“Ephphatha! Be Opened!”
Ordinary 23 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Mark 7: 31 — 37
If you are following the Three Year International Lectionary with us, you will observe that our readings from the Holy Gospels according to St John and St Mark have shown us Jesus as He progressively revealed Himself and His mission. This is the last of those for now. Next we will have our attention focussed on the Way of Jesus, Son of Man.
To introduce us to the theme of our Gospel text and related readings (Is 35: 4 — 7 and James 2: 1 — 5), Mary Betz asks a poignant question:
To whom shall we look to see the presence and
power of God?
Today’s readings tell us not to look to the powerful,
the rich, the people whom our world looks up to
because they have “succeeded”.
Jesus teaches us to look for God’s presence in and among
those who are most shut out of the mainstream of society.
They are not only where God’s healing presence and
power most needs to be recognised and made manifest
(by themselves and by others), but are also the keys to
God’s transformative reign for the rest of humanity.
Our Lord reverses the world’s standards. It is not the high and mighty, the carefree rich and powerful, the ones always in our gaze. It is the humble, the undemanding: people “at the bottom of the woodpile”. They are often hidden from everyday workings of society; yet God literally “looks to them” for their prayers, their views on important matters, their interpretations. It is hard for them to actually believe themselves, how valuable God finds their thoughts in prayer. Yet He waits daily for their offerings. It is His choice that they thereby participate in the unfolding of His Divine plan for the world. They therefore help shape world events even though by appearances, that may seem absurd and impossible, given the disturbances almost everywhere: They pray for peace and justice yet find little to indicate any influence their heartfelt yearnings may have had. But as members of the Household of God, they know that, in the great outworking of God’s will for all creation, every prayer offered for others and their needs is always heard and blessed. But to build those loving prayers into an eternal outcome, God asks His people to act in faith, and leave the consequences to Him.
This account is unique to Mark. It is fascinating, and was seen by the early Church as deeply symbolic, which is why this Reflection seeks to “unpack” some of that symbolic meaning.
The early writers noted it is bad enough when a person is blind, deaf, and hardly able to speak. They saw in our Lord’s action the challenge to ask: “What happens when the eyes, the ears and the tongue of the heart are blocked?”
Some Reflections On the Text
Again he left the district of Tyre and went by way of
Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.
The surrounding foreign lands are named as a symbolic way of saying that the message is to be available to the Gentile world. (Stock OSB)
It is not necessary to exhaust ourselves determining if Jesus actually stepped outside the perimeter of Galilee. The boundary was too vague sometimes to make such precise statements. It is well established that there were countless Jews living in the surrounding lands. For instance, the, Decapolis — territory of the ten Greek cities — had large numbers of Jews in each city going about their normal lives as though they were back over the border.
All the commentators have difficulty with the geographical details. Jesus obviously approached, even if He didn’t actually enter, a gentile locality which had many Jewish centres. As noted above, it was seen from early times as symbolic of His message being made accessible by the whole gentile world.
This was also seen as another attempt by Jesus to go to great lengths to get the disciples to a place of quiet seclusion where they could give their full attention to Him.
And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech
impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.
Wherever Jesus in fact was on this occasion, it was accessible to people (especially Jews) living in the region of the Decapolis. The group who brought the deaf and mute man to Jesus were almost definitely Jews or Jewish sympathisers. St. Mark used a Greek word (mogilalon) which he took from the Greek Septuagint Old Testament — Isaiah 35: 6.
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and deaf ears unsealed;
the lame man, then, shall leap as the deer leap, the speechless
tongue cry aloud.” (Knox translation)
He saw this event as fulfilling the Messianic prophecy.
The man they brought had not been born deaf and mute. He could speak, but only partially and with great difficulty.
All his friends ask of Jesus is merely a blessing. The may have hoped for a cure, but showing respect to our Lord and leaving the rest to Him, was a higher priority, and more in keeping with their Faith.
The fact that they “begged” Jesus to lay His hands on him should be noted.
“The request for the laying on of hands (see 5: 2 — 3 and 6: 5)
indicates the presence of Jews or Gentiles who were familiar with
this Jewish practice in connection with blessing and healing.” (Lane)
“The great surprise exhibited by the people when the afflicted man
spoke clearly suggests that they had not expected healing, but had
brought the man to Jesus for His blessing.” Lane)
Verses 33 and 34
He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his
finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”)
“The use of saliva among the Jews was an ordinary remedy for
afflictions of the eyes and ears. Of itself it had no curative
power, but in the present instance it was the outward sigh used
by our Lord to signify the divine power which wrought the
cure.” (Callan, O.P.)
Commenting on this very Hebrew moment, Fr. Stock, OSB. quotes from Professor W. Lane:
Jesus “stretched open his ears, and made it clear to him that
He wished to make his tongue alive with His ow life”.
