Mark 7:31-37 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. 33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. 36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Only about one percent of the astounding ten million people who went through Ellis Island were detained, but it was enough. It was enough to cause great fear and undermine the hope that had put them onto ships in the first place. Thousands would wait in line every day to see a handful of doctors. Six seconds per eyelid was all the doctors had. Even less time to check for dangerous lesions of the skin or a fever of the body. Most people made it past the doctors. One percent didn’t. But it was enough to plant a vicious question mark into the heart of every immigrant who climbed off their ship and waited in line. Maybe their six seconds with the doctor would send them to America’s version of purgatory – quarantine.
That’s why Emma Lazarus wrote about the Statue of Liberty the way she did. She wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Emma knew that not even Lady Liberty’s shining torch could manage to comfort the souls waiting in line. Emma was a fourth generation American who had personally worked the immigration process. She had seen tired faces lift as they were let into the country. She had also seen tired faces grow more tired as they were denied. And so when she wrote she offered hope to the healthy masses, but never to the sick individual. She shined a light for the teeming in state of general wellness, but never for the singular sick person person in particular. Because she couldn’t.
Mark on the other hand? I suppose you could just write off the introduction to his narrative as a boring travelogue. I suppose you could read, “Tyre, Sidon… the region of the Decapolis,” (v. 31) and you could let your eyes glaze over like you might when your friend comes back from a summer vacation with all his travel highlights. You know how that goes. You say the perfunctory, “Sounds like you had a nice little vacation, Jesus. Hope it was a nice getaway from those tough, religious people in Judea.” But then we’d miss the whole, amazing point. Mark’s just as uninterested with recording travel plans as we are with reading them. You know what he’s not uninterested with? Soul plans.
And here, specifically, he’s not uninterested with soul plans for spiritual immigrants. You have to understand how this story popped for ancient Roman readers. It’d be just like if suddenly you were reading along in your Bible and it suddenly and stunningly read, “Jesus traveled around the Carolinas and even stopped by Columbia.” That’s the effect that Mark’s after here. He wants spiritual immigrants, Romans, Gentiles (us!!!) to read along and think, “Incredible! Jesus visited the Roman Decapolis. Those are my people.” Mark wants us to know that Jesus is pointed at us.
Us. Not just the Gentiles in general or the Romans as an empire or South Carolina as a state, but also for the specific within the general. And for the people that make up the empire. And for the individuals who reside within the borders of this state. I’m not sure honestly what else Mark could’ve done to show that to us. He wrote, “After he (Jesus) took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.” (v. 33) It’s just awesome, isn’t it? Jesus specifically pulls the man out and away from the crowd. And then Jesus makes what might be the most dramatic invasion of personal space in his entire ministry. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears. And as if that weren’t stunning enough behavior, he puts spit on the man’s tongue.
I’m telling you. If this man had a comfort zone of normal personal space, Jesus just obliterated it. This wasn’t just, “mi casa es su casa,” type of friendliness. This wasn’t just a man who was saying, “I’ll hang out with you and care about you.” This was something far more profound and incredible. This was a man who went where Q tips had only gone before. This was a man who literally pasted saliva into another man’s mouth. This wasn’t, “mi casa es su casa,” or, “I’ll be your friend and care about you,” type of behavior. This was Jesus invading the brokenness of the man’s ears and claiming it for himself. This was Jesus invading the man’s non-functioning tongue and claiming it for himself. The fingers and the spit were Jesus invading all of the man’s brokenness and claiming it as his own.
That’s what Mark so carefully and even minutely described for us. It’s not hard to understand why. Even though only one percent of the people were quarantined at Ellis Island, everyone wondered if they personally would be left on the outside looking in. Call it irrational. Call it silly, but we’re not robots. We’re souls. We understand that a pretty good bet is still only a bet and even good odds still leave someone the odd person out. Hope doesn’t matter unless its got its foundation under me. Faith isn’t secure unless the promises are mine. Angst can’t be replaced with confidence unless it’s got something better than favorable odds. That’s true even if the odds are ninety-nine to one.
And it’s especially true when it feels like the world’s deck is stacked against you. When you suffer. Because it sure feels like you got picked. Like you were pointedly removed from the healthy masses with cancer. Like you were taken aside from the prosperous general population with financial difficulty. Like you were cordoned off from region of the happy with depression or anxiety or an unwanted divorce. You’re not alone. Here’s a man who was forcibly emotionally stunted. He wanted to share. He wanted to give and take with others. But the life he experienced was as a soul trapped inside of its own body. He was shut off from the sound of another human’s voice. He simmered and marinated always and only in his own thoughts. He knew the great frustration of his constant uselessness and the sadness of seeing people write him off as worthlessly disabled.
And what made his suffering especially intense was its unchanging nature. Anybody can get through just about anything as long as the finish line is in sight, but this man? Neither he nor anybody else could change what he had. No amount of time with a speech pathologist and him mimicking the way she moved her mouth could make him form sounds correctly. And no amount of him trying to get himself to hear could make hearing happen. So there he was. Stuck with his own thoughts. Stuck with no hearing. Stuck with no speaking. Suffice it to say that if faith comes from sniffing life’s winds and deciphering the odds of whether God cares or not, it wasn’t going to happen for him.
