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The local lad Tommy sure plays a mean pin ball. The Who?

September 6, 2015

23rd Sunday of the Year

Isaiah 35:4-7           James 2:1-5          Mark 7:31-37

This Sunday I will be baptizing a baby girl called Catherine. Her parents, John and Christiana are from Nigeria. John’s an engineer who is in England because we don’t seem to produce enough fully qualified engineers in this country to maintain and improve our electricity infrastructure. John’s here helping to keep our lights on.

Catherine’s parents asked me if I could help them to find some godparents for her, because they didn’t know many people in this country. The idea appealed to me. The original idea of godparents was precisely that – people who were established Christians who would help and encourage people in developing their faith properly. Rosie and Inky Moss were delighted to be those godparents. And now the two couples have got to know each other, they are all delighted for Catherine. A few days ago I said to John, “I hear that Rosie and Inky are getting on with you like a house on fire.” John was shocked and stunned. He had never heard that expression before, and despite speaking very good English, he thought it meant that things had gone disastrously wrong!

Of course, it means the exact opposite. And this is one of the perils of different languages. Unless you’re speaking in your mother tongue, you can’t always pick up the subtle little meanings hidden in words and the way they are said. Had I been able to speak to John in his mother tongue, Yoruba, there would have been no misunderstanding.

This sort of language problem is not new to people hearing the scriptures. Today’s gospel is a clue that Jesus’ first language was Aramaic. And the way in which we have a homily after the scripture readings at Mass is a direct copy of what happened in the synagogues at the time of Jesus, precisely because of language problems. The Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, was originally written in Hebrew; but it was also translated in to Greek because so many Jews spoke Greek; yet in Palestine at the time of Jesus, so many people only spoke Aramaic, that after reading the scripture, an explanation, a homily, was required. This is what we see Jesus doing when he hear of Him preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and in Nazareth after reading from the scrolls.

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus using a word in the Aramaic language, when he says to the deaf man ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ Today’s gospel takes place in Tyre, a region where most of the people spoke either Greek or Aramaic, so Jesus is praying in the language the deaf man would have understood. It is also a strong reminder to us that Jesus travelled outside his own country to preach to those in foreign lands – showing God’s mercy and grace beyond national borders.

Now, the gospel uses language that to us may seem rather inconsiderate. ‘Deaf and dumb’ offends our sensibilities. It’s simply an old-fashioned use of words. Don’t be offended by the language, because there is a very important point going on behind this healing miracle performed by Jesus.

There’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye. What you need to know is that in ancient times, at the time of Jesus, there was a widely held belief that if someone could not hear, they would also be unable to speak – hearing and speaking went hand in hand: it was simply assumed that if you were deaf, you were also mute. And ancient logic went beyond that. Being unable to speak would severely limit your potential because speaking skills were highly regarded in the prevailing Greek culture – being unable to speak was more than simply a physical condition. It raised questions about a person’s ability to reason, it questioned their intelligence!

At the time of Jesus, this Greek way of thinking had greatly influenced the teaching of the Pharisees, teachings that were later written down in what is known today as the Mishnah. For example, deaf people were treated more leniently by the courts for criminal actions because they were considered to be in some way less responsible for their own actions. The culture at the time of Jesus was an oral culture – it relied much more on the spoken word rather than the written word. The logic ran that someone who was deaf, and therefore also unable to speak, would be incapable of being educated and would have very limited reasoning skills. And if you couldn’t speak, you would be unable to take part in the daily Jewish prayers required of the faithful. Every day an observant, practising Jew would be required, and is still required to this day, to recite the Shema prayer, declaring faith in the one true God. It starts:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

HEAR, O Israel. Oh dear, if you were deaf, you definitely could not satisfying the required to literally ‘hear’ God’s word, and you would be excluded from take part in the most basic requirement of the Jewish faith.

In performing this miracle, Jesus is doing three astonishing things, that really challenge anyone being told this story:

Firstly, He is revealing Himself as God, as foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah we hear,

“Look, your God is coming…..he is coming to save you….. the ears of the deaf shall unsealed…..”[1] Isaiah was prophesying 700 years before Jesus came.

And even further back, 1,500 years before The Christ was born, when Moses was commanded by God to liberate the Israelite from Egyptian slavery, Moses was frightened of the challenge facing him. He said he wasn’t eloquent, a slow speaker, not able to speak well. And the Lord answered,

‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him dumb or deaf, gives him sight or leaves him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?[2]

So there we have it, Jesus reveals his divine nature. It is God who makes someone able to hear. And Jesus grants the deaf man the gift of hearing and of speech.

The second thing that Jesus does in performing this miracle is to liberate the man. That man’s life would have been transformed by Jesus’ actions. He could become a full and active member of the community, someone capable of taking part in worshipping God, and a visible sign to everyone who knew what had happened to him that God was present and at work amongst them.

And the third thing this miracle demonstrates is that idea that deafness was a sign of limited intellect – it’s shown up as nonsense. The second reading from James rams this message home in the bit that, ironically, starts with a word linked to being with able to hear:

LISTEN…. : it was those who are poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him.”

James is saying that the idea that deaf people should be second-class citizens is nonsense.

In performing this miracle, Jesus is exposing the prejudice of His times for what it was. He was demonstrating that, once again, the teaching of the Pharisees was often based on false human understanding and tradition, not on God’s will.

And let me close by returning to the baptisms we have in church this weekend. After a baptism it is an old tradition for the newly baptised to be prayed over, with the bishop, priest or deacon gently touching their lips and ears as he prays the Aramaic word uttered by Jesus, ‘Ephphatha’ (‘Be opened’). In this significant little prayer, we are praying that the newly baptised will have their ears opened to hear the word of God, and their mouth opened to declare God’s praises and to spread the gospel.

Just as Jesus liberated than man by granting him hearing and speech, so our own baptisms liberate us from slavery to sin and the potential to become fully mature and active Christians in the world.

[1] Isaiah 35:5

[2] Exodus 4:10

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