Homily for the 23rd Sunday
Deacon Scott D. Gilfillan
People brought to Jesus a deaf man. Taking him away from the crowd, Jesus put his finger into the man’s ears and said to him, “Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” — And immediately the man’s ears were opened. (see Mk 7:31-37)
“At the heart of today’s Gospel there is a small but, very important word. A word that — in its deepest meaning — sums up the whole message and the whole work of Christ.” (Pope Benedict, Angelus 2012) One little word that “sums up the whole message and the whole work of Christ!” What is that word? The Holy Father says the word is “Ephetha”. It means ‘be opened’.
Jesus said to the deaf man, “Ephetha”. And his ears were opened. Jesus can say the same word to you, “Ephetha”, and open your ears to hear the word of God, open your mind to know the will of God, open your eyes to see the miracles of God, and open your heart to feel the love of God.
Let’s take a closer look at how Jesus uses the word Ephetha to open the ears of the deaf man in order to understand how Jesus can open each of us to the mighty and wonderful presence of God in our lives. There are four significant details in the gospel to serve as a guide.
First, the language is significant. Ephetha is Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of Jesus. There are only three phrases that in the gospel that the gospel writers thought were so memorable that they recorded the words in the actual language of Jesus. At the end of the gospel when Jesus is hanging on the cross he says, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani. “My God, my God. Why have you abandoned me?” Earlier in the gospel, Jairus’s daughter dies. Jesus goes into her bedroom and says, Talitha koum. “Get up, little girl.” In between both usages, Jesus says, Ephetha, “Be opened”.
There might be a connection between all three usages. Aramaic is recorded when Jesus felt most abandoned and Aramaic is recorded when there was a loss of life. In between is the word, Ephetha, be opened. When you and I feel most abandoned, or feel like our life has lost meaning and purpose, what command of Jesus would help the most? Ephetha, be opened. Be opened to the presence of God. Be opened to the healing of God. Be opened to the love of God.
Second, the location is significant. Jesus went to the region of the Decapolis. This area is so named because of its ten Greek cities. The area is outside of the land of Israel. It is a foreign land, the land of the Gentiles.
In this world, we are also travelers in a foreign land. At times, it feels even more foreign when the world descends into madness. We feel the pain of those suffering from the hurricane. We sit in horror wondering why a high school student would shoot to death another. We look into our own workplaces and can’t believe some of the things people say and do. Things feel out of kilter. Part of our inmost being longs for the vision painted in Isaiah:
Here is your God, he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert. (see Is 35)
That’s the way we want the world to be. But instead, we get floods and violence and disease. In the gospel, Jesus went into a foreign land to make things right. In our world today, Jesus comes into our foreign land to make things right. In the gospel, he opens the ears of a deaf man so he can hear. In our foreign land, he opens our eyes so we can see the vision of Isaiah breaking into this world of ours. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Third, the way Jesus uttered the word is significant. To perform this healing, the gospel says, “He took him away from the crowds.”
In this foreign land of ours, there are crowds that are going to jostle you this way or that. There are crowds that are going to pressure you to believe this way or that. There are crowds that make us deaf to the one voice that matters. To cure this man’s deafness, he has to take him away from the crowds. He must take him away from the ‘noise’ of the world. To hear the voice of Jesus, we too need to set ourselves apart from the crowd. Our crowds could be cable news, social media, or unhealthy relationships. In order for Jesus to say, “Ephetha”, be opened, we need to step away from the crowd. We need to tune out all of the noise in our life.
Fourth, how Jesus uttered this word is significant. He was ‘up close and personal’. He sticks his fingers in the deaf man’s ears. He spits and touches the deaf man’s tongue. You don’t get much closer to another person. It is like Jesus is ‘plugging himself into’ this man.
Some people look to Jesus because they like his teachings and philosophy. Jesus is not a teaching or a philosophy. Jesus is a person who wants to be up close and very personal – in your face with his fingers prying open your deaf ears. He wants to touch your tongue so the words that flow are not the language of the world but the language of God.
As we wander through this foreign land of ours, Jesus wants to perform the same healing for us. He wants us to step away from the crowd so we can hear his voice. He wants to get up close and personal so we can feel his presence. He wants to cure not just the deafness in our ears, but the deafness in our eyes and our hearts. He wants to say, “Ephetha!” Be open to the possibilities. Be open to miracles. Be open to healing. Be open to forgiveness. Be open to the notion that you might have been wrong. Be open to God transforming a world of darkness, division, and despair into a world of light, communion, and hope. Being open to hearing the word of God. Be open to speaking the language of God, a language of love.
The word is so important that it is part of the baptism rite. Let us conclude with the same Ephetha Prayer:
The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the mute speak. In your [life], may the Lord open your ears to hear his word, and open your tongue to proclaim his faith, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.