Whenever a baby is baptized, after the actual baptism itself come a series of rituals that symbolically amplify the full meaning of baptism. The last of these is called the Ephphatha - the Aramaic word Jesus used in today’s Gospel [Mark 7:31-37]. The fact that the actual Aramaic word was remembered years later and repeated in its original language in the Gospel (which was written in a different language) suggests that what Jesus said and did on that occasion must have made quite a memorable impression on his followers.
At a Baptism, in imitation of Jesus, the priest or deacon touches the newly baptized baby’s ears and mouth, saying: The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” In other words, in opening our ears to hear God’s word and our mouths to proclaim his faith, Baptism introduces us to a genuinely new way of life, just as the life of the man Jesus healed in today’s Gospel was totally and irrevocably transformed.
Who was this man, forever immortalized by Jesus’ healing touch that day? Apart from his disability, we know next to nothing about him. He could have been anyone. Apart from his disability, the only other thing we can assume about him is suggested by the geography lesson at the beginning of the story. Jesus, we are told, left the district of Tyre and went into the district of the Decapolis. In other words, Jesus has gone beyond the borders of Israel into Gentile territory. So the salvation promised by the prophet Isaiah (so familiar to us from Handel's musical version) - Then will the ears of the deaf be cleared; then the tongue of the mute will sing – is coming true. And one of the first to benefit is a deaf Gentile, whose ears have been opened to hear God’s word, a pagan, whose mouth has been opened to proclaim his new faith!
The story highlights not just a man and a miracle, but what happened next. The man spoke plainly, and the people were astonished. Sometimes astonishment silences us. In this case, however, the people proclaimed the good news. So this is a story about change – not just the dramatic healing of one individual in need, but the total transformation of his life and the creation of a community of disciples who have suddenly experienced something new and different made possible by Christ.
So what might such a transformed way of life and such a transformational community actually look life?
The letter of James, which we are reading this month, reminds us that our faith cannot just be something somehow incidental in our lives. The exhortation we heard last week, Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves, gets “unpacked” in a series of practical exhortations today [James 2:1-5] to judge, value, and treat people according to completely new and different criteria from those predominating in secular society – a tall order, to be sure, in any time and place, certainly in a society such as ours where we all seem so enamored of the rich and famous, a society in which a CEO earns several hundred times what his or her average worker earns, fostering an economic, cultural, and moral gap of a magnitude that would have been almost unimaginable just a generation ago.
As members of Christ’s Church, who hear his word, we are now witnesses of the change God is effecting in us – and through us in the world. Like the bystanders in the Gospel, we will have no viable authentic alternative but to proclaim his faith, to proclaim what we have heard and seen, something we do by becoming new people, something that should show in our behavior towards one another, and especially to strangers – those society seeks to throw away but whom we are called upon to welcome and embrace.
Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 6, 2015.