(The first of a three-part reflection on Mark 7:31-37)
By Pastor John Christopherson, Senior Pastor
“Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought [Jesus] to lay his hand upon the man who was deaf. And taking the man aside from the multitude privately, [Jesus] put his finger into [the ears of the man who was deaf], and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed, and said to [the man], ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And [immediately the man’s] ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And [Jesus] charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak” (Mark 7:31-37; RSV).
A few years ago I was “batching it” for a week. Just me and our two boxers: Casey and Charley. My mom had taken pity on my un-steady diet of pot pies and TV dinners and so had me over for some real home cooking (i.e. “comfort food”). It was suppertime, which is prime time for …? Yup, you guessed it: telemarketing. The phone rang. My father got up rather disgustedly from the table. I think he knew what was about to transpire. He picked-up the phone and said, “Hello? What?! … You’ll have to speak a lot louder!” There was another pause … “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you! What?! Oh, forget it, then!” He slammed the phone down.
“What was that all about?” mom and I asked. And then with a big grin he said, “O, it was just some guy trying to sell me some hearing aids.” … Who says Norwegians don’t have a good sense of humor? (I did ask for permission on sharing this story. One has to be a bit more careful about sharing family stories when you live in the same town.)
In this opening reflection on Mark 7:31-35, Jesus is “calling” to us still today, as his disciples. And the heart of this call becomes a question: “Can we hear his Word? Can we hear his saving sigh.”
Now, there’s a word tucked in this gospel story that I’d never really given much thought to until last evening, during our Worship and Music Board meeting at First Lutheran. The Chair of the Board, Marilyn Van Demark, read a request concerning ways in which we might better respond to those in our Sioux Falls community who are hearing impaired or deaf. One suggestion, that came from me, was that we could partner with an existing ministry in Sioux Falls who has their home office at a sister congregation in Peace Lutheran. “The name of this ministry,” I said, “is Ephphatha.” Of course, the question came: “What does that word mean?” And so, my mind started scrabbling back to my Augie years, when one of my minors was in Greek … trying to pull-it-back now from a rather old rusty hard drive file. “If I remember correctly,” I said, “it comes from the Greek language, meaning ‘to open.” Whew! Got it.
Later on last night, after getting home, I went to my study … pulled my Greek New Testament from above my desk … and started reading this passage from St. Mark’s gospel (Mark 7:31-35) – where in the suspenseful silence of it all, this word, Ephphatha stands out as a sentinel … HOWEVER … this word (Ephphatha = “to open”) opened my eyes and ears, appropriately enough, as it pointed beyond itself to yet ANOTHER WORD I’d never really taken serious time to ponder before.
The word I’m referring to is right there toward the end of the passage: “ … and looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed …” It was like I was hearing it for the first time. Did you see it, hear it? This little gust of wind …
To be honest I didn’t quite know what to do with it. It’s only one word and not a very big word at that; unless perhaps you read it in the Greek language (estenazen). Don’t know about you, but it rather sounds like the name of an antibiotic to me! I really didn’t have a category to put it under. I didn’t know what to hang it on. The word that I’m referring to, estenazen means “to sigh.”
St. Mark tucks this word literally into the very heart of this passage. It’s enigmatic. It’s evocative. It provocative. And wow, what a word it is! Now don’t read it unless you don’t mind changing your mind on some things here. Because this little word might just move your spiritual furniture around a little bit, if not a full-blown “Spring House Cleaning.” Look at verses 33-34 with me again, in the opening text that I’ve provided for you (at the very beginning of this article).
“And taking the man aside privately from the multitude, [Jesus] put his finger into the ears of the [man who was deaf], and he spat and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed, and said to [the man], ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.” And [immediately the man’s] ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
WOW! For a man who had perhaps been deaf all of his life, we can only imagine what this must have been like. Hearing his name for the very first time. Never before knowing what the sound of conversation with another might be like. The beauty of a bird’s song or hearing the lapping sounds of water, splashing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Or on hearing three precious words that give us life, “I love you.” A whole new world opened to you: Sigh.
Now, if you read a history on deafness which I did just this morning, you’ll find that in ancient times when a child was found to be deaf, that child often times was orphaned, was set out literally on the streets to fend for him/herself, often to die. So we can only imagine what difficult kind of life this man had probably gone through up to this point. We need to remember even in America it wasn’t until the early 1900s that we had such a thing as sign language or Braille or anything like Social Services to take care of young children without parents.
So, can you imagine what was going on in his mind? Can you imagine the beads of sweat that began to form upon his forehead, the palpitating heart? Now what? More ridiculing, more humiliation as he was grabbed and man-handled and dragged about? But no! Now in the presence of Jesus’ gentle healing touch he was finally God-handled.
Join with me in my blog as we continue to reflect on this amazing story, and the amazing healing that comes from Jesus’ Spirit of just a word, simple yet saving “sigh” …