In our reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened, "Be strong, fear not! Behold, here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you."
Israel, although conscious of being God’s Chosen People had, nevertheless, a long history of suffering as a pawn in the conflicting endeavours at empire building by surrounding super-powers, and such a prophecy of salvation tended, as the suffering and humiliation piled up, to be welcomed as fighting talk by nationalist dreamers and even used as justification for cloak-and-dagger violence by the Sicarii, Zealots, and other enthusiasts for political autonomy; and that, certainly, was how many Jews in the days of Jesus were inclined to think. Experiencing continued occupation by alien forces of the Roman State they longed for God to help them overthrow -- through the promised Messiah -- the military might of their hated and despised oppressors. And with such expectations, they were pre-disposed to see Jesus’ miracles, such as His most recent feeding the five thousand in the desert, as evidence that He must surely be the one they were looking for:
Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you.
However, the reaction of the religious authorities to Jesus, and especially that of the Pharisees who were most influential with the ordinary people, was disappointing. The Pharisees thought themselves well prepared for God’s coming judgment thanks to their meticulous observance of God’s Law as laid down in the Torah and interpreted by their own oral traditions from chosen elders. As regards the coming of a possible Messiah, they had had a lot of experience with such figures; figures who came and went while they themselves grew ever stronger in their hold over the people. And yet, Jesus, was very different from any other ‘popular promotion’ they had ever encountered: He was – so He claimed -- the prophetically foretold Son of Man who actually called Israel’s God His own Father; and His power, shown publicly by some most remarkable miracles, was definitely not exercised for any political ends nor for personal aggrandizement. Such a man the Pharisees regarded with suspicion, because He was not one of them and quite evidently did not consider Himself or His disciples to be bound by their traditions. And what was even worse, He did not seem to regard the Pharisees themselves as being purified and justified by their meticulous religious practices, nor was He afraid to publicly take them to task for their failings:
You nullify the word of God in favour of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things. (Mark 7:13)
And so the prophecy from Isaiah with which we began our readings today was suited to both people and Pharisees … the people who perversely looked for a warrior Messiah, and the Pharisees who needed someone to heal them of a spiritual sickness which they could not, did not, would not, recognize or acknowledge. It was, indeed, a divinely conceived prophecy proclaiming Messianic help for both the frightened and the blind:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened, "Be strong, fear not! Behold, here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
Jesus’ journeying beyond the confines of Israel -- alone in today’s Gospel reading but surely accompanied by disciples as Matthew tells us -- would have been a novel and informal group-learning-experience for His disciples. Avoiding the militant enthusiasm of those in the Jewish homeland waiting expectantly for the Messiah of their dreams, Jesus intended to take His disciples towards the land of the Decapolis -- a territory quite recently freed from Jewish rule by the Romans under Pompey -- and by so doing would enable them to understand all the more easily and readily assimilate His words and actions without the agitation of national pride provoking political tensions all around them and especially without the constant need to answer carping religious opponents prepared to make use of such tensions for their own purposes. As they journeyed on their way Jesus’ teaching would be supremely suited to free His disciples from the legalistic formalism of the Pharisees and their Scribes, as His unfailingly Filial awareness of, peace in, and responsiveness to, His Father’s abiding presence, together with His absolute confidence in His Father’s sure guidance tended, gradually and irresistibly, to confirm their appreciation of His unique wisdom and incomparable holiness; while, on the other hand, His sympathetic attitude to and dealings with people they encountered on their way -- many of them foreigners (a word Jesus Himself used), along with the relatively few and fragile, perhaps even alienated, Jews who approached them -- proved surprisingly and fascinatingly beautiful, delighting His humble and admiring disciples with a never previously experienced spiritual awareness of such heavenly joy and peace on earth.
And people brought to Him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged Him to lay His hand on him.
