23rd Sunday of the Year Isaiah 35:4–7; James 2:1–5; Mark 7:31–37
Spiritual Deaf-mutes Many of us are deaf and dumb spiritually, and Jesus wants to heal us.
Awoman had a friend who was deaf. One day she asked her friend what she wanted for her birthday. Her friend make a strange request. She said:
“Would you write Ann Landers and ask her to reprint a prayer she has for deaf people. She printed it once before in her column but I lost my copy of it.”
The woman wrote to Ann Landers. And on June 1, her friend’s birthday, Ann reprinted the prayer in her column. A portion of it reads:
“O God, the trouble about being deaf is that most people find deaf folks a nuisance. They sympathize with people who are blind and lame, but they get irritated and annoyed with people who are deaf. And the result if this is that deaf people are apt to avoid company, and get more and more shut in.” William Barclay
That portion of the prayer points out something about deaf people that few of us realize.
Most of us think that blindness is worse than deafness. But Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, considered deafness the far greater handicap. When you can’t hear, a lot of doors in the normal world slam shut.
Turning on the radio is pointless. Watching television is bland and often boring. Conversing with someone is next to impossible. After a while you feel lonely and abandoned. The story of the deaf person gives us a better appreciation of today’s gospel. It gives us an insight into how the deaf and dumb man felt after Jesus healed him. For the first time in his life, he felt a part of life.
This raises a question. Why did Jesus heal the deaf and dumb man? Why did he unplug his ears? Why did he restore his speech?
One answer to that question is found in today’s first reading. Describing some of the signs that will take place when the Messiah comes, Isaiah says, “The deaf will hear . . . and those who cannot speak will shout for joy.”
By healing the deaf and dumb man, Jesus fulfills two of the signs that Isaiah says will help people recognize the Messiah.
And so one of the purposes of today’s healing is to add to the converging evidence that points to Jesus as the Messiah.
But the healing of the deaf and dumb man also tells us something personal about Jesus. It tells us that he is a compassionate person. We see this, especially, in the way Jesus heals the man. Jesus takes him off, away from the crowd.
Deaf people are often embarrassed by their situation. They can’t understand the simplest questions people ask them. They feel different and out of place.
By taking the man away from the crowd, Jesus shows real compassion for him. He shows real sensitivity to his situation.
And so besides pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, the healing of the man points to Jesus as a compassionate person.
Finally, the healing of the deaf-mute is a source of hope for many people today—people like you and me.
The deaf and dumb man’s plight is not unlike our own plight. Many of us today are deaf and dumb—not physically, not spiritually.
What do we mean by that?
An example will illustrate. Recently a mother and father were visiting their daughter who was seriously ill in the hospital.
As they drove away from the hospital, the mother began to cry. She said to her husband:
“Ron, I don’t know what’s happening to me. Ten years ago I would have been able to pray my heart out for our daughter. I’d have been able to talk to God about her. And I’d have been able to hear God tell me: ‘Don’t worry!”
“But I can’t do that anymore. I can’t pray any longer. I can’t speak to God as I used to. And I can’t hear God speak to me. It’s as though I’ve suddenly become spiritually deaf and dumb.”
That story describes a situation that many of us can relate to. We too find it hard to pray as we used to. We too find it hard to speak to God. We find it hard to hear God speak to us.
What can we do in this situation?
We find the answer in today’s gospel.
We can do what the deaf and dumb man did. We can seek out Jesus, go off with him, away from the crowd, and spend some time in his healing presence.
Today’s gospel is inviting us to give Jesus an opportunity to touch our tongue to loosen it, spiritually, and to put his fingers in our ears and open them, spiritually.
More concretely, today’s gospel is inviting us to do something many of us have lost the habit of doing.
It’s inviting us to set aside a few minutes for daily prayer to let Jesus do for us what he did for the deaf and dumb man. It’s inviting us to let Jesus heal us of our deafness and dumbness.
And so the story of the deaf and dumb man does three things.
First, it reveals Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. Jesus does what Isaiah foretold the Messiah would do. He makes the ears of the deaf to hear and the tongue of the dumb to sing.
Second, the story of the deaf and dumb man reveals Jesus as a compassionate person. Jesus takes the deaf and dumb man away from the crowd to heal him. He doesn’t make a public display of him. Rather, he deals with him privately and personally.
Finally, today’s gospel reveals the solution to the problem that many of us experience today. We are unable to pray. We are unable to speak to God and to hear him speak to us in our heart. We are spiritually deaf and dumb.
The solution to this vexing problem is to do what the deaf and dumb man did. It is to seek out Jesus and ask him to heal us.
More concretely, it is set aside a few minutes for daily prayer to give Jesus a chance to touch us, heal us, and make us whole once again.
