This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 7:31–37:
Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!”—that is, “Be opened!”— And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Both the Old and New Testaments teach us repeatedly that the Lord will put the last first and the first last. Jesus preached for the love and care of the poor and warned the rich to act as stewards to those less fortunate. The entire Sermon on the Mount is structured to emphasize the need for solidarity among people and the care of the less fortunate. In today’s readings, we see this put into practice.
Chapter 7 of Mark gives us a series of vignettes that address in some way the stratification of the communities in which Jesus proclaimed the Gospel. In last week’s reading, Jesus contended with the Pharisees that insisted on turning the Law into an idol unto itself, with their rigid enforcement prioritized over love of neighbor. Jesus rebuked them and warned that the only real defilement for humans was that of the heart, not of the body or food. The true defilements are the breaking of the commandments, and those sins count much more than the status of one’s hands at the table.
Before today’s episode from Mark but after Jesus’ contention with the Pharisees, Mark relates an encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman with the possessed daughter. This woman was Greek, not Judean, and Jesus had been clear that His ministry would be first to the Israelites. The woman approached Jesus anyway, and He tests her faith by responding in a seemingly callous way: “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Rather than argue the point, the woman humbly chooses the position Jesus assigns in this brief parable. “Yes, Lord,” she replies, “yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” At this show of faith, Jesus is pleased and heals the daughter immediately from afar, not unlike the healing of the centurion’s servant later in the Gospels (Matthew 8, Luke 7). In both cases, Jesus performs a miracle for those outside of the Judean community for a show of faith.
St. James writes about this equality in salvation in his epistle, which we hear in our second reading today. He warns that God has already chosen the poor in the world to be “rich in faith and heirs to the kingdom,” a reflection that our values in stratification are twisted. It’s not the man in gold rings and fine dress that we should be embracing first, but those without means. That was also Jesus’ choice in His ministry. He didn’t exclude the rich and powerful, but Jesus spent much more time with the humble, and His interactions with the rich and powerful served to rebuke them, even as gently as He did with Zaccheus, or the son of the wealthy man who left broken-hearted at the thought of abandoning his wealth.
In this episode, the people bring the deaf-mute man to Jesus. As a beggar, the deaf-mute would have occupied the lowest strata of Judean society, although it’s a sign of their solidarity that they would bring the man to Jesus in the first place. Jesus takes the man to a more private setting and performed His miraculous healing, and in this case we hear His exclamation — “Ephphatha!”, or “Be Opened!”
Ironically, the first thing that Jesus instructs this man with the newly opened tongue to do, as well as the man’s friends, is essentially be quiet. But of course their joy in seeing the man healed cannot be contained. The man has been made equal again, on par with his neighbors, friends, and family. How can that good news be contained?
Indeed, how can we contain it? This radical equality in the eyes of God means that we are all equally able to follow Christ and participate in His salvation. Our classes and our impediments matter not to the Lord; what matters is our love for Him and each other, and our willingness to form ourselves to His will through the Holy Spirit. That should tell us all, be opened — open our hearts to Him, and open our mouths to proclaim His word.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.