Seven distinct actions took place during this unique cure (based partly on Charles Erdman’s analysis, with some borrowing from Lane, and Stock, OSB):
1. Jesus took the man aside, away from the crowd. The original
text adds, “by himself” emphasising aloneness with Jesus.
Solitude always played a significant role in the life of Jesus.
In this case it is both a symbol of deeper spiritual relationship,
as well as a practical opportunity for our Lord to establish a
personal rapport with the man. (See also Callan, OP.)
2. Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. This was seen as
symbolic of stretching his ears, i.e. increasing his capacity to
3. Jesus then spat, presumably on to his fingers. Here we see an
undeniable intimacy and strength of intention.
4. He touched the man’s tongue with his spittle. Jesus thus made
it clear to the man in mime (i.e. meeting him on common
ground) he had a very strong desire to make his tongue alive
with new life – in fact his own life.
5. Jesus looked up to heaven, acknowledging openly the source
of his power.
6. He sighed deeply. This was always seen by our ancients as an
inner, silent wordless prayer of intense yearning and of desire
for God’s mercy to be manifested powerfully. We therefore
see Jesus praying with the man and for him.
7. After all this, Jesus then pronounced, “Ephphatha! Be
Opened!” Again we recall that the ancients interpreted this as
a command not just to the inner ear of the man, but the whole
We cannot leave this verse without pausing to add further comment on two very significant aspects of our Lord’s actions.
J. A. O’Flynn suggests another powerful reason why Jesus took the man “off by himself, away from the crowd”:
In the exercise of his miraculous powers Jesus avoided
ostentation. His humility in this respect was a contrast to
the pretensions of false messiahs who sought to win the
favour of the people by extravagant promises of
The presence of profiteering charlatans and phoney wonder-workers was a reality then as it is today. The lesson from our Lord is that they can do incalculable harm and must not be permitted to ply their trade!
Walter Wessell quotes a beautiful explanation from Calvin who alludes to the importance of ritual and ceremony to underpin that the healing comes from Him personally, in love and service, rather than as a display of magic to excite the imagination of the crowd:
The laying on of hands would of itself have been sufficiently
efficacious, and even, without moving a finger. He might
have accomplished it by a single act of his will; but it is evident
that he made abundant use of outward signs, when they were
found to be advantageous. Thus by touching the tongue with
spittle, he intended to point out that the faculty of speech was
communicated by himself alone, and by putting his fingers
into the ears, he showed that it belonged to his office to pierce
the ears of the deaf.
And (immediately) the man’s ears were opened, his speech
impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.
We do not know what the man said, and we never hear of him again. What we know with certitude is that whereas he had previously only spoken with extreme difficulty, spluttering and stammering, he could now speak clearly and gracefully. W. Lane draws our attention to a helpful detail:
“….. the healing did not consist in the fact that the man spoke
but that he spoke without defect.”
If he had never been able to speak before, but now, after disease and affliction could at least make himself understood by some form of primitive speech, we would be impressed. St. Mark records something more powerful in our understanding of what Messiah came to do. He came to restore to perfection: not partial cure, but the full blossoming of complete restoration of God’s gifts lost by sin.
But the action moves quickly to verses 36 and 37.
Verses 36 and 37
He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he
ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.
They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has
done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and (the) mute
Well! Our Lord commanded the tongues of the group to be silent. But their tongues have also been loosed, and even He who created them cannot keep them silent! The more He commanded, the more they kept talking, or more correctly in St Mark’s language, declaring, announcing, proclaiming.
It is true our Lord commanded the group “not to tell anyone”. The fact that they did exactly the opposite is, of course, in this case, not disobedience. The situation carefully constructed by Jesus was designed to show forth to the world the love, power and mercy of God. As the prophet Isaiah declared:
“Then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the
dumb will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and
rivers in the steppe.” (Isaiah 35: 6)
We may well ask an obvious question — why on earth would Jesus order the people, “not to tell anyone”?
“….. the purpose of the injunction was to avoid a recurrence
of the situation which developed subsequent to the healing of
the leper when the presence of the crowds in each town
clamouring for Jesus’ healing touch hindered his movement
and interrupted his preaching mission. It was apparently
Jesus’ intention to remain in the region of Decapolis for a
period of time and he did not wish to be regarded as a
Hellenistic wonder-worker.” (Lane)
Our ancients asked the question whose tongues were really the ones that were tied? Was it the deaf mutes or those of his friends who had the ability to publish and proclaim the works of God, but never did?
We read, the people were “overwhelmed with amazement”. They asked our Lord for a blessing on their friend, and He performed an intensely ceremonial healing. How fitting was the final accolade:
“He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and
(the) mute speak.”
The group may not have linked their comment to Genesis 1: 31, but the early Church did; for they saw in this great act of kindness the manifestation, the dawn, of the new creation.