Series II 23rd Sunday of the Year Isaiah 35:4–7; James 2:1–5; Mark 7:31–37
Jesus Acts Today Jesus uses our hands, our feet, our voice, and our heart to touch people in our day.
Many people remember Paul Stookey. He enjoyed international fame in the 1960s with the singing group Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Few people know, however, that Paul went through a lot of soul-searching during his musical career. In spite of his fame and success, Paul felt a deep spiritual hunger inside himself.
One day that hunger got so bad that he turned to another musician for help. The person he turned to was singer Bob Dylan. Stookey said later, “If anyone knew about our spiritual nature back then, it was Bob Dylan.’’
Stookey and Dylan talked for a long time. Their conversation ended with Dylan making two suggestions.
First, he told Stookey to visit his old high school, walk through its corridors again, and get back in touch with his roots.
Second, he told Stookey to begin reading the Bible, especially the New Testament.
And so Stookey took Dylan’s advice. He said later, “I started carrying the Scriptures around with me. . . . It was almost like having a brother with you.’’
Then, slowly, something began to happen. Stookey explained it this way in an interview:
“I began discovering that all the truths I sought were contained in the life of [Jesus]. . . . It was fantastic. He set a good example,
but it never occurred to me that he could [really] be the Son of God.’’
Then one night Stookey was giving a concert at Austin, Texas. In the course of the evening, a young man walked up to him backstage and began talking to him about Jesus.
What happened next is hard to put in words. Stookey expressed it this way:
“So, wow, I started to pray with him, and I asked Jesus to . . . take over my life. And I started to cry and he started to cry.’’
That night, backstage in Texas, the grace of God touched Stookey in a remarkable way.
Like the deaf-mute in today’s gospel, Stookey’s ears were opened so that he could hear and understand God’s Word in a new way. And his tongue was loosed so that he could praise God and pray to God in a new way.
Stookey still had a long way to go. His faith journey had just begun. But thanks to that young man in Texas, grace had touched him profoundly, and he would never be the same again.
That story illustrates an important point that we sometimes forget.
Jesus still opens the ears of deaf people today, just as he did in gospel times. He still loosens the tongues of people today, just as he did in gospel times.
The only difference is the way Jesus continues to do these things. He doesn’t do them through his own hands and voice. Rather, he does them through the hands and voice of other people.
For example, Jesus used the young man in Texas to open Stookey’s eyes and ears so that he could understand God’s Word. And he used him to loosen Stookey’s tongue so that he could pray to God.
To put all of this in a more dramatic way, we could say this: Jesus has no feet by which he can walk into the lives of people today. He must use our feet to do that, as he used the feet of the young man in Texas to walk into the life of Paul Stookey.
Jesus has no hands but ours to reach out and heal the ears and tongues of people today. He must use our hands to do that, as he used the hands of the young man to reach out and heal the ears and tongue of Paul Stookey.
Jesus has no voice but ours to speak to the hearts of people today. He must use our voice to do that, as he used the voice of the young man to speak to the heart of Paul Stookey.
Years ago, as part of the pregame hype for Super Bowl XVI, reporter Jerry Izenberg of the New York Post interviewed Reggie Williams of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Like the young man in today’s gospel, Reggie was born with a hearing problem, but no one really paid any attention to it.
Reggie told Izenberg that his early teachers simply thought he was dull and stupid. But a third grade teacher, Miss Chapman, took an interest in him, discovered his problem, and got him the help he needed.
Thanks to Miss Chapman, Reggie’s ears were now opened so that he could hear right for the first time.
Reggie eventually graduated in the top 5 percent of his high school class. And the boy who was supposed to be dull and stupid wound up going to Dartmouth University.
“If it hadn’t been for Miss Chapman,’’ Reggie told Izenberg, “I don’t know where I’d be today.’’
Today’s gospel has an invitation from Jesus for each of us in this church today.
Jesus is inviting us to lend him our hands that he might open the ears of the deaf and loosen the tongues of the mute today, as he did for the man in today’s gospel.
Jesus is inviting us to lend him our voice that he might speak to the spiritually hungry of our day, as he did to the spiritually hungry of his day.
He is inviting us to lend him our hearts that he might use them to touch the lives of people in our day, as he touched the lives of people in his day.
This is the message that today’s Scripture sets before us. This is the mystery that today’s liturgy celebrates. This is the invitation that Jesus makes to each one of us today.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, today’s Scripture message is one that we have heard many times before but that we tend to forget or not appreciate.
Touch our ears and open them that we may hear that message in a new way.
Touch our tongues and loosen them that we may share this message with others.
Touch our hearts that we may let you use them to transform our world, as you let the Father use you to transform your world.
