Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: A Finger, Some Spit, And A God That Does All Things Well
In Today's gospel read that Jesus came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee. They brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Jesus to put His hand upon him. Mark’s description of the malady afflicting this man who was brought to Jesus for His compassion and His ministry does not really come across as powerfully in English as it does in the original language. Mark tells us that the man was deaf and that he had a speech impediment. The word for speech impediment is only found twice in all of the Bible, and it means that the person had a severe difficulty in speaking clearly or in any way in which people could discern the words that he was saying.
This description of his malady has fueled much speculation about the cause of his problem. Some say that he must have been born deaf. Those who are born deaf, without great training by professional speech pathologists, are usually doomed to being mute as well; yet this man still was able to speak to some degree.
Cornelius a Lapide says that he probably wasn’t born deaf, but deafness afflicted him early in his life, so whatever speech patterns he was able to develop were garbled at best. Here is his commentary in his own words: “ 'An impediment', in the Greek, means speaking with difficulty, or stammering. For when he was healed by Christ he spake right, i.e, freely, plainly as it is in the 35th verse. He was not, therefore, entirely unable to speak, as they are who are born deaf.”
There is an element of further interest when we say, “Why does Mark include this healing?” Jesus healed so many people of so many different diseases and problems. In all the New Testament record of Jesus’ life, why does Mark alone include this brief narrative of this particular healing? We find a clue in that the word mogilalos, pronounced mog-il-al'-os, is the Greek word for what is translated “speech impediment” here. This word is only used twice in the Bible, and the other place is in the Septuagint Old Testament book of Isaiah chapter 35.
Isaiah’s Pronouncement of Judgment
Let me give you the context of this chapter. In the preceding chapters, Isaiah has been delivering to the people of Israel an oracle of doom. God had commissioned Isaiah to pronounce upon the people of Israel and her neighbors that the judgment of God was going to lay the land waste, that the people were going to go through a period of severe desolation.
With Judgment, Hope
But understand this, when God gives His announcement of judgment, He almost always gives us an element of future hope as well, because God never abandons His remnant to desolation. Even in this text where Isaiah announces the day of the Lord, the day of the Lord’s visitation, the day of His destruction that would come upon the land, He then builds upon this. Hear what He says in chapter 35:
The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, The excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, The excellency of our God. (Isa. 35:1–2)
Do you see the contrast? It goes from desolation to glory; from destruction to the excellence of the manifestation of the Lord. The prophet says:
Strengthen the weak hands, And make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you.” (Isa. 35:3–4)
In this text, we have reiterated a principle that is repeated over and over and over again in the Old Testament: salvation is of the Jews and God works through His stiff-necked people, Israel, to bring His redemption to the whole world. Then comes the climax:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing [this is where that word mogilalos is used again, where the “tongue of the dumb” will sing]. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, And the thirsty land springs of water; In the habitation of jackals, where each lay, There shall be grass with reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and a road, And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. (Isa. 35:6–8)
Do you hear it? Centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God gave this message to His people, looking past the destruction, past the desolation, to the Messianic age when the kingdom of God would break through, the Messiah would come, and He would give sight to the blind. He would give hearing to the deaf, He would loosen the tongue of the mute and of the dumb, and the lame would leap for joy. Surely Mark has this in mind as he pens the narrative that I’ve read to you this morning of Jesus’ encounter with the deaf mute. Let’s look again at that text, and I should ask you to do what I’m doing—look closely at it.
Jesus the Healer
“And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.” Notice that this man was also from the region of the Decapolis, from the realm of the Gentiles, from the land of those who had been deemed and pronounced unclean. The first thing we see is that Jesus took him aside and He touched him.
He put His fingers in His ears, He spat on His hands, and He took the spittle, which, by the way, was considered an unclean emission according to Jewish purification laws. Jesus spit on His hands, took that spit, and put it on the man’s tongue.
There was a tradition in the ancient world that those endowed with healing powers would often use spittle as a medium to communicate that power to the people to whom they ministered. Maybe Jesus was simply trying to give this man some confidence that He knew how to heal people.
Cornelius a Lapide, saw a far deeper symbolic significance to Jesus using His own finger and His own spit to bring healing to a suffering human being. He in his commentary, that the finger was the “Holy Ghost (for He is "the Finger of God," Exod. 8:19), and the spittle was the Heavenly Wisdom of Solomon, which is He Himself proceeding forth from the mouth of the Most High, touching the tongue of the soul.”