And then Jesus climbs right over the walls of this man’s prison and breaks in. For the first time in his life, this man’s ears communicate something meaningful as they feel Jesus’ fingers. For the first time in his life, this man’s tongue feels like something other than lifeless as Jesus touches it. And then Jesus looks up to heaven and he groans. I know in English it says, “deep sigh,” (v. 34) but that’s honestly probably not the best translation. This word has a decidedly negative connotation. Sometimes it’s even translated something like, “grumble.” What Mark is communicating is a deep, deep feeling that you feel when you confront pain in yourself. Like the inner groaning that happens when you’re sad or depressed. Like a groan you might leak when you have labor pains or pick up something heavy and give yourself a hernia.
I wouldn’t spend so much time describing that deep sigh except that it’s clearly a key, key thought in this Scripture. It’s the only time Mark ever uses this word. In fact, it’s the only time we know where Jesus does anything like it. It’s a special, special saving moment. Because there is literally almost nothing more saving than that. There is nothing more important than for us to know that inside Jesus rose pure, unadulterated animosity not just for sin, but also for its effects. It bothers him. Sin’s effects in the man’s life crushed Jesus’ soul in a such a profound way that Jesus’ reaction was a guttural groan. That’s special. That’s faith generating. Jesus in this moment was owning and claiming this man’s suffering as his very own. Like it was actually his own pain and brokenness to deal with. And so he does, “(He) said to him, ‘Ephphatha!” (which means, ‘Be opened!’)” (v. 34)
And the results – well – they speak for themselves. “At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.” (v. 35) Now what’s amazing about these results is that they weren’t just confined to the man’s body. Not even close. This wasn’t just the restoration of the man’s hearing. Nor was it just the man gaining the ability to move his tongue around his mouth. This miracle was something far, far greater. Truly, it was. I’ve been a dad now for almost exactly three years. Three years in I’m still teaching Elliana how to form words. Three years in I’m still working with her to build vocabulary. Three years in I’m still helping her young mind create mental structures where she can put ideas and concepts and then bring them out as speech.
But this guy? This guy had probably never heard a word in his life. This guy had probably never spoken an intelligible word. And the very next moment he’s yammering away like a talk show host. Do you see what that means? Jesus didn’t just fix the mechanics of this guy’s ear canals. Jesus didn’t just better connect the nerves between the man’s tongue and brain. Jesus actually gave him the mental structures and thought content that would not only give him vocabulary, but also enable him to enunciate it. I’m telling you this was something far better and far greater than something you saw on the Matrix. It didn’t take a download. With just a word, Jesus unlocked not only the mechanics of the man’s body, but also unlocked the man’s mind. He was a prisoner no longer. Jesus had set him free.
But that wasn’t the greatest result of Jesus’ ephphatha. The greatest result of Jesus’ ephphatha to that man wasn’t that man at all. It’s the confidence that Jesus will do the same for you. If there’s anything that Mark’s trying to teach us with this story it’s that when Jesus sees the mess of sin he doesn’t space out with all of the overwhelming needs and say, “Boy, there’s just too many people and too many issues for me to deal with them all.” It’s anything, but that. It’s that he’s on the hunt to end my suffering forever. It’s that he’s an army of one and he’s on an invasion right onto the soil of my suffering. It’s that he will obliterate all my boundaries so he can own it with his entire soul.
What else explains the life path Jesus took? He didn’t just come close to us sinners saying, “mi casa es su casa.” He actually became one. He obliterated our personal boundaries to own and claim our sin for himself. By his cross he was saying, “Your sin is my sin. Your shame is my shame. Your guilt is my guilt.” And he died for it. And I’m telling you – actually Mark is – that it doesn’t end there. This Jesus not only hates sin in us enough to do that. He also hates sin’s effects. He’s got a vicious vendetta against them. Depression and blindness. Anxiety and death. Cancer and hardening of the arteries. This Jesus not only owns and deals with our sin. This Jesus also owns and deals with its every effect.
And strangely the way he does that is by speaking his ephphatha to us through suffering. Yes, he is that masterful. Yes, he is that sovereign. He has the power and grace to make suffering serve him by serving you. Think of it. This deaf-mute’s suffering provided Jesus an opportunity to deal with him personally. It sent the deaf-mute searching. It sent him yearning. It sent him looking. Mark even described what they did as, “begged.” (v. 32) But the word that Mark wrote next was probably the most telling. They, “begged Jesus.” (v. 32) That what Jesus was after. Faith. Jesus used suffering to put that man (and every sufferer) on a crash course to understanding his grace and power. To learn all in one amazing moment to trust Jesus’ power and grace to deal with sin and all of its dramatic effects.
That’s the gospel that Mark wants us to believe today. He waited in line at his own Ellis Island waiting to meet the doctor. And when his turn came, this is the Jesus he found. He found a Jesus who not only offered hope to the healthy masses, but especially to him the ill individual. He found a Jesus who not only shined a light for the teeming who were in a state of general wellness, but also for him the singular sin-sick person. Mark’s suffering set him on a crash course with Jesus’ perfect grace and power. Just as ours does for us. And, honestly, I can’t wait. Jesus is no ordinary doctor. He has this way of obliterating boundaries, owning sin and suffering that’s not his, and leaving behind only perfect healing. Just wait. You’ll see. Right now we’re in line on our Ellis Island waiting to see the doctor. And I’m telling you that when you meet him he’s going to speak his ultimate ephphatha over you, the immigrant. And then you’ll not only be home, you’ll also be free. Amen.