Series III 23rd Sunday of the Year Isaiah 35:4–7a, James 2:1–5, Mark 7:31–37
Spiritual deafness There is a remedy, if we are willing to apply it.
Some people brought [Jesus] a man who was deaf. Mark 7:32
This morning many people woke up not to the sound of an alarm clock, but to the whir of a vibrator under their pillow. These people are totally deaf.
Most of us think that blindness is worse than deafness. Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, said deafness is the greater handicap.
When you are totally deaf, a door to the world around you closes. You begin to feel lonely and abandoned. You become a stranger in your own land.
The Scottish theologian William Barclay quotes a prayer written by a deaf person. A portion of it reads:
O God, the trouble with being deaf is that most people find deaf folks a nuisance. They sympathize with people who are blind and lame, but they get irritated and annoyed with people who are deaf. As a result, deaf people are apt to avoid other people and become isolated from the hearing world.
That poignant prayer gives us an insight into how it feels to be deaf—much less deaf and dumb.
This brings us to a point that very few people think about. It is this: There is a situation that is even worse than being physically deaf and dumb.
That situation is being spiritually deaf and dumb. People who are spiritually deaf and dumb are unable to speak to God in prayer, and they are unable to hear God speak to them in the depths of their heart.
This spiritual tragedy is as old as the world, but it is increasingly becoming a tragedy in our day.
The great playwright Tennessee Williams refers to it in his famous play The Night of the Iguana.
At one point in the play, he has this conversation take place between Hannah Jelkes and Mr. Shannon. Hannah says to Mr. Shannon, “Liquor isn’t your problem.”
Shannon says, “What is my problem?” Hannah answers, “The oldest problem in the world—the need to believe in something or in someone.”
That raises a practical question about spiritual deafness and spiritual blindness. What can we do about the problem? Lawrence Gould answers bluntly, “For one thing, we must stop gagging on the word spiritual. We must rediscover and reassert our faith.”
But how do we rediscover and reassert our faith? For example, what if we are a Christian who is experiencing this problem to some degree? How can we learn again to hear and to speak to God again?
Today’s Gospel points to the answer. We must ask Jesus to do for us what he did for the man in the Gospel. Recall what happened when he was brought to Jesus for healing.
Jesus took him off alone, away from the crowd, put his fingersin his ears, and touched his tongue. Then he said to the man, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Open up!” Mark concludes by saying:
At once the man was able to hear, and his speech impediment was removed, and he began to talk without any trouble. . . .
And all who heard were completely amazed. “How well he does everything!” they exclaimed. “He even causes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak!” Mark 7:35–37
To be healed of our spiritual deafness and dumbness, we must turn to Jesus, as the man in the Gospel did.
We must break away from the crowd. We must go off alone with Jesus and spend time with him in prayer. Concretely, this means we must set aside time each day to be with Jesus.
When two people want to get to know each other better, they agree on specific times and places to meet. Their time together is not left to chance. It is scheduled right into their day.
The same is true about developing a closer relationship with Jesus. The demands of modern life are such that unless we schedule a time for daily prayer into our day, we probably won’t pray at all.
The important thing, however, is this: Whether we schedule five minutes or ten minutes for prayer, we need to be faithful about setting aside that time.
Moreover, just as we need a program to follow when we get serious about physical fitness, so we need a program to follow when we get serious about spiritual fitness.
One simple procedure is: follow the Bible and use it as your program. Using the Gospel according to Mark is a good place to start. In it Jesus is always going somewhere, doing something, or saying something.
Simply read ten or so verses slowly at each daily prayer session. Stop briefly after every verse or so—as the Spirit leads you. Speak to Jesus about the verse from your heart and listen to him respond to you in your heart.
Finally, it helps to keep a notepad handy on a table next to your “prayer chair.” This allows you to jot down any special thought or idea that may have come to you during your prayer time with Jesus. Many people find writing to be an excellent way to conclude their prayer. It only takes only a minute or so, but it often becomes the most fruitful aspect of the prayer.
Let’s close with an example of a note written after such a prayer session. It was found by a mother whose young daughter had to wear a hearing aid. It read:
Dear God, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I wish you hadn’t made me deaf. Could you change me back? [signed] Sue. P.S. Say hello to my guardian angel.
The next day Sue found a note. It was written in gold ink and obviously the work of a mother who was as creative as she was loving. It read:
Dear Sue, I am your guardian angel, and I asked God to answer your note. You see, God made me deaf, too. But God did give me two fast legs, so I can run like the wind; two lovely arms, so I can hug everybody; and an imagination, so I can fly anywhere.
But what I really like best is being able to turn off my hearing aid when the other angels are yelling. It makes things quiet so I can better hear God singing love songs to me in my heart. [signed] Your guardian angel.