Mark 7:31–37: Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus remains in Gentile territory. The route outlined in Mark 7:31 (from Tyre through Sidon and then, presumably, around the north and east side of the sea of Galilee and down south or southeast to the Decapolis) is weird and inefficient at first glance, so either we conclude Mark was sloppy or bad at geography or we find a deeper purpose. If the latter, the purpose of Jesus’s route is to keep him in Gentile territory. That’s fitting: Jesus is reacting to his heated exchange with the Pharisees and scribes over the tradition of the elders (7:1–23) by remaining among the Gentiles.
Unlike in his prior reception in the Decapolis, when the inhabitants begged him to leave their territory (5:17), now the people bring him a deaf and dumb man. Presumably the mission of the Gerasene no-longer-demoniac met with significant success (5:20).
This passage, unique to Mark’s Gospel, is marked by the pattern of violated secrecy, like the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1:40–45. Jesus takes the man aside privately, away from the crowd (7:33), to deal with his impediments. The healing is told in great detail in a sequence of seven deliberate steps (7:33–34). As in the scene of the raising of Jairus’s daughter (5:41), Mark records Jesus’s Aramaic code: “‘Eph’phatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (7:34).
The miracle unlocks the man: “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (7:35). In Mark’s Gospel, again, human faculties symbolize spiritual faculties. This man can now hear, indicating he can be receptive to Jesus and his message, and he can also speak, indicating he can be a herald of the gospel. And not only the man but also “they” speak, although Jesus had adjured “them” to silence (7:36), and they do so in direct proportion to Jesus’s urging: “the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (7:36), and the result is astonished praise of Jesus (7:37).
That the passage is unique to Mark is suggestive, for it plays a major role in the theme of the disciples’ incomprehension. Jesus will shortly upbraid the disciples for having ears that do not hear and eyes that do not see (8:14–21). If we couple this passage of the healing of a deaf and dumb man with the healing of the blind man in 8:22–26, we might see Mark suggesting that there’s hope for those like the disciples who cannot or do not see, hear, and understand: they will be healed, and they will speak, and glory will resound to the name of Jesus Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ? He is the one who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5–6, the only passage in the Greek Old Testament in which the word for “dumb” or “speech impediment” (mogilalos) appears:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
The allusion to Isaiah implies that Jesus is bringing the eschatological healing of the New Exodus as he liberates men—here, Gentiles—from bondage.