Today’s readings focus on healing of those who cannot hear and cannot speak, and this works on two levels. First there is the physical healing described in the Gospel; looking deeper there are spiritual, symbolic meanings. Reading Mark in short selections, we miss the subtle ways the Gospel has been written so that the arrangement of stories is part of the overall direction of his account. Mark has three healings concerning sight, hearing and speech, and their placement shows significant stages in the growth of the disciples into deeper and deeper knowledge of who Jesus is.
This reading is one background for the Gospel today, with the verses on the unsealing of deaf ears and dumb tongues singing for joy. It is a general promise of future salvation, written in poetic imagery of flowering in the southern deserts of Palestine. Living in such climates makes people especially cherish the times of new growth. It would later be taken as showing symbolically what the time of the Messiah would be like.
The psalm has the Isaiah ideas of the Lord as both saviour and one who heals – though here blind are mentioned rather than deaf. It also prepares for the second reading from James with its emphasis on the poor and needy.
In our reading last week, the writer focused on caring for the needy. Here they are still his concern, combined with pointed criticism about Christians who are overly impressed by the wealthy when it is the poor who are God’s special elect. It is a distinction easy to see in today’s world where wealthy donors enjoy publicity and special favours in return for their giving while so often the poor are insulted and blamed for their own poverty. James could be taken as asking us if we are immune from making such distinctions. Whom do we admire and honour, and who are those we find easy to ignore – or blame?
This is a healing found only in the gospel of Mark. Perhaps Luke and Matthew saw some problems with it. Some modern commentators also seem bothered that the methods of touch and spittle which were used by contemporary ‘miracle workers’ are so seen as ‘unworthy’ of Jesus. Saliva was believed at the time to have healing powers; perhaps from observing that animals often use it on their injuries and care of young, but spitting both then and now if more seen as disgusting and contemptuous. In the details in this account, I however, see Jesus showing sensitivity and communication skills as well as healing powers. First he takes the man away from the crowd, which was probably noisy and certainly distracting – not the situation where to hear sounds for the first time would be comfortable! Being deaf, the man may not even know why he has been brought to Jesus. By putting his fingers into the ears and touching the tongue Jesus indicates the parts he will heal. Lifting his eyes to heaven is not known as part of the miracle worker’s techniques; in so doing Jesus is indicating that he is praying and not working magic.
Recalling the Aramaic words used by Jesus are more frequent in Mark than the other gospels. It preserves some of the earliest memories of the disciples. The same idea of ‘opened’ is in our reading from Isaiah 35 for miracles of messianic age, and the word translated in our reading as ‘an impediment in his speech’ is an unusual one, found otherwise only in Is 35:6. It would seem Mark is making a subtle allusion to the prophet and this saying Jesus is the fulfilment of that promise.
The order to tell no one was a standard feature of Mark’s healing stories, but nearly always ignored. Here he stresses the excessive response when they ignore him, and he also uses the word translated ‘published’ or ‘proclaimed’ which he has used before as describing Jesus mission; it is also a favourite of Isaiah. So perhaps what Mark is suggesting here is that the crowd saw the messianic implications of this healing and are therefore excited by the possibility that the Messiah/Christ has come. The wild excitement, which is natural if that is what they are thinking of, arises in part over their mistake in what the Messiah will be like. At this point in the gospel that view was shared by the disciples. We are being led in the liturgy to the pivotal point of Mark, where Peter identifies him as the Messiah, but still must be taught that for Jesus this means suffering and not worldly power.
This healing, as C.E.B Cranfield says in his study of Mark, may also have a symbolic meaning of the disciples being deaf and unable to speak clearly until the miracle of fuller faith allows them to believe in and then to preach a suffering Messiah. In another section of Isaiah, 42:19ff, Israel is condemned at the unworthy servant of the Lord: ‘Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send?’ Something similar will shortly be put on Jesus’ lips in Mark 8:18.