Who were the people who brought the man to Jesus? Were they perhaps Jewish people living relatively close by and bringing either one of their own or perhaps a friendly pagan? Did they bring him because he was not able, or perhaps afraid to come to Jesus of himself? Perhaps we may have someone here in a situation not unlike like that of the man St. James spoke of in today’s second reading, someone ‘poor and shabby’, not attractive, perhaps even somewhat objectionable.
Jesus took him off by himself away from the crowd.
The man was being given the opportunity to experience a little of the riches being bestowed on Jesus' accompanying disciples: personal closeness with Jesus to overcome his original apprehensions and personal difficulties.
Jesus put His finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue.
Jesus was doing things not unexpected by the man, thus calming him down and hopefully stirring up embers of confidence and trust.
Then Jesus looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him “Ephphatha! -- that is, ‘Be opened!”
Here, with that glance up to heaven and the audible groaning of Jesus (most assuredly not something done, put on, for mere effect) are we perhaps privileged to glimpse the man’s introduction to faith in the goodness of God and the saving sufferings of Our Lord? Anyhow,
The man’s ears were immediately opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly;
and thus he was enabled to join with all around in their heart-felt acclamation:
He has done all things well!
Now, let us look more closely at Jesus as we see Him portrayed in the Gospel. He had, quite recently, performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand and then -- in an open confrontation -- discomfited both the Pharisees and Scribes who had sought to accuse Him and His disciples for failing to observe the traditions of their elders. Jesus had, at that time, been close to being hailed by the common people as the expected Messiah: their longed-for, conquering, leader. That experience would seem to have been in the forefront of His mind, for He went, straightway, out of Israelite territory and left for the Greek-speaking area of Decapolis, where Jewish expectations and practices were smothered in what could be regarded as a heavy pagan smog.
On the way, Jesus and -- according to St. Matthew -- His disciples, walking the coastal region near Tyre and Sidon unnoticed and free, had been discovered and followed by a woman who pestered Him and His disciples to heal her daughter, whereupon ensued that most memorable dialogue:
Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs.
Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs. (Mark 7:27-28)
Jesus immediately recognized that such an answer was far above the woman’s natural capabilities:
He said to her, "For this saying, go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter."
“For this saying” …. Jesus was indeed struck by what the woman said for He never failed to recognize and respond to His Father’s touch; and so He continued walking in this pagan district, going, we are told, towards the Sea of Galilee, but not directly, choosing rather to take a long, round-about, route, leading ultimately to the Decapolis region. ‘Back home’ He had not wanted to be lionized by over-enthusiastic Israelites dreaming of the Lion of Judah crushing Israel’s oppressors, and for that reason had entered this non-Jewish region; and now, after having encountered the Syro-Phoenecian woman so beautifully gifted by His Father, He decided to continue on this journey through to the Decapolis. Perhaps His Father still had some further purpose for Him there?
Such was indeed the case, because, according to our Gospel passage today, Jesus had been invited by His Father, to perform yet another miracle: this time upon a deaf-mute man, a miracle fulfilling what the prophet Isaiah had long foretold:
Then will the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Jesus always walked before His Father, looked for His Father’s presence, listened for His Father’s voice, and after this relatively short journey outside Israel He brought back His immediate disciples to Israel and God’s Chosen People with greater confidence in, and admiration for, Him Whom they had heard the lips of both suspect Jews and foreign Greeks unite in His praise saying:
He has done all things well!
If and when the time would come for them to be sent out to baptize all nations they would be able to recall with deep gratitude and inspiring confidence what they had originally experienced and assimilated in the presence of Him Who had shown Himself to be both intimately at one with God and most sympathetically at ease with and in understanding of, ordinary men and women met on the way.
Let us now, therefore, take part in the Holy Sacrifice with like appreciation: humbly rejoicing in the saving presence of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour, and whole-heartedly renewing our personal commitment to Him while confidently acknowledging our calling, in Him and by His Spirit, to live (and die) for the glory of His Father’s Name, and the exaltation of Mother Church despite her and our many failings and faults.