Deafness and Invisibility

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, “Jesus Healing a Deaf-Mute,” 1635
Bartholomeus Breenbergh, “Jesus Healing a Deaf-Mute,” 1635 (photo: Public Domain)

There are three kinds of healing stories in the Gospels.

Sometimes sick or disabled people seek out Jesus on their own initiative. Blind Bartimaeus, on the Jericho road, calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus asks what he wants, Bartimaeus answers, “Master, let me receive my sight!” 

The ten lepers near the border of Galilee and Samaria called to Jesus with similar words: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” The woman with a bleeding condition for 12 years didn’t say a word — she just came behind Jesus and touched his garments and was healed.

Other times Jesus initiates the interaction. “Do you want to be healed?” he asked a paralyzed man at the Sheep Gate pool in John’s Gospel. Later, in the famous episode of the man born blind, Jesus just goes up to the blind man, spits on the ground, makes some clay, anoints his eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.

Then there are those people who are brought to Jesus by others, or on whose behalf Jesus is petitioned by others. Jairus, the synagogue leader, comes to Jesus on behalf of his deathly ill daughter, as does the Roman centurion on behalf of his servant. Then there’s the paralyzed man whose friends tear up the roof in order to lower him down in front of Jesus!

This deaf man is brought to Jesus by others. If you think about it, most likely this man has no idea who Jesus is or why he’s being brought to meet him. There was no sign language at the time, no deaf community as we know it today. Probably he couldn’t read or write. And he knew what he was missing. He wasn’t born deaf — he could speak, though not clearly, because he couldn’t hear his own voice. 

Think about the isolation that entails. Even more than blindness, hearing loss and deafness correlate with social and mental isolation and loneliness, with a sense of feeling cut off from others. But he’s not left alone, this deaf man. People around him care about him and advocate for him. They bring him to Jesus.


The Invisible Disability

Do you know, of all the healings described in all the Gospels, this is the only mention of a particular deaf person? That doesn’t mean, of course, that he’s necessarily the only deaf person Jesus healed. Both Matthew and Luke mention that our Lord was known for healing the deaf as well as the blind and the lame. And all this was foretold hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: 

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.

But particular blind and lame people appear in the Gospels over and over. Jesus cures lepers on more than one occasion, exorcises many people with demons, and even raises a number of dead people. Could it be that we don’t hear more about deaf people in the Gospels at least in part due to the isolating effects of deafness, especially for deaf people who don’t have others working to include and advocate for them?

Deafness is sometimes called an invisible disability, and because of their isolation deaf people may feel invisible themselves. Are there invisible people in our lives, our neighborhoods, our parishes? People who may be isolated and ignored, who deserve our time and attention?

Note how Mark is so struck by what Jesus says to this man that, instead of simply writing down the Greek translation of Jesus’ words, as he does with nearly everything else, Mark gives us the original Aramaic word Jesus spoke: Ephphatha, “Be opened.”

Mark does this only one other time, at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, where Jesus says, Talitha cumi, “Little girl, I tell you, get up.” Notice how both of these dramatic sayings are addressed to someone who can’t hear Jesus: a deaf man and a dead girl! But his words are effective nonetheless.


Communion Restored

Note also that Jesus doesn’t only speak. He takes the dead girl by the hand to help her up. He puts his fingers in the deaf man’s ears, to begin with. He doesn’t have to touch him! But he offers contact, physical touch, to a man who has endured great isolation. Ephphrata: be opened. Jesus opens not just his ears, but his whole life.

Jesus also spits — as he did healing the man born blind, and also another blind man on another occasion — and touches the man’s tongue, healing his speech impediment along with his deafness. Communication is a two-way street: We want to make known what’s in our hearts and minds as well as to know the hearts and minds of others. 

Why the spitting? Today, especially with the pandemic, we’re all very aware that droplets of saliva can spread viruses. But people in the past also often thought of saliva in terms of its healthy or healing effects, and, in fact, we know today that saliva does contain enzymes and other components that have antibacterial and other potentially healthy or healing properties. So Jesus may be using saliva in these episodes as a natural symbol of healing, like the waters of Baptism are a natural symbol of cleansing and the bread and wine used in the Eucharist are natural symbols of daily sustenance.

Jesus restores communication and communion. It’s interesting that this healing takes place in the Decapolis region — the same area where Jesus cured the Gadarene demoniac living among the tombs. This is a non-Jewish region, so this one deaf man may well be one of the Gentiles touched by Jesus’ ministry, along with the Gadarene demoniac, the Roman centurion whose servant Jesus healed, the one grateful leper out of those ten, who was a Samaritan, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter Jesus delivered from an evil spirit.

Remember, Gentiles were considered unclean “dogs” to observant Jews. Even Jesus used that word talking with the Syro-Phoenician woman! But he also reminded his own neighbors in Nazareth about how in the days of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, God showed special care for Gentiles, raising the dead son of the widow of Zarephath, who was Phoenician, and curing Naaman the leper, who was Syrian.

Our Lord lays the groundwork for the teaching of his brother, St. James, in our second reading, against making distinctions and showing partiality: welcoming one person with open arms and turning a cold shoulder to another based on status or identity.

St. James highlights distinctions based on wealth or class, showing preference for the well-dressed and wealthy over the poor. But whatever social hierarchies we construct — whether based on economic or employment status, race or skin color, sex or gender, nationality or immigration status, religion, age, education, or disability — all these distinctions obscure the unity of the human family. They can all lead to division and isolation, which is contrary to the mission of the Church, called by God to be the “sacrament,” or effective sign, “of the unity of the human race.”


One-on-One Encounter

Notice, finally, how Jesus seeks a bit of privacy before healing this man. He takes him off by himself away from the crowd. He also orders them all not to tell anyone, but they don’t listen. They disobey. 

It’s easy to gloss over their disobedience because Mark ends on an uplifting note: The people are all praising Jesus: “He has done all things well! He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak!” Well, great, but which is more important: talking about Jesus and praising him or obeying him? 

The first time Jesus healed a leper, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in a reading we heard all the way back in February, Jesus told him to tell no one — but the man went away and began publicizing it all over the place. As a result, “it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” So “he remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”

What’s the problem? Maybe Jesus doesn’t want to be mobbed by people looking only for a miracle when he has so much more to give: when the encounter with Jesus we need is personal, one on one.

Nothing against miracles. Who doesn’t want a miracle? Think about all the people who’ve suffered from Hurricane Ida this past week: homes destroyed, people left without shelter or power and other necessities, over 60 people killed. Who wouldn’t want a miracle?

Or think of the pandemic. Last month alone, the coronavirus killed over 700 people per day on average in the US. Hospitalization rates were the highest they’ve been since the January peak, with especially troubling rates of children being hospitalized.

Tragically, the pandemic has also greatly aggravated the effects of isolation. Shut-ins and residents in long-term care facilities especially have suffered. Children have suffered social deprivation due to closed schools.

These are all serious needs that we should bring to our Lord, in addition to doing what we can to reduce the harm. We may know people who were hard hit by Ida that we could help in some way — or, if not, perhaps we can donate to Catholic Charities USA. We can be fully vaccinated and continue to take other pandemic precautions, even if we’re sick of it.

We can try to be aware of those around us who deserve our time and attention, whose suffering may be invisible. Above all, each of us must seek, constantly, that personal, one-on-one encounter with Jesus, through daily prayer, worship, and the sacraments, that transforms us and enables others to encounter Jesus in us.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.