of Ordinary Time
Sept. 9, 2012
Mark 7: 31-37
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis” (Mark 7: 31).
In last Sunday’s gospel (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23), Jesus engaged in a bit of a debate with the Pharisees and scribes, and offered an explanation to his disciples, about authentic cleanness and uncleanness.
Between that debate and today’s gospel, there’s an 8-verse passage which tells us that Jesus went off to Tyre, where he, reluctantly, healed the daughter of a woman whom Mark describes as “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (7:26).
Going to Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis—a Greek name meaning “10 cities”—Jesus has left Jewish territory and entered ancient Phoenicia—Lebanon today—and the region east of the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee. It’s quite a lot of hiking. The Decapolis stretched from Damascus in the north to what is now Amman, Jordan, in the south, altho no one suggests that Jesus visited the entire region.
It’s significant that this journey takes Jesus among the Gentiles, the pagan nations who don’t know or worship the One God, who don’t know or observe the Law of Moses, whom the Jews look down upon as unclean and irredeemable. It’s no accident that Mark places the journey after the debate about ritual uncleanness.
By the time the Gospels were written in their present form—Mark’s probably in the 60s—the apostles and especially St. Paul had brought the teaching of Jesus, the message of salvation, to these very people: to the pagan nations of the entire Eastern Mediterranean and even to Rome. Those regarded as unclean by the scribes and Pharisees have been made clean by God’s saving action: by hearing the Word and believing, by being baptized, by committing themselves to lives of Christian discipleship—in contrast to the “people [that] honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” “disregarding God’s commandment but clinging to human tradition” (Mark 7:6,8).
Mark is showing us—and Matthew, too, when he also records the episode with the Syro-Phoenician woman at Tyre (15:21-28)—that Jesus himself with his apostles passed thru Phoenicia, Syria, and what is now Jordan. The Gospels don’t tell us that he preached in those places, but they do show him performing miracles, healing the sick, announcing by his activity the presence of God even among the Gentiles.
In today’s gospel, people in the Decapolis “brought him a deaf man who had a speech impediment” (7:32). On the surface, in terms of the physical facts, this is a story, a healing, just like so many others in the Gospels. In context, it’s highly symbolic; or, as the Fathers of the Church might have put it, allegorical.
This man, like all the residents of the Decapolis, has never heard God’s word. His physical deafness is nothing compared with his religious deafness. When Jesus prays that his ears be opened, he’s also opening those ears to the Living Word of the One God, to the mysteries of salvation.
The man also has a speech impediment. He and his countrymen until now have been impeded from praising the True God because they’ve never known him. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (10:13-14). Now this man has met Jesus, and the impediment is removed, and he “speaks plainly” (7:35). He’s in a position now to let the world know about Jesus and to praise the God who has made him whole—as do the people who brought to Jesus this man who’d been deaf and dumb, these people who had been, as regards God’s saving power, just as deaf and dumb.
Moreover, “the more he ordered them not to tell anyone, the more they proclaimed it” (7:36). Without going into this wish of Jesus not to be publicized—so prominent in Mark’s Gospel—we see that the people who’ve brought the deaf man to Jesus, and presumably the man himself, are eager to proclaim what Jesus has done. A note here in the New American Bible observes that the same verb, proclaim, “is elsewhere used in Mark for the preaching of the gospel on the part of Jesus, of his disciples, and of the Christian community.” These people have become Christian missionaries, announcing among the pagans of the Decapolis the Good News of what God is doing for the human race thru Jesus Christ.
Which makes the point that all of us, like that deaf and dumb man and his friends, have had our ears opened to receive God’s Word and our tongues loosed to praise God.
What a gift we have received in the Word of God—in the Sacred Scriptures, in the celebration of the liturgy. These, with their saving power coming directly from Christ, are readily available to us.
These gifts call for our response in public liturgy and private prayer. In Sunday Mass and whenever we celebrate the sacraments or the Liturgy of the Hours, we praise God for offering us forgiveness and eternal life. We need to do that privately, personally, too.
We’ve also been commissioned to spread the Word, to let the pagan world know what God is doing and wants to do to save the human race from our various impediments, from our sins, from all our spiritual ills. All of us are missionaries, bearers of the message of Christ: to our students and alumni, to our confreres, to our children and families, to our neighbors, to everyone.