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. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ (NRSV)
In a time when people crave attention the gospel writer’s words seem strange. They may even have a jarring effect: Jesus ‘took him aside, away from the crowd’. Whatever is about to happen, our author wants us to know it is not for show.
Jesus is still seeking – somewhat unsuccessfully – anonymity.
But Jesus does not seem to be very good at blending in. He can say ‘No’ to the big-city religious leaders with an admirable authority but not when presented with an anonymous rural man wishing to hear. Jesus in the face of suffering seems to act against his own interest.
The request is for Jesus to ‘lay his hand’ on a friend. Theirs is a simple faith. They ask no diversion from his course. It will take minimal time and it will make no mess.
But Jesus offers more. He stops. Moves from the path. Gets saliva all over his hands.
It is partly done, I think, to uphold dignity. They move from intrigued eyes. Whatever his motive, however, Jesus chooses to put fingers and spit in ears and on tongue. It repulses and disgusts. It looks superstitious and magic.
What on earth is going through this deaf man’s mind?
And then, looking to heaven, he ‘sighed’. Yes, you read it right, Jesus sighed. An audible, unintelligible, burst of air was heard to pass from his lungs and out through his loosely open mouth. But what motivates this spontaneous deeply human expression? Does it stem from exhaustion, frustration, relief, anger, joy, excitement? Is it a sigh of resignation anticipating more unwanted attention?
Wherever its origin it caught enough attention for the storytellers to pass it on. Even our author sees something significant – so much so that the word remains in this tight, almost over-edited document. Scholars think Matthew and Luke saw need to flesh-out this bare bones account!
I guess all we can really say is, whatever the motive, Jesus deliberately and consciously acts to release a tongue that will – against Jesus wishes – ‘zealously proclaim’ his power and presence.
Yes, they just could not keep silence. Perhaps they considered his request unnecessarily modest or worse, immoral. We know they could not imagine keeping such a discovery secret. His actions are just too significant. His presence too much of an opportunity. I read a hint of understanding when our author summarises: ‘They were astounded beyond measure…’
And that just may be the most appropriate response.