Pope Gregory I, in one of his homilies said, “The Spirit is called the finger of God. When the Lord put his fingers into the ears of the deaf mute, he was opening the soul of man to faith through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
In any case, we get this vivid description of the transaction.
When Jesus touched the man on the tongue, He looked up to heaven, and the Scripture says, “He sighed,” or “groaned inwardly,” indicating a passionate appeal to the Father to intervene. He touched the man’s tongue, a tongue that was in chains, and then our Savior sighed and spoke a word (“Ephphatha”) that is left in the original by Mark that simply means, “Be opened.” At the command of Jesus those ears that had been clogged and had heard no sound, that tongue that had been in chains, making it impossible to speak clearly, were set free. The man’s ears were opened, and he could hear. And not only was he given the gift of hearing, but now he could speak. That tongue could now be used not for unintelligible mumbling, but to articulate the glory of God.
In a very real sense, this is what has happened, and does happen, to every baptized believer in Christ. Before the Holy Spirit opens us to the things of God, we are as deaf to the Word of God as this poor man was deaf to all verbal communication. Until the Holy Spirit cleanses our hearts and regenerates our soul at our baptism, what we have in our mouths is mere filth, the poison of a snake is under our lips, and our tongue utters blasphemy and poison until it is made free from the chains of sin.
Immediately, Mark tells us, his ears were opened. The impediment of his tongue was loosed. Notice what the Bible says. It doesn’t simply say, “and He spoke.” That would be remarkable enough if the Bible said, “Immediately his ears were opened, and he could hear, and now he could speak.” But Mark says more than that. Immediately after Jesus touched his tongue and made the commandment, not only could he speak, but he could speak clearly. Any pathology that was there was removed, and he was articulate in what he said.
Then Jesus commanded them, as He normally did, that they should tell no one. The more He commanded them, however, the more widely they proclaimed it. They were astonished beyond measure. Notice, in their shock, in their astonishment, what they say in this response about Jesus: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
He Does All Things Well
He has done all things well. What a description of Christ. Jesus never did anything poorly in His life. When He set His face toward Jerusalem and determined to make His meat and His drink be obedience to the will of the Father, He did it well. There was no failure. There was no blemish to His work. I’m sure that as a child when He was working in the carpenter shop, when Saint Joseph looked over his shoulder and watched Him working, that Saint Joseph was beaming with pleasure at how well his son did what He was doing. The Father in heaven makes the same evaluation when He says from the sky, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
Maybe you are going through some sickness or difficulty in your life. I want to say to you, “Be at peace about this. God does all things well.” That’s the heart of a Christian, because it’s the same God who is manifest here in Jesus ministering to this afflicted man by the Sea of Galilee in the Decapolis. It’s the same God who created the heavens and the earth. When God created the heavens, He looked at what He made through the power of His voice, He saw the lights shining into the darkness, and He said, “Well, that’s not too bad.” No, no. He looked at the work of His hands and pronounced His divine benediction upon it, “That’s good,” because what God does in creation, He does well.
It is the same God who calls light into darkness through the power of His voice that was at work by the Sea of Galilee restoring this man’s hearing and His ability to speak. It is the same God who redeems you. In the work of redemption that was accomplished for your souls, Christ did it well. That’s why we can sing in the midst of tribulation, “It is well with our souls”—not because we make our souls well in the midst of the storm, but because when the Spirit of God comes into the soul of a person and brings His peace and His joy, He does it well.
That’s what these pagan Greeks noticed about Jesus. Look at Him. Everything He does, He does well, because He’s God incarnate. The One who creates, the One who redeems, the One who loosens tongues and opens deaf ears does all things well. When we survey our lives in the midst of pain, in the midst of sorrow, we’re not always sure of that.
God Does Not Have to Explain Himself
In a television interview with Robert De Niro, at the end of the interview, the host asked Robert De Niro, “At the end of your days, if you come before God, what will you say to Him when you meet Him?” And De Niro in a kind of cocky manner said, “What I’m going to say to God is, ‘You have some explaining to do.’” No, no, Mr. De Niro, you are going to be the one doing the explaining. God doesn’t have to explain anything that He pleases to bring to pass in this world. He didn’t have to explain to Israel why jackals were inhabiting the land. He didn’t have to explain to Israel why their streams had become like rivers of tar, worthless for navigation, worthless for fishing. The reason for that was clear. They were a sinful nation. But beyond the tar and beyond the jackals is the Redeemer, who unlike us, does all things well.