The gospels do not simply tell us stories of people who lived thousands of years ago. No, the gospels tell us our story, and today’s gospel is no different. We encounter a deaf man with a speech impediment living in a pagan land; this man represents each of us. His story is our story. And, if you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus, for His story and His work are largely yours, too. Let’s look at today’s gospel, remembering that it is our story.
I. Note first the PLACE of the gospel. The text says that Jesus went into the Decapolis region. This was an area of ten Gentile (pagan) cities. And while there were believers living there, many more did not believe. In other words, Jesus was in a largely unbelieving region.
And for us who live in the West, this atmosphere of unbelief describes our culture, too. Notice that Jesus does not hesitate to go there or to engage the culture—and neither should we. Something drew Him there. What was it? Was it love? Was it zeal?
What is it that keeps us engaged and sends us forth to draw in our increasingly pagan, indeed worse-than-pagan, culture? Is it love? Is it patriotism? Is it love of God and truth? What motivates you to engage family, friends, and neighbors?
Note, too, regardless of where He was, Jesus did not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel. He didn’t simply wait until He found things comfortable or the timing opportune. He proclaimed the Gospel, in season and out season, in friendly lands and in hostile ones, whether He was praised or persecuted. What about you and me?
II. Next, note the PROBLEM that emerges. A man who is deaf and has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. Frankly, this describes many of us. In the midst of an increasingly unbelieving culture, many of us have become deaf to God’s truth. And on account of that deafness, we have the speech impediment of being silent in the face of this unbelief and sin.
First, some of our deafness is because we haven’t heard. No one ever told us a lot of things due to bad catechesis, etc. Sadly, too many of our pulpits, whether the pulpit in the Church or the pulpit of the family dining room table, have been silent. So, in a certain and very real sense, we have a deafness that has never heard the Word of God.
But some of our deafness is acquired, for though our ears were opened at our Baptism, we haven’t listened; we have turned a deaf ear and been stubborn. Sometimes there is outright rejection of the Word, but even more frequently it is a case of selective resistance. We are like the teenager who only half-listens to his parents. We “tune out” when less appealing aspects of the Word of God confront us. We say, “There goes that preacher again. I understand he has to say stuff like that, but …”
And so we are deaf, either partially or wholly, on account of our own fault or the fault of others who should have preached to us and taught us.
And, on account of this deafness, or at least related to it, we also have a speech impediment. Those who have never heard have a hard time speaking well. The gospel today seems to link the deafness with the speech impediment.
But there are other causes of a speech impediment when it comes to faith. For example, half-hearted listening leads to half-hearted witness or no witness at all. Lukewarm faith can lead us to remain silent even as we see the world around us falling into decay. St. Paul said, Because I believed, I spoke out (2 Cor 4:13). But too many of us believe in a lukewarm way, so we say little, and, frankly, have little to say.
Another huge source of our speech impediment is fear. We are so terrified of what people might say or think that we say nothing at all. The martyrs went to their deaths for the proclamation of the faith but we are afraid of a few raised eyebrows!
Yes, we are a fearful lot, and that fear is rooted in a desperate and unbalanced need to be liked, to fit in, and to be accepted. Well, we need to get a grip now, because the age of the martyrs may be returning to the West. And if our faith is not strong, we will not be strong.
Fear is a huge factor in our speech impediment.
III. Next, note the PROCESS. Jesus is not interested in running a carnival side show. He takes the man away, alone and apart from the crowd. Let’s examine several aspects of this healing.
A. It is PERSONAL. It is personal in two senses. First, He ministers to the man in a way that respects his dignity. Whatever the causes of his deafness and speech impediment, his healing must be a personal walk with the Lord Jesus. And so must yours be. Jesus is not interested in making a spectacle of you. He heals you for your own sake. And if one day you or I should choose to make a witness of our healing, that’s fine. But that is not why the Lord heals us; He heals us for our own sake because He loves us.
Second, the healing is personal in that it is a way of teaching us that it is easier to wear slippers than to carpet the whole world. In other words, the healing of the world can begin with us. It is too easy for us to merely wait and hope that God will raise up the next Fulton J. Sheen. But what if the Lord wants to take you aside? What if He wants to speak a word to you? What if He wants to get your fingers out of your ears? What if He wants to heal your deafness so that His Word is heard loud and clear?
B. It is PICTURESQUE. There are images at work here. There are the fingers in the ears as if Jesus is placing His words in the man’s ears, opening them to God’s Word. The text says that Jesus, spitting, touched the man’s tongue. It’s as if to signify, “from His mouth to yours.” Jesus puts His own words into our mouth. There is also the command, “Be opened,” as if to say, “Open your mind; open your heart,” and thus, “Open your ears; open your mouth.” The problem is not merely a physical one of stopped ears or a lame tongue. The problem is mental and spiritual as well, a closed mind and a closed heart. Thus the Lord says, simply and without qualification, “Be opened.”
C. The healing is PURE. The text says that when the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was loosed, “He spoke plainly.” The Greek word used here is ὀρθῶς (orthos), meaning straight, without deviation, true, or correct. It is the root from which we get the English word “orthodoxy.” And this is important, because we don’t need eloquent heretics. We need eloquent true believers, people who have heard the true and whole Word of God and are ready to articulate what He says rather than some fake or incomplete version of the Lord’s truth. Give us true prophets, O Lord, not false prophets, who say only what we want to hear or who give us only part of the truth.
IV. Finally, note the PROCLAMATION. The text reports ironically, Jesus 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.”
What, is the Lord kidding? He has healed a man to hear and speak the Word clearly and then tells him to be quiet? Scholars may differ on the interpretation here, but my interpretation is that the Lord is being intentionally ironic and “tongue in cheek” when he says, smiling, “Not a word to anyone now!”
For, when you’ve experienced really good news it’s hard to stay quiet!
What is your story? How has the Lord opened your ears? How has He increasingly enabled you to hear and understand His Word in your life? And how has He loosed your tongue to speak His Word? I am a witness. I was once a shy and poorly catechized young man, frankly disinterested in the things of God, but was taken aside by the Lord, who put His word in my ear, loosed my tongue, and now can’t get me to shut up. Yes, He has done all things well!
And now a final question: How has Jesus used you to unstop the ears of the deaf, communicate His word, and liberate the tongues of others? Perhaps He has used you as a parent, catechist, priest or religious, choir member, lector, or leader, to unstop ears and liberate tongues. Here, too, I am a witness. Thank you, Lord, for using me to impart knowledge, unstop ears, place Your Word there, and loose tongues. Thank you, Lord. You have done all things well, even through me.