Jesus cures a deaf man

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary

The world behind the text

See the general introduction to Mark.

This material focuses on the world at the time of the text

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The World of the Text

Texts and Textual Features

In Mark’s Gospel, there are only three stories that find no counterpart in the other three Gospels. This is one of those stories. Structured as a narrative, the beginning introduces us to the setting, explicitly named as the Decapolis. The middle contains the problem – a man unable to hear, and the resolution concludes with the customary healing by Jesus via his words and actions. A coda describes the crowd’s response. As with many of Mark’s healing stories, this text is very dynamic and active. An important interplay takes place between one in need, those who look out for him, Jesus and the crowd. 

This healing text has been positioned deliberately by the Gospel writer so that it follows the story recounting the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. Both of these texts, which occur in Gentile territory, emphasize Jesus’ ministry to those outside the Israelites. In comparison to the previous story (Mk 7: 24-30), Jesus is most engaged in this healing account.

 Throughout Mark’s Gospel, healing stories are of paramount importance. For the author, this continuous portrayal of Jesus as a healer demonstrates the Kingdom of God unfolding in the here and now. It is a critical textual feature that also emphasizes God’s loving compassion that is available to all. This is the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ active participation in the world.

An important textual feature of Mark’s Gospel is the term immediately. Mark uses the term often, such that his Gospel is sometimes called a Gospel in a hurry. The word comes from the ancient Greek term, eutheos. In this passage the word is used to highlight the authority out of which Jesus acts. Its deliberate inclusion clearly emphasizes the ongoing urgency of God’s mission that unfolds throughout Jesus’ ministry amongst the poor, weak and vulnerable.

Prior to this teaching block in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been travelling through Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every sickness and disease (Matt 4:23-25). This text is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), the first ‘teaching block’ of Matthew’s gospel.

After the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), the sermon contains 14 statements. Matthew’s community, rich in Jewish tradition, would have seen the significance of 14 (2 x 7, in Jewish tradition, 7 is the ‘holy’ or ‘complete’ number) being chosen by Matthew and recognise them as ‘something of God’.

Characters & Setting

The beginning of this text demonstrates how important geography was to the author of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is now positioned in Gentile territory. For a Jewish male like Jesus, this would have been at odds with the religious norms of the day. This literary development may well be in response to Jesus’ lack of missionary success thus far in the Jewish territory around Galilee.

The geographical description is somewhat strange and inefficient and could well reflect Mark’s poor knowledge of the terrain. As Jesus moves from Tyre to Sidon then onto Decapolis he travels about 190 km’s. This horseshoe like route takes him north then southeast followed by a final route down south to Decapolis. Several explanations abound to try and explain this odd inclusion in Mark’s Gospel. The Markan author may have been unfamiliar with Palestinian territory or it was a genuine reflection of Jesus’ need to distance himself from the Pharisaic onslaught as described in the initial stages of this Gospel. At a deeper level, this circuitous route could well emphasize Jesus’ desire to throw open his ministry to Jew and Gentile alike. For the Markan author, the non -Jewish world was a critical aspect of Jesus’ outpouring of God’s loving compassion in the world. Inclusion and openness are foundational to this text and our overall understanding of this Gospel.

Following this detailed geographic description is reference to a group of people who bring to Jesus, a man suffering from deafness and a speech impediment. This reminds us of similar acts carried out in the story about the paralysed man being carried by others on a mat. Like with many Gospel texts, there is no reference to these individuals’ relationship to the man in need or his name. This desperate act and the reference to their desire for the laying on of hands reflects the focus on a need for blessing. In Judaism, the laying on of hands was a common practice for the ill. In this case, the man received a whole lot more than this. His encounter with Jesus led to complete healing and a renewal of life as his hearing and speech were restored through touch and spittle. Mark captures a moment of love seeking intimacy in the world where this man and Jesus share in the same reality. In acknowledging the source of his love, Mark turns Jesus’ eyes to heaven as he does also in Mk 6:41. This is of supreme importance to Mark’s Gospel as it points to the fruits of prophetic fulfillment as outlined in Jewish prophecy.

