Deaf to Hear. Mute to Speak.

Mark 7:31-37
Lauren J. McFeaters
November 18, 2018
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An unusual story from beginning to end. Jesus returns to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon, ending up in the area of the Decapolis or the Ten Towns. That would be a little like going from Princeton to Richmond by way of Boston and ending up in Atlanta.

And the Gentile crowds in this vast area, are again and again, bringing to Jesus people in need of significant healing from substantial illnesses. On today’s stop, the people bring Jesus a deaf man who could hardly speak; and they beg him for a laying on of hands.” [i]

Who is this man? He has a name. We don’t know it. What we do know is his deafness is profound and his speech twisted, and tongue tied.

The first time I remember experiencing this story was in Mrs. Mahaffy’s Sunday School Class. This was in Mount Lebanon, PA. She often taught us by having us sit on the floor and bringing out a big blue felt panel. She told us the stories of Jesus with Biblical paper characters, about 8” high, that would stick to the felt board and could easily be moved around as the story was told.

It’s kind of like Flat-Stanley, so often used in schools as the character that travels with children wherever they go. This was Flat-Jesus and his paper cutout is always handsome, robed, serene, and welcoming. Friendly scampering children, cute lambs, and puppies, always surround the Paper Jesus. His arms are outstretched in welcome. A radiant smile plays on his face. You can almost hear the strains of sacred music in the background. And the story? It’s quick and sure:

  • Paper Friends enter stage right bringing the Paper Deaf Man to Jesus.
  • Paper Jesus bids them welcome and asks what’s the problem.
  • Jesus warmly takes man aside. Hands on ears. Spit on tongue. Healing is complete.
  • Man can hear. Man can speak. All rejoice.
  • Paper Children jump for joy. Lambs and puppies sound out their delight.
  • All go home.

This story made an impact because I can still remember it, but when we grow up and our ears grow up, there’s a new lesson to be learned.

We know from a few verses before that Jesus is exhausted. By the time we encounter him he’s in serious need of rest. And yet, there’s such a hunger for his word and his touch, he’s not able to escape the great need of the crowds, and he’s full of emotional ups and downs, has a frayed temper, and is overwhelmed by the burden of his call. There’s no Paper Jesus here. No one-dimensional, perpetually happy guy.

  • He’s exasperated by the foolishness of the disciples.
  • He’s beset by the neediness of humanity.
  • He’s tired of having to be “on” all the time. [ii]
  • And now a man who can not hear. Cannot speak. Cannot be understood lands at his feet.

I cannot begin to imagine being deaf or being deaf in first century Palestine.

For millennia, all over the globe deafness is treated as a severe deficit. In our own country, deafness has historically been treated as a disease, a disorder, a disgrace.

More recently, we know deafness, not as a deficit, but as a unique culture with a language that uses a signs as its medium for personal expression, a spatial and visual language, that emphasizes hands, faces, bodies and eyes. [iii]

Where did our contemporary deaf culture have it’s beginnings? One place is in the church and in particular at the Methodist Camp Meetings of Martha’s Vineyard. For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, long before it was a vacation spot, Martha’s Vineyard was center of Christian Education. It was a bilingual community. It was a bilingual because everyone spoke both English and – not French, or Spanish … but sign language.

You see, deafness was a recessive hereditary trait, and Martha’s Vineyard was a pretty isolated genetic population — which meant that any given person on the island could have both hearing and deaf siblings. In the mid-1800s, 25% of the population was deaf. So deafness was just a trait some people had, like blondness or tallness. And everyone spoke sign language.

But everyone didn’t speak sign language in the region of Decapolis, where our deaf man, lives.

This week I started wondering, what if Jesus showed up on Martha’s Vineyard 150 years ago when deafness was just a trait and not a disease, would the collective “THEY” of our story, who brought him a deaf man to heal, have nothing to do? Because it would kind of be like them bringing Jesus a man born blonde and begging Jesus to fix him.

I understand there’s not a whole lot of talk about psychology and identity politics and disability rights in Biblical times … but I can’t help thinking that the “THEY” might be using this man’s deafness to be what a family systems therapist would call their “identified patient.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it the best way possible. She says: Hello Jesus – we, the people who are just fine, are bringing you the broken man, so you can fix him. I can’t help feeling, it would have been more realistic, if all of the THEYs, who brought the deaf man to Jesus, also would have sought healing for themselves. But that’s not how we operate, she says. We let the obviously broken people carry all the brokenness for us. It’s quite the convenient system really.

