Scripture Readings (Sunday, September 5, 2021)
Which do you think would be more difficult, to be born sight-impaired or to be born hearing-impaired? I’ve always thought that blindness would be worse: not being able to see the beauty of the world or the faces of my loved ones, and not being able to get around easily without some sort of assistance. That’s what I thought until I started meditating on today’s gospel. “And the people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment.” That’s when I began to understand things somewhat differently.
Apparently, the deaf man had no trouble seeing. He most likely could move around freely on his own wherever he wanted to go. Yet, the people brought him to Jesus. At that time, very few people could read or write. So, how do people who cannot write explain Jesus to a deaf man who cannot read? What I failed to understand until now was that listening and speaking are our primary means of communication. Without special training, even making meaningful visible signs to one another relegates communication to a very basic level: yes, no, come, go, eat, drink, sleep. Last week, I spoke about knowledge and understanding. How much knowledge or understanding could we attain if we could not communicate effectively? Although the deaf man probably could have made it to Jesus on his own, how could he have even known there was help or where to go for it?
I assume that we have all heard this gospel before. If you’re like me, you might have felt sorry for him and thought, “Oh, that poor guy. His disabilities must have made life so hard for him. But Jesus did a good thing. Now things will be better for him.” Feeling sorry for the man is not the same as identifying with him. It’s hard to identify with him until we consider our own deafness and our own speech impediments. What’s the quality of our communication? How well do we listen? How carefully do we speak?
Although the crowd brought the man to Jesus because they saw him as a miracle-worker—he did powerful deeds—it was not as a miracle worker that Jesus cured the man. And it was not only the man who was cured. It was Jesus, the Eternal Word of God made flesh—the communication of the father—who opened the man’s ears, loosened his tongue, and inspired the crowds. They were so inspired that they applied to Jesus the words of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard in today’s first reading. “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.” He opened their hearts to realize that the fulfillment of the messianic prophesy they were looking for was happening right in front of them.
The inability to listen, the inability to understand, the inability to communicate affects each of us to some extent. See how the compassion of Jesus cured this? He approached the man using signs that even a deaf man could understand. He put his fingers into the man’s ears. He touched the man’s tongue with his saliva. He looked up to heaven and prayed for the man—not just his ears—to be opened. Ephphatha! Jesus used understandable signs—sacraments if you will—to effect change in the man.
What have we been deaf to? Whose voice have we not heard? How often have we heard, but were too preoccupied to listen? How often have we turned a deaf ear to others because their need seemed too great? How often have we tuned out a cry for love because it came couched in angry words? I know I do these things all the time, and it pains me to think of how often I have failed to receive the Word of God because he came to me in these voices.
God’s communication to us is not like any other kind of communication we know. In every other form of communication, we receive information about something. In God’s communication—God’s Word—we receive not information about God, but, rather, we receive God himself. Look around you. Listen. In everything you see and hear, touch, taste and smell, God is speaking to you. But that’s true especially here and now, in the words of Scripture, in the prayers and actions of the Liturgy, in the Eucharist itself, and, yes, even in my words, God is speaking his Eternal Word to you. There is nothing in all of creation that God cannot use to speak to you. All we need to do is listen. So, to the extent that we are deaf to God’s Word, to the extent that our speech is impeded from sharing God’s love with one another, in Jesus’s name I say, “Ephphatha!”—“Be opened!”