So our Gospel today is kind of weird. Jesus is way up in the North of Israel, up near Tyre and Sidon in pagan territory. He passes through a series of ten small cities called the “Decapolis” in what is now Jordan. And people bring Him a deaf man with a speech impediment.
Note well: He has a speech impediment. Maybe he had some birth-defect, or medical problem, something did not work right with his tongue. But I think it was more than that. Because even if you have perfectly functioning ears and mouth and tongue, you probably still have a speech impediment.
Have you adults and parents ever had the experience of coming across a group of teens babbling and yacking away to each other like crazy, and then you walk up to them, say “hello” and suddenly they all go mute. Or if you are the parent of a teen, and you ask him or her what happened at school today, suddenly they have a speech impediment, and you get, at best, a grunt?
Or yourself, sometime you wanted to tell someone how much they mean to you, but you feel embarrassed, awkward, and the words won’t come. You want to give someone a compliment, tell them they did a great job, how much they inspired or helped you, but you feel awkward, foolish, tongue-tied. You don’t want to sound overly sentimental or gushy, so you let the moment pass, unspoken.
Perhaps you need to apologize to someone, and you really want to, but when you try the words get stuck in your throat, caught there by pride, or embarrassment, or the fear of appearing weak.
Maybe you need to say “I forgive you” to someone who hurt you, but every time you think about it all the hurt, all the pain, all the bitterness balls up in your windpipe and you can’t get those words out.
Maybe you have seen something going on that is wrong: like a co-worker telling a racist, sexist or homophobic joke; or witness something that is violent, that is dishonest and illegal. You want to shout “stop that!”, or blow the whistle on some dishonest practice of your employer, but fear about losing your job, or fear of being physically assaulted, or fear of ridicule, fear of being labeled a “goody-two-shoes” has impeded your speech, so that you keep silent.
Maybe you just need to say “I love you” more often to your spouse, your parents, your children, your family: but busyness, embarrassment, just lack of practice, keep you from speaking plainly your feelings.
Maybe you just can’t say what is truest about yourself, of what you believe, of what moves you, what you find compelling and meaningful; because you are afraid of misunderstanding, rejection and ridicule.
Maybe you want to be able to speak of your faith, your love for God, your relation with Christ, your experience of the holy, but you don’t have the words, you are afraid of being labeled some religious nut, you are embarrassed, and so remain mute.
All these, and more, are speech impediments. And the man in the Gospel is in the same boat with us. He doesn’t hear the Good News of the Gospel. He is deaf to God speaking to him. So he has a speech impediment. But they bring him to Jesus.
Jesus then does something strange. He takes the man off by himself away from the crowd. This is not a public healing. It is private and personal. Why? Jesus has no hesitancy to heal in public in other places, but this time He does. The healing itself is unusual. Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears. I know our translation says “finger” in the singular, but every other translation puts it in the plural. So Jesus puts his fingers in the guy’s ears. Like this: (demonstrate). Isn’t that kind of an invasion of personal space? Isn’t that rather “intimate”? It has been a loooooong time since anyone put their finger in my ears, and certainly a long time since I poked my finger in anyone’s ear.
What Jesus does next is even more odd. Jesus spits (bad enough) but then touches the man’s tongue, presumably with His spit. It all sounds very unsanitary. And then Jesus “groans”. Uggghhh! Let’s all try it now. Together, give me a groan Uggghhh!
Why groan? It is like this is a great effort, a huge push that Jesus is making. This is a struggle. And so He groans with the effort.
This healing has elements of an exorcism. This is not just a purely physical or medical cure, it is also an emotional, psychological and spiritual cure. Jesus makes physical, tactile, intimate contact with this man – putting His fingers in the man’s ears and touching his tongue with His spit – and an effort, a struggle, a push that causes Jesus to groan.
“And immediately” we are told “the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.” His ears were opened to hear the Gospel, the Good News. He was freed from embarrassment, shame, and especially fear, and so he spoke clearly, distinctly, correctly: about his faith, about his love, about who he truly and most deeply is. His speech was no longer impeded.
This is much more than just a physical healing.
Jesus wants to do the same for us. He wants to open our ears to hear deeply the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, and so cast out fear and all those blocks that keep us from speaking plainly. Jesus wants to loosen our tongues to speak our praise, to declare our faith, to profess our love.
Are we willing to let Jesus do this for us? Are we willing to let Him poke His fingers in our ears, and spitting to touch our tongues, to get up close and personal with us, to struggle and groan over us, so that we are no longer blocked, but open?
Is not that what we do in the Eucharist, getting up close and personal with Jesus, receiving Him into our hands and mouth, into our guts, that He may heal and save us?
Let us pray: O Lord Jesus, we implore you to come to us this morning, to touch and heal us just as you healed that man with a speech impediment so long ago. May the power of your Spirit now struggle to free us. Command us now as you once did the mute man in the Decapolis, “Ephatha!”, BE OPENED! Amen.