I recently had lunch with a friend who uses hearing aids. We were in a restaurant, and with all the other voices around us, it was very hard for her to hear the waiter describe the specials of the day. It was only when he came around to her side of the table and leaned close to her that she could hear what he was saying. My friend told me that for a person who uses a hearing aid the hardest situation is to be in a crowd where the din is amplified, which makes it impossible to distinguish any particular voice. Even those without a hearing impairment have difficulty hearing in a noisy crowd.
In today’s Gospel, people bring to Jesus a man with a hearing and speech impairment and beg Jesus to lay his hand on him. The first thing Jesus does is to take the man away from the crowd. When the man’s hearing is restored, the first voice he will hear is that of Jesus, inviting him to greater openness. Like the waiter with my friend, Jesus draws close to the man. Using the same techniques as other healers, Jesus then touches the man’s ears and tongue and pronounces a word that Mark preserves in Aramaic: “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” We follow the pattern today with our sacraments, using not only words, but physical touch and the tangible signs of oil, water, bread and wine, which have the power to transform. Jesus uses spittle on the man’s tongue. In antiquity, spitting was thought to ward off evil spirits. But Jesus’ power is not magical. Rather, he looks up to heaven to acknowledge the divine origin of his power and directs the onlookers to God as well. Through Jesus’ power the man’s ears are opened and his speech becomes clear. What the man says in response, Mark does not tell us.
The crowd meanwhile becomes even more vociferous, proclaiming with astonishment the marvels that Jesus is doing. Jesus orders them to be silent, but they do not heed him. It is a bit ironic that, as Jesus enables a man with garbled speech to speak plainly, he enjoins silence on the babbling crowd. The crowd is focused on the flashy signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign, such as Isaiah foretells in the first reading for this Sunday. But the crowd misses the deeper meaning—what the signs signify. Jesus is not a showy miracle worker. Unless one becomes open to a deeper encounter with Jesus as the crucified and risen one, and to being transformed into his image, one cannot fully proclaim the mystery of the good news he brings.
The physical ability to hear is not necessary for such an encounter with Christ; nor is the physical ability to speak necessary to proclaim the word of God. It is openness of mind, heart, and spirit to the breath of God within and without, and the willingness to respond wholeheartedly that are essential. In the second reading, it is clear that openness to God also results in our openness to others, especially those who are poor. James insists that all should be given the same welcome. There should be no partiality (prosopolempsia, literally, “lifting up of the face”), because when we display favoritism it is generally toward the rich. When God, however, “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11), it concerns God’s graciousness that extends to all—Jew and Greek alike. When it comes to those who are poor, all through the Scriptures, God is shown to be like a mother who loves all her children equally but shows partiality to the one who is most needy.