PLASTIC EARS AND ARTIFICIAL MOUTHS: HOMILY FOR THE 23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME OF THE YEAR (B)
—-REV. FR. BONIFACE NKEM ANUSIEM PhD.
During the Nigerian civil war young people were conscripted into the army to fight; evidently most of them lost their lives. At that time most young people were hiding away from the soldiers who would go from house to house fishing out young people and forcing them into the army. There was one able-bodied young man who wanted to evade conscription into the army. Consequently he took refuge among women and had a plan to act deaf and dumb should the soldiers discover him.
One day it happened that some soldiers who were angrily searching for young people to get into the army found him among women and children. They were furious to discover that such a person was wasting away instead of being of help to the seceded group. Instantly they got him up from where he was squatting and asked him his name and what he was doing instead of going to war. He kept looking at them and making signs to indicate that he could neither talk nor hear. The women there who knew the plan begged the soldier on his behalf saying: “he no dey talk he no dey hear!”
The soldiers knew that a dumb and deaf man in the battle field would be as useless as making a blind man a night watch. Consequently they decided to go. They were almost gone when one of them (the leader) came back and asked the young man again: “what is your name!” This time his voice was hard and furious. The young man made his usual sign by touching the ear and the mouth and spreading the palms, indicating that he could neither hear nor talk. The Soldier seemed to be convinced that the young man was playing a fast one, so he gave him a kick that sent him like six feet above the ground and by the time he landed with his back on the ground he gave a loud cry incidentally what came out of his mouth was: “Leave me oooh I no dey talk I no dey hear oooh!”. They whisked him away and got him conscripted. The funny part of the man’s story was that after the war he became deaf on account of the sound from shelling. He began to hear quite later.
Today the readings seem to revolve around the ear and the mouth. In the prophecy of Isaiah (35:4-7) we are told among other things that God will open the eyes of the blind, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and dumb will speak (vs 5). This is exactly what constitutes the mission of the messiah as Isaiah will indicate later in his prophecy (61:1-4), and our Lord Jesus Christ will also make personal in Luke 4:18. Furthermore in the gospel reading today (Mark 7:31-37) which forms the centre of our reflection, our Lord Jesus Christ cured a deaf and dumb man. The healing here is quiet peculiar in many ways. Generally there seems to be a lot of dramatization involved. First the region is outside the mainland Jewish land. In fact Sidon is one of the foremost Phoenician cities and the modern day Lebanon. Jesus seemed to have done pretty much in this territory as we can see in the story of the Canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon (Matt. 15:21-27) and the occasion after feeding the five thousand they wanted to make him king by force (John 6:15). From the characterizations, we could understand that the people of this region were quiet spontaneous in their way of life; they seem to appreciate good things too. (See Mark7:37).
In the passage we are told that the people brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment of speech too; put in a simple way; a deaf and dumb. They brought the man to be cured by Jesus Christ. Before this, Jesus had encountered the Canaanite woman whose faith brought about the healing of her daughter that had a demon. It seemed that the people already believed in what Jesus could do; they expressed their faith by coming to Jesus not to see if he could cure the man but for him to lay his hand on him to cure him.
To effect the healing, Jesus first took the man away from the crowd, why? In all the gospel accounts there are instances everywhere of the crowd. The crowd is often unpredictable; they could shout “Hosanna” now and “Crucify him” later. The crowd can be arrogant to someone who has a purpose like Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 48); they can be an obstacle to healing and salvation like in the cases of the woman with the issue of blood and Zacchaeus (Luke 8:42-44). The crowd can make or mar, the crowd can build and destroy. The crowd here could be a platform of distraction and that was why it was necessary for our Lord to take the man away from the crowd. Of course in the crowd it would be difficult to hear. The crow effect could block the ear and make speech ineffective. If we read that passage very well it say that Jesus: 1) took him aside, 2) in private 3) away from the crowd; threefold seclusion. In life it is difficult to be effective within the crowd. The crowd could cause various degrees of harm. Often Jesus withdrew from the crowd to pray, the transfiguration is a typical instance of withdrawal from the crowd (Matt. 17:1-13).
Away from the crowd of distraction and disillusion, Jesus began what looked like a ritual of healing. He touched the man’s ear, spat, touched the man’s tongue with the spittle, looked up to heaven, gave a deep sigh and said ephphata which means open and at once he began to hear and to speak (This the Church adapted for baptism). Why was it necessary for our Lord to go through these rites? Could he not have said “hear and speak!” As he said to the man at the Sheep pool of Bethzatha “Stand up pick up your mat and walk!” (John 5:8)? Our Lord was aware of their cultural peculiarity, he was aware of dramatic life of the people; he more or less did a sort of inculturation of miracle. He was sensitive to their setting and used acts the resonated with them to carry out his miracle.
Beyond the above, there are intrinsic reasons. Jesus by touching the man destroyed the barrier between classes. He destroyed the barrier between the sick and the healthy, between the poor and the rich, between the more privileged and the less privileged. This is where the letter of St. James today draws relevance (Jas.2:1-5). By the touch he established that we all need to be touched by his able hands. By touching his ears he was drilling spaces for his words, by touching his tongue with spittle he was creating a contact for his words to be proclaimed which also reminds us of the encounter of Isaiah in the temple (Isaiah 6:6-7). By that touch the man was freed from not only impediment of speech but also impediments of sin. Jesus Christ touching the lips of the man reminds me of the reception of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ together with his soul and divinity in the blessed sacrament of the alter. The man appears to have prefigured the traditional reception of the Holy Communion.
At this juncture, it will be pertinent for us to evaluate the relevance of the gospel story in our lives. We may actually take this story at the face value that the man in question was physically deaf and dumb and was later healed. In a deeper sense, we all share in a common deafness and dumbness. This is chiefly operative within our lives. From our families as little delinquent children our parents often pull our ear telling us that we only have plastic ears because we don’t pay attention to instructions. As pupils, our teachers often deride us as having artificial mouth when we are not able to speak out or answer questions. In our relationship with God, how often do we present plastic ears to God’s commandments? How often do we fail to proclaim our faith at needful times? In my native language there is a saying that inattention to instructions is the bane of the child and inability to give right instruction when appropriate is the bane of the elderly person. If Abraham did not pay attention the God’s direction the talk about the great nation would have been a farce. If Esther and Modeccai did not speak out the people could have remained in captivity, if Marthin Luther Jnr did not speak out from his dream, racial discrimination of the black could have endured. If Mandela did not speak out apartheid could have been modernized now and would have endured.
The question before each and everyone one us this Sunday as we hold our ears and touch our mouth is: “do I have a plastic ear and an artificial mouth?” The answers we give will determine what happens with us within the week. May God’s words touch and transform us.
Happy Sunday and do have a wonderful week ahead!