Like when someone is an active alcoholic, we are thrilled not to have to look at our own drinking. When someone is noticeably greedy, we’re not jazzed to have to look at our own grasping. When someone is withholding of tenderness and compassion, we’re not likely to come clean about our hardness of heart; our easy judgements.

This system, she says, the one we have where we all agree on who is the real addict, the real liar, the real emotionally needy person, works well for us. That is, until Jesus shows up. Because when Jesus shows up and leads a deaf man away into some privacy and sticks his fingers in the man’s ears and gathers some spit from his tongue, he raises his face to heaven and sighs. Jesus looks to heaven and groans. There’s no rebuke. There’s no casting out a demon. There’s only a touch and a word and a sigh: Ephphatha. Ephphatha. Be opened. Be opened. Be opened.

Are those not the most beautiful words for healing? Be opened. Be opened. Jesus sticking his fingers in all of our ears and saying, “BE OPENED.” Sanctified fingers burrowing down to our eardrums, “BE OPENED.” Anointing our mouths with spit, “BE OPENED.”

Bolz-Weber proclaims: Jesus is like that.

  • Be opened, he says.
  • Be opened to a life where you aren’t the broken one anymore.
  • Be opened to the possibility that there is healing in the world, and it might not look like you think it should.
  • Be opened to knowing that your own brokenness doesn’t need to be hidden behind someone else’s brokenness.
  • Be opened that you are stronger than you think.
  • Be opened that you may never get what you want and that you’ll be OK.
  • Be opened to your own need for healing especially if you are yourself a healer.
  • Maybe that’s what healing really is.[iv]

We think it’s about identifying what’s wrong with someone else or with ourselves, and then having that thing cured, but I wonder if spiritual healing has more to do with being opened than being cured. It’s not easy. Healing hurts. It can feel like a loss as much as a gain. Because sometimes healing feels more like death and resurrection, than a piece of cake and glass of milk.

Maybe you are someone who deals so much with the brokenness and sickness of others in your work that you forget that you need healing too.

Maybe you are someone who has experienced healing of hospitality here in this community, and yet you’ve not gotten to the point of offering the same to others.

Maybe you, like myself, would rather not admit to needing anything from anyone. Including Jesus.

And to all of this, Jesus keeps sticking his fingers in our ears, looking to heaven, sighing, and saying, “Be Opened.” Be Opened because there is more. [v]

  • When we are deaf to hear, and mute to speak;
  • When Jesus comes at us with fingers extended and arms outstretched,
  • We better be ready to be opened,

What if this becomes our prayer?

  • What if, when we wake up the morning, the first words that come to mind are Jesus saying, “Be opened.”

What if this becomes our thanks?

  • You’ve given hearing to our ears; speech to our souls.
  • Our continual gratitude becomes, “Thank you for opening me.”

What if this becomes our church?

  • Our collective ears open and tongues loosed.
  • Our song is of the marvelousness of the Lord.

And there’s one more thing I want to tell you. One more note about Openness. One more thing to share.

The most famous school in the world for the deaf is Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. There’s nowhere else on earth where deaf culture is more celebrated, and advocated, and encouraged as it is at Gallaudet.

And Gallaudet University has a motto. And the motto is this:

‘Ephphatha.’ ‘Ephphatha.’

Jesus’ words.

‘Be opened.’ ‘Be opened.’ 

And is not because they’re a community of the deaf.

It’s because we are.

Are you deaf to hear?

Are you mute to speak?

Be opened.



[i] David Lose, “In the Meantime:  Mark 7:31-38.” June 25, 2012, davidlose.net.

[ii] Charlene Han Powell, “Mark 7:24-30: Desperate Belief.” September 6, 2015, day1.org.

[iii] Note on Deaf Culture. The American Deaf community values American Sign Language as the core of a culturally Deaf identity. Through ASL, members are given a unique medium for personal expression, a spatial and visual language that does not require the use of sound and emphasizes hands, faces, bodies and eyes. Members of this community share a common history, values, morals, and experiences. Deaf individuals come from diverse backgrounds and influences, and as a result that variation is reflected in the community. Different types of sign systems are used to varying degrees, and the Deaf community welcomes this variety. Handsandvoices.org.

[iv] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sometimes It Hurts; A Sermon on Healing.” September 11, 2012, sojo.net.

[v]  Nadia Bolz-Weber.