The text contains a clear allusion to Isaiah 35:5 which predicts the coming era when  ‘the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy.’ This man’s healing was a profound outpouring of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. This would have opened up this individual’s whole world as he could now participate in society again and celebrate his human dignity through community.

Interestingly, Jesus takes the man away from the crowd to perform what is one of the most graphically beautiful healings across all four Gospels. He plunges his fingers into his ears and uses spittle as a healing balm for the man’s wounded tongue. Such healing techniques were common in the ancient world. Jesus would have been most familiar with them. Jesus is also portrayed as giving a command for the individual’s ears to be opened. This aspect of the text also demonstrates Jesus’ desire to ignore social and religious boundaries that diminished the demonstration of God’s love for all. From the perspective of Jewish Law, Jesus’ actions would have placed him right in the middle of an ‘unclean’ situation’. This was clearly a block to achieving his missionary endeavors.

The text concludes with a unique command for silence in Mark’s Gospel and a confession of faith. The crowd is left astonished and wellness results from this encounter with Jesus. This alludes to the original sense of everything being well as outlined in the first creation story (Gen 1: 31). All three of these textual attributes are found in several Gospel healing stories. 


Healing and Wellness

Healing is key to Jesus’ ministry across all four Gospels. Every healing, including the one in focus, is a demonstration of God’s love and compassion present in the here and now. Healing and healers were common in the ancient world. Jesus is often asked where he gets his authority from and amazement often accompanies his healing encounters. What sets Jesus apart from other healers was his relationship with God. His entire mission emerged from this relationship and all healing reflected God’s love for all of creation. Blessing abounded in a complex world of division, judgement and law.

Restoration and Inclusion

Another core theme emerging from this text is that of restoration and inclusion. One is not only healed physically but is offered the chance for life again – in fullness. In a world which cast out those who were ill, healing restores people to their community groups, relationships, and social worlds. Jesus battled against those who would not accept this radical interpretation of Jewish Law, wherein love and compassion appears as the new foundation for right relationships. An essential offshoot of his ministry was the experience of inclusion. There were no boundaries in Jesus’ world as he set about reimagining human dignity and compassion for all. Jesus’ actions, such as that demonstrated in this text, caused growing anxiety and tension between Jesus and the authorities who found it very difficult to cope with the following he received.

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

The World in Front of the Text

Questions for the teacher

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/challenges

Today, we find ourselves a long way from Jesus’ world yet there is a great richness to this text that can affirm and challenge us as we live out our lives in contemporary Australia. This text provides us with a vast wealth of spiritual knowledge and wisdom that can assist us to navigate our way in the world and form loving, compassionate relationships with Christ at the centre. The attention, care and compassion Jesus offers the deaf man is a profound example that we can aspire to in our everyday lives.

We can also be challenged to disregard the social and religious boundaries that divide and diminish true community. Such an approach to life may be one of today’s greatest challenges as waves of conservative, fundamentalism are on the rise around our globe.

In regards to the environment, this text and its message is critical to our future orientation. As our planet hangs on a knife’s edge we are being called to reimagine our relationship with the poorest of the poor as Pope Francis states in Laudato Si. This text invites us to extend a hand of greater hospitality and inclusion towards creation where we see ourselves as participants in creation and not masters. We must love and care for her as Jesus loved and cared for the poverty stricken deaf man in Mark’s Gospel. As he found his voice again in Jesus’ presence, let us aid creation in finding her voice again as her many parts rejoice and sing with joy towards a new future. Light always overcomes the darkness!

Finally, we can ask ourselves about our own deafness; about our own inability to speak. What healing do we need, such that we might be able to ‘speak plainly’.

Church interpretation and usage

The passage is rich in possibility for interpretation. As a foundation for prayer and liturgical experiences it could elicit responses linked to sacramental preparation, inclusion, alientation through illness or invite questions about the intervention of God in miraculous actions, now.