The group also uttered another prophetic remark:
“He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak”
So, who are the deaf and the mute? Really, it is any whose eyes and ears of the heart are blocked, and who therefore fail to give praise to God.
“Dumbness usually results from deafness. If our ears are open
to listen to the word of the Lord, then our tongues will surely
be unloosed in praise, prayer and testimony. Furthermore,
only as the Church hears the Word of God has it anything
worthwhile to say”.
(The “New Bible Commentary Revised”. Inter Varsity Press 1970)
Like the Apostles and first disciples, if we wish to proclaim the wonderful teaching of Jesus to the world, we need to let Him take us aside and restore our ability to listen to Him and hear the truth of His message. Then we will have something to say to the world which will be of eternal value. And like the people in this incident, we will not be able to keep silent! That is the real gift of the Holy Spirit which the world is desperately in need of: not a whole lot of weird noises and gestures preferred as some supposed sign of God’s presence. Will Christians not wake up to the fact that the more they parade that sort of religion to the world, the more they will be written off as indulging in their own self-serving fantasies.
But this will require of the modern day disciple to take great care to put aside an excessive attention to the pleasures and interests of the world in order to pay constant attention to God’s mouthpiece. Meditation on the Word of God is one of the “traditions of the elders” which our great saints from Apostolic times have faithfully passed down to us. This is one of the ways they taught us to give first place to Jesus, the Word of God, and to make His values our own. If we find ourselves yearning for a new world order, this will start with changes in our own life style rather than by parading bizarre religion as the answer to the world’s needs.
We offer a short clipping from the great Biblical sermon of St Augustine (5th Century) on this text. He uses an interesting approach to explaining our Lord’s symbols, in an age when there were no ready-made commentaries and reference books to turn to.
Why was it that God, the Creator of all things when He sought
to cure the deaf and dumb man, put His fingers into the man’s
ears and, spitting, touched his tongue with spittle? Simply
because the Redeemer’s fingers represent the gifts of the
Holy Spirit. On another occasion He said, after casting out a
devil, “If I cast out devils by the finger of God, then the kingdom
of God has come upon you.”
This same passage is given by another Evangelist in these words:
“If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of
God has come upon you.” By comparing these two texts we see
that “finger” and “Spirit” are equivalent terms. Therefore, to put
His fingers in the man’s ears means to open the mind of the deaf
person to obedience by means of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
There we have it! What God wants is for us to be freed by His healing touch to go forth and declare to the world, the good works of God. St Augustine says it so potently when he declares we should use the gifts of the Holy Spirit to obey God. Then we will, as was the deaf mute, be given the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit: to speak plainly so that all can hear and understand and obey!
Grant, O Lord, as we pray for one another that the grace of
holy Baptism may reach its full development in each of us.
(From Catholic Sources)
1. The healing of the deaf-mute, as narrated in today’s Gospel (Mark 7: 31 — 37) is a figure of baptismal grace. We, too, were once taken before Jesus in a condition similar to that of the poor man in Galilee. We were deaf and dumb in the life of the spirit, and Jesus, in the person of the priest, welcomed us lovingly at the baptismal font. The priest made the same gesture over us and said the same word, as did the divine Master in the Gospel “Ephpheta,” “Be thou opened!” From that moment the hearing of our soul was opened to faith and our tongue was loosed to give praise to God. We were enabled to listen to the voice of faith — to the exterior voice of the teaching Church and to the interior voice of the Holy Spirit, urging us to do good; from that moment, we could open our lips in prayer in praise, adoration, and petition. But later the noise of the world deafened and distracted us; likewise, the tumult of our passions deadened our capacity to listen to the voice of God. Then, too, idle conversations about worldly things and great anxiety over various events in our life have left us unable to pray sincerely and earnestly. But Jesus wishes to renew the grace of our Baptism today and to repeat the all-powerful word “Ephpheta.” How greatly we need Him to reopen our ears to His voice and to make us more attentive and sensitive to His call! “In the morning He wakeneth my ear that I may hear Him as a master; I do not resist, I have not gone back, “says Isaias (50: 4 — 5). This is the grace we must ask of Our Lord today, that we may not only hear His voice, but may follow it, without resistance. The more faithfully we follow it, the more sensitive we shall become to its slightest whisper. At the same time let us ask for the grace of always being ready to give praise to the Lord, to call upon His mercy, to ask His pardon humbly, accusing ourselves of our faults sincerely and with sorrow.
