefore, well above and beyond all those around him and all scrutiny. To hold this understanding misses the thrust of Gospel Christology.
Jesus stands before us not least and supremely as a person, a person to be sure who is anointed by the Almighty and sent to embody YAHWEH’s return to his people (Mk.1.9-11), but still a person none the less. This means that Jesus, whatever else he is, is the fully manifest Psalm 8 human being.
This understanding allows us to situate Jesus within his historical context and offers him as the fulfillment of GOD’s historic promises to his elected people, the Jews. And, it allows an understanding of Jesus within Judaism that makes his nation more than some mere cardboard, cutout background scenery for the cross narratives!
Take, for example the Parable of the Talents (Lk.19.12-28). One way to read this is to see Jesus as the Nobleman, called away, and the church as those given the wealth for investment who wait his return. But, there is a different way to read the story. What if Jesus is saying that the nobleman is GOD, the Almighty, who has been gone from his people for a long time (exile), but has now come back to his chosen servants to see how they have invested the wealth-privileges he entrusted to them? That would mean that Jesus understands himself as embodying YAHWEH’s return to his people! Suddenly, Malachi 3 blazes to brilliant light:
1 "Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming," says the LORD Almighty. 2 "But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal or like a strong soap that whitens clothes. 3 He will sit and judge like a refiner of silver, watching closely as the dross is burned away. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold or silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the LORD. 4Then once more the LORD will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in former times. (Malachi 3.1-4)Or, take today’s Lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible:
Thus says the LORD: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water. (Is. 35.4-7A)If we understand that Jesus heals as a way to fulfill this promise, then Jesus, while healing the deaf man who had a speech impediment or the blind man from Bethsaida (Mk.8) because his compassion demanded it, primarily determined to starkly fulfill the promise of what YAHWEH claims he himself would actually do for his people! This is at the center of Jesus' healing ministry.
This truth is astounding!
Abruptly, unexpectedly, Jesus erupts upon the nation as the presentation of the one, true GOD -- the GOD of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- coming finally to vindicate his people. And what did this eruption look like?
- It looked like a young Jewish prophet licking his hand and touching the tongue of a man with a speech impediment or doing the same to the eyes a blind man from Bethsaida;
- it looked like him feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish;
- it looked like the prophets of old demonstrating GOD’s presence, this time by riding into the capital on a donkey and thrashing about in the temple, overturning tables;
- it looked like him offering a new covenant to his followers with broken bread and table wine as an understanding of what GOD really looked to be doing in the world;
- and it looked like a ravaged and inhuman slab of meat, hanging on a Roman cross of execution, murdered for political expediency, but at the same time -- and in the providence of GOD -- breaking the back of sin and evil and empire, and finally that last, great enemy, death.
THE KINGDOM PRESENT IN THE NEW COMMUNITY
In Jesus, then, the Kingdom is present because the King is present. In Jesus, the future promises GOD made to his people -- and through them to the world, really (Gn.12), come cracking up through the surface. And, in Jesus -- through his resurrection -- the new kingdom community, comprised now of both Jew and Gentile (Ro.1.16-17) are impelled forward into being (Ac.1:6-8).
This New Community comes rising out of the ashes of the cross and now becomes present to the world as an alternative reading of history and of the eschaton, the world’s future. This New Community, this new Psalm 8 humanity, now present to the watching world, displays the reality that the King of the world has ascended to the throne of the world, and that through the victory of the cross the very heart of the world, broken and marred by evil and sin, is set on a new course with a very different fate.
But, this also means that the new humanity must presently and daily (Lk.9.23) live within the calling and confines of that narrow path that Jesus himself lived. Over and over again from this pulpit I have designated this path as self-giving, sacrificial love and an ongoing, reconciling forgiveness (Mk.8.34-38).
Self-giving, Sacrificial Love
Said differently, one day Jesus the King, now present through the Spirit, will appear and complete the transformation of the cosmos and the human heart which he began at calvary and the empty tomb. For now, however, the church must follow the more difficult discipline of the Jesus-way, which means walking on the path of humiliation, the relinquishment of privilege, and the drinking deeply at the well of the suffering world at war with itself (Phil.2:5-11). This is the embodiment of self-giving sacrificial love.
Ongoing, Reconciling Forgiveness
Likewise, the church must follow the more difficult discipline of walking beyond the loved and known into our own Decapolis, into those places around us that others dare not go because of fear and prejudice. We are to be those who intercede, those who own forgiveness, those who offer absolution to those not like us, disregarding what others think and do. This truth is quite simple: Those whom we exclude from our circle of acceptance are the ones to whom we must now be reconciled as the new Psalm 8 humanity.
What would a real-world reconciling forgiveness look like? It would look like the new humanity dirtying its hands within the unantiseptic risk. It would look like us compelled to use our accumulated wealth for the good of the surrounding community, offering healing and preferential treatment to the poor, the left-outs and the locked-outs. It would look like the New Community foregoing its power-political agendas and working in anonymity, helping each one whom the Almighty brings across our path, sincerely believing that in GOD’s providence nothing or no one comes by us accidentally.
Finally, it would mean the church must somehow come to love one another. I say this with such deep sadness, having seen my own national communion self-destruct, but until we love each other, until we are able to overcome with forgiveness our own wounds and hates, the world will believe nothing we say, and will legitimately judge that Jesus did not actually come from the Father.
You doubt this?
Have you not read John 17:
20 "I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony. 21 My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father -- that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me. (Jn.17.20-21)So, I say to us, church, this is no easy path we have chosen. No wonder we live more comfortably within the cultural captivity of the sub-culture, rather than as a true counter-culture. No wonder we choose political gamesmanship over the loss of power and face. No wonder we have failed at almost every turn to live up to the compassion and the healing arts Jesus left us, choosing instead to accommodate and appease the Powers. May GOD help us, and may we genuinely come to understand what is meant when we pray, “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Again Jesus left the district of Tyre
and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee,
into the district of the Decapolis.
And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man's ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
"Ephphatha!"-- that is, "Be opened!" --
And immediately the man's ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.
He ordered them not to tell anyone.
But the more he ordered them not to,
the more they proclaimed it.
They were exceedingly astonished and they said,
"He has done all things well.
He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."