“So he took him away from the crowd in private. After putting his fingers in the man’s ears and spitting, he touched his tongue. Looking up to heaven, he sighed deeply and said to him ‘Ephphatha!’ (that is, ‘Be opened!’). Immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was loosened, and he began to speak clearly.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the most famous quotes from the world of science fiction comes from Arthur C. Clarke, author of, among many other things, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He said this: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The idea here is that when we don’t understand how something works, we eventually just use magic as our explanation. Today we have generally been taught to think in technological terms, but if really pressed, most of us don’t have any earthly idea how most of the pieces of technology that have become so fundamentally integral to our daily lives work. They might as well be magic boxes. We just don’t say or even think that because, technology. This technological presupposition leaves us thinking critically when we read about some of the miracles Jesus performed. This miracle is a particularly good example. Let’s talk about one of the stranger miracles Jesus performed.
This story is another one of those transition moments in Mark’s Gospel. The miracle takes center stage here, of course, but the real focus of the larger passage (Mark 7:31-37) comes in the final verse: “They were extremely astonished and said, ‘He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.'” In other words, Jesus’ miracle here served to heighten His fame and repute even further. Although Jesus’ fame was pretty limited to the region of Palestine, within that region He was perhaps the most well-known person in the world. The stories about what He had done were spreading like wildfire and each story caused the mythos growing up around Him to get bigger and bigger. Jesus Himself didn’t want this. He kept telling the people He healed to keep it to themselves, but He had to know none of them were going to do that. When something that transformative happens to us, we can’t keep it to ourselves.
It should perhaps not surprise us, then, that He rode into Jerusalem to such acclaim on the final week of His life. Nor should it surprise us that an angry crowd was shouting for His blood a week later. He had become a symbol of incredible hope to the people, but when He didn’t live up to the expectations they had for Him, they turned on Him entirely. Their disappointment became anger and an anger that was only going to be satisfied with His blood.
That’s all a conversation for another time. What I want to draw your attention to this morning is the miracle itself here. We hear or read about Jesus healing a man who was deaf and terribly speech impaired and think, “Yep, Jesus healed someone else. Let’s get on to the good stuff.” We shouldn’t. As strange as this miracle is (and it is really strange), it is one of the more amazing Jesus performed.
What makes this miracle so strange is simply the way Jesus went about performing it. He started by pulling the deaf man away from the crowds so He could help him in private. The fact that the details of this private interaction are reported here says that “private” probably included the disciples. Peter then reports that Jesus stuck His fingers in the man’s ears, spit, then touched his tongue. Can we just pause a moment and remark on how little sense that makes. That’s the kind of thing a magician might do when performing a trick. A religious charlatan might do something like that to convince people of mysterious and magical powers he doesn’t really have. What on earth did those things have to do with Jesus’ healing him? We already know Jesus didn’t have to touch someone to heal them. He healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter of demon-possession at a distance. Why do the touching and spitting here?
Short answer: We don’t know. We don’t have any idea. We can guess, and commentators certainly do because otherwise they wouldn’t have anything to write, but that’s about all we can do. It just has to remain in the realm of strange. Then Jesus sighs deeply in His spirit. What does that mean? Again, Mark isn’t clear and we can only guess. My suspicion is that this was a kind of exasperated sigh at the impacts of sin in the world. Next, Jesus said, “Be opened!” in Aramaic. This almost sounds like He was using a magic word which, of course, He didn’t need. The result, though, is that the man’s hearing returned and so did his ability to speak clearly.
Think about this healing now. And don’t stop simply with, “Well, it was a miracle.” Think about all the neural pathways in the man’s brain Jesus had to restore in that moment. Nerves were restored. Electrical signals were reconnected. His ear drums were made whole again. Even the ability of the man to process sounds returned. There is a whole list of physical things that had to happened in order for this to take place. We understand what some of those had to be today in ways Jesus’ audience didn’t, but that doesn’t mean we understand how it happened. This wasn’t just magic, it was a miracle.
But that’s not all. The even more amazing miracle to me is the restoration of the man’s speech. Some scholars assume the man had not been born deaf or he wouldn’t have had any kind of mental grasp of speech at all, but Mark doesn’t say. Let’s think through both possibilities. If the man was born deaf this miraculous nature of what happened here launches into the stratosphere. For this man to begin speaking clearly meant Jesus actively put knowledge into his brain that wasn’t there before. He created whole neural networks from nothing. He put into his mind not just the ability to form his mouth appropriately such that the right sounds came out, but the knowledge of that particular language so that the sounds were intelligible to the people around him. He not only gave him the ability to form the right words and make the right sounds, but to understand those sounds when they came from other people. The more you think about what happened here if he was born deaf, the more amazing this miracle becomes.
Let’s change our assumption, though, to his having not been born deaf. Let’s say he had a basic operating framework in his brain of the language of the people around him, it had just been interrupted somehow by disease or injury. In healing him, Jesus restored all of that. He still gave him a renewed ability to form his mouth in the right way and to put his tongue in the right position so that the sounds he made which were unclear before were now easily understandable for the people around him. This may seem like a throwaway story, but what it reveals about just how profound was Jesus’ power over the natural world is remarkable beyond words.
It also tells us one other thing: Jesus isn’t limited in how He works in our lives. He’ll do what needs to be done, but how He goes about doing it is up to Him. We have to assume that Jesus knew what would be meaningful to this particular man and that’s why He did it the way He did. We don’t know why these particular actions may have been so significant to Him, but Jesus did. Jesus knew Him that well.
Friends, Jesus knows us that well too. He knows the life experiences we have had. He knows where we have been hurt by people. He knows the secret scars we bear. He knows the things that keep us living in shame. He knows all of it and He loves us perfectly anyway. He still died for us. He rose to bring us life. Whatever it is that is broken inside of you, Jesus can fix. He knows how to fix it better than anyone else. The journey to that place of wholeness isn’t going to look like it did or does for anyone else, but Jesus doesn’t live in a box like that. He knows what you need and will meet you where you are and on terms you can understand. He doesn’t treat you like someone else. He treats you like you. There aren’t any other gods like that. This is one worthy of your devotion and trust.