2. Those who were present when Jesus performed this miracle wondered at it, saying, “He hath done all things well; He hath made both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak”. Certainly, Jesus has done all things well; He has arranged everything in the best way possible for our sanctification. He has prepared for us all the graces we need, and not only in sufficient measure, but even superabundantly. Unfortunately, however, we do not always co-operate with His grace; many times pride, egoism, and all our other uncontrolled passions turn to evil what God has planned for our good. If we had accepted lovingly and with resignation that difficulty, that trial, or disappointment which God had permitted for the sole purpose of providing us with an opportunity to practice virtue, we should have made great progress; but by giving way to impatience, by protesting and complaining, we rather added to our failures and infidelities. We should co-operate with grace more readily and strive to maintain our soul in an attitude of open docility to all the invitations to virtue which God is continually sending us by means of the different circumstances of life.
“Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature”
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so, remain
“Ephaphatha! Be Opened!”
Ordinary 23 Year B St. Mark 7: 31 to 37
1. Jesus took the deaf man “off by himself away from the crowd”.
All through history into our own time, false “messiahs” have appeared making claims about what they do and say. There seems hardly an exception to the rule that they stage-manage their political or religious performance to gain maximum exposure to the public who follow them as “pied pipers” drawing people by their music and incantations.
The real Messiah, the real Jesus, stands out in strong contrast. He seeks to draw people who listen to Him and believe His teaching — they obey, His instruction. They follow Him because He has the Words of Life, a rabbinic phrase for the Torah, the Path God has laid down in the Sacred Scriptures for mankind to follow. Miracles happen daily, but they always point to the Divine Word — the Living Word dwelling among His people. These people hunger for that Word, that Bread of Life. They are not addicted to trapesing from one miracle campaign to another to satisfy their curiosity.
When Jesus takes someone aside it is to focus on their needs and faith, rather than remain in the gaze of His admirers who want to be aroused by seeing what they regard as magic before their eyes!
2. The people begged Jesus “to lay His hand on” the deaf man.
Jesus is a Master of beautiful ritual and ceremony. The laying on of hands is one of the oldest Hebrew rituals. It includes, depending on circumstances, the raising of hands and arms as well as lowering them on to another person’s body. It can also incorporate bowing to God, kneeling and lowering the forehead to the ground as a means of seeking a special blessing on a person.
Some Christians, for whatever reason have distanced themselves as much as possible from the ancient rituals and ceremonies of our Hebrew forebears. Some have tried to recapture their spiritual significance by using them whenever emotion rises during their worship. But bodily actions and accompanying customs have an even greater meaning for people who are spiritually minded.
We need to be very aware of how important it is in our Hebrew Christian heritage of worship, to show that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (body).
Our Gospel incident shows us that when ritual and ceremony are correctly used, they help prevent us being drawn into ungodly activities and life-styles. They reinforce the presence and power of God, and release us from bondage which would otherwise confuse us and keep us focussed on ourselves, absorbed in our own desires.
3. Jesus “ordered them not to tell anyone”.
The last thing Jesus wanted to be known as was a “wonder-worker”. In the case of false messiahs, it is, or course, the first thing they want to be known for. That applies to religious, commercial or political would-be “messiahs”.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is profoundly moved by the intense frustration and suffering of a most unfortunate man. In fact, in a regular part of His ritual — looking up to heaven — He “groaned”. His empathy for the affected man was expressed in a deep sigh of joint-suffering, so profound, so strongly felt, it simply had to be expressed.
Yet, having said all of this, we have to note that our Lord was also deeply concerned that the superficial people who were more taken by signs and wonders than by His teaching, would be diverted from listening to Him, and instead, seek miracles to titivate their senses.
Time and time again we will witness our Lord turning His disciples, especially His chosen twelve, back to the Scriptures and how they are being fulfilled in Him. There has always been a problem with excitement over signs and wonders diverting people’s interest and energy from a disciplined study of the Scriptures on to the “amazing” , the “wonderful”, the “entertaining”. There may be no greater crisis in the Church today than all manner of deviant distraction from knowing and living the Gospel message in favour of the popular and fascinating.
Let us pray for one another that we will be able to turn from distracting pursuits, and give our whole attention to the profound messages in Sacred Scripture awaiting our interest and attention.
For those who would like a detailed study resource
on the readings for Sunday, please visit:
If you require only the section on the Gospel reading,
just scroll down the page.
To view all the material on the Agape website please visit:
This website is highly recommended:
Mark 7: 31 to 37
Ordinary 23 Year B
31 Again he left the district of Tyre and went by way of
32 And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech
33 He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his
34 then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
35 And (immediately) the man’s ears were opened, his speech
36 10 He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he
37 They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has
10  The more they proclaimed it: the same verb proclaim attributed here to the crowd in relation to the miracles of Jesus is elsewhere used in Mark for the preaching of the gospel on the part of Jesus, of his disciples, and of the Christian community (⇒ Mark 1:14; ⇒ 13:10; ⇒ 14:9). Implied in the action of the crowd is a recognition of the salvific mission of Jesus; see the note on ⇒ Matthew 11:5-6.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised