We could easily read today’s Gospel as a performance, as a show put on to impress: Jesus puts his fingers into the deaf man’s ears, he spits and touches the man’s tongue, he groans and then says the magic word, and the man is cured; “hooray, hooray, a miracle, a miracle!” all to a round of amazement and great applause for Jesus the wonder-worker! But if we look again, we might notice that ‘Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd.’ (Mark 7:33) What Jesus did was not meant to impress anyone; he had an audience of one. What Jesus was doing was what was needed to communicate with a person who is ‘deaf’ with limited ability with language (Mark 7:32) The story finishes with Jesus trying to restrain the crowd from spreading about the news of the miracle. (Mark 7:36. C.f.: 1:45) Jesus does not want to be known as a wonder-worker. At the beginning of this Gospel, St Mark tells us that Jesus came proclaiming the Good News from God: “The time has come,” he said, “and the Kingdom of God is close at hand; repent and believe the Good News.” (Mark 1:14-15) That this is the real meaning behind today’s story is found in Mark’s choice of the Greek word for ‘with difficulty of speech’ that he uses to describe this deaf man. (Mark 7:32) For the only other place in the Greek translation of the Scriptures where this word is used is in today’s First Reading from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6) These things were said to be a sign that ‘God has come to save.’ (Isaiah 35:4) So with this miracle, Jesus is reiterating his message: “The time has come, and the Kingdom of God is close at hand; repent and believe the Good News” — the Kingdom is here, now; God is here to save. The response that Jesus is looking for is not, “Hooray, hooray, a miracle, a miracle!” but that we begin to act in such a way that it shows we believe God’s Kingdom has come.
As we look around some 2000 years later and see the mess the world is in — wars, poverty, abuse and corruption (even in our Church!), COVID, and many other such things — it is hard to see God’s Kingdom as being here in any meaningful way. However, and whatever it might be saying about the Kingdom (John 18:36), the miracle cure is also meant to tell us something about Jesus himself. When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent messengers to Jesus, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” These messengers had just witnessed Jesus healing many of various diseases and curing many who were blind. So Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:20-22) This, too, was a reference back to Isaiah’s signs, and so in effect, what Jesus was saying is that “Yes, he is the one.” Jesus’ miracles, or ‘signs’ as St John calls them, ‘are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name,’ as St John puts it. (John 20:31) The proper response is to believe in him. So, when Philip wanted to bring Nathanael to Jesus, he said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, the one about whom the prophets wrote: He is Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” (John 1:45) He believed Jesus was the one.
Up to this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are shown to be slow of understanding about himself. (Mark 6:52) Shortly, an almost incredulous Jesus will put it to them: “Do you not understand? Have you no perception?” (Mark 8:17. C.f.: 4:13) which, in itself, is another reference to the Prophet Isaiah, and which Jesus used to say to his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:11-12) The secret of the Kingdom of God is to do with knowing who Jesus is: those in it know who he is; those outside are blind and deaf (and so, in need of a healer). In the call to discipleship is a call to be with Jesus. (Mark 3:14) So, again almost incredulously, Jesus will says to Philip, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9) We need to spend time getting to know Jesus. For, eventually, he will put it to us directly: “But you, who do you say that I am?” and, if we want to go on with him, we need to be able to answer along with St Peter: “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29) In knowing this we can accept the truth of Jesus’ Word (Mark 4:14, 20): “The time has come, and the Kingdom of God is close at hand.” Only then will we be able to carry out that other task of the disciple: ‘to be sent out to preach’ (Mark 3:14); only then will we be able to bear the fruit that Jesus came to sow, that the Kingdom might come. (Mark 4:20; 16:15)
In Jesus' time, disease and disability were seen as the result of sin (e.g., John 9:2), and those who sin were considered unclean. As such, they were shunned, not permitted to join the worshipping community, and depending on the complaint, they might even be expelled from the community. So, when Jesus healed the leper, we are told that Jesus ‘stretched out his hand and touched him.’ (Mark 1:41) What Jesus did was to readmit him back into communion, into social contact — something we in these COVID times of social distancing can more readily appreciate. Something similar has taken place in today’s story. Miracle cures are really action parables about the forgiveness of sin, and so about the sinners’ readmission to the community. (C.f.: Mark 1:44) So, a disciple of Jesus (us) is expected to do as he did; they are to reach out to the marginalised and excluded, and welcome them back into communion … back into God’s Kingdom. (Mark 3:15; 6:7, 12-13) Much of the preaching we are to do, however, will be more in line with Benedict’s instruction to the abbot: ‘He must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by word.’ (Rule of St Benedict 2:12) St James, in our second reading (James 2:1-5), gives us a very concrete example of what we are to do. It goes something like this: ‘Let us imagine an immaculately dressed man in designer clothes, or a gilded superstar with gold on neck and fingers, coming into our Church. Then we see a bag lady, a little confused, in shabby clothes, maybe murmuring to herself. St James would then ask, “To whom do we attend? Whom do we wish to win over? Whom do we avoid?” Suppose further you were to take notice of the well-dressed man and say, “Sit right here, please,” but to the poor person you say dismissively, “If there’s a seat, you can sit at the back.” The question for us, then, is: Is this not a corrupt decision that wrongfully discriminates? For, are we not all one in Christ? (Galatians 3:28) Ouch! Our call is as St Benedict has it: ‘Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.’ (Rule of St Benedict 53:15) It’s not that we shouldn’t receive the rich well, but that we treat the poor, the marginalised, the outcast, the sick and the handicapped in the same way. How often do we not even see these people? And if we do not see them, we will not/cannot listen to them either. Who is it here, then, that is really blind and deaf, and wilfully so? (Mark 10:51) And who is it, then, that will be excluded from the Kingdom? “For,” as St Matthew puts it, “if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do as much? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Do not even the gentiles do as much? You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48) Reaching out to those on the margins, as Christ did, is our way of coming to see the Kingdom, to see who is in it and who is not, our way of coming into it altogether without leaving any left-out. (C.f.: John 17:12; Rule of St Benedict 72:11-12) But it all starts with our recognition of Jesus, and so with our ability to hear and accept his Word (Mark 4:20): “The time has come and the Kingdom of God is close at hand; repent and believe the Good News."