Jesus Proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom and Cured Every Disease Among the People
SCRIPTURES & ART: God elected Israel not to confine his promises, but to invite that Chosen People to bring them from them to all humanity.
Throughout this year of Mark, Jesus’ healing of the sick — physically and spiritually — is prominent.
All this year, we’ve seen a recurrent pattern. Jesus encounters a sick person. Someone — either the person himself or those around him — seek his healing. This rudimentary act of faith in Jesus elicits his mercy. The person is healed, the healing also having a reference to the person’s spiritual healing. In the end, Jesus usually enjoins the beneficiary with his “Messianic Secret” not to tell anyone. The Messianic Secret, which lapses which Jesus’ Resurrection, is intended to avoid premature and false expectations of Jesus’ Messianic mission.
That familiar pattern recurs in today’s Gospel when Jesus, at the request of “people” who present a deaf-mute person to Jesus for healing. The recurrent pattern is here: they bring him a sick person; he decides to heal him; he does; he instructs the healed person “not to tell anyone.”
Let’s examine some other details of today’s Gospel.
Jesus traveled “by way of Sidon” and finds himself in “the district of the Decapolis.” For us, those are just geographical markers. But the earliest listeners to the Gospel would have known that we are talking about pagan territory and surmised that the deaf-mute man was a pagan.
The Decapolis was a group of 10 cities (hence, the etymology) that lay east of the Sea of Galilee. Unlike Israel, its inhabitants were part of Greco-Roman culture. The region enjoyed its own administration, separate from the Roman and/or Herodian governance of Israel. Sidon is mentioned in the Old Testament as in the neighborhood of Zarephath, where Elijah sought refuge with a pagan widow whom the Lord favored during a time that famine ravaged Israel (see 1 Kings 17:7-16). Those names — Sidon, Decapolis — tipped off listeners in Jesus’ day that these were not likely observant Jews.
The Gospel tells us that the handicapped person’s friends ask Jesus “to lay his hand on him.” Imposition of hands is the most basic sign of empowering, of giving one’s Spirit, of healing and strengthening. That’s why it is so basic and frequent a part of sacramental rites, especially Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders.
Jesus takes the man “off by himself, away from the crowd,” another manifestation of the Messianic Secret. Jesus does not heal to engage in showmanship. We’ve seen this already, e.g., when Jesus takes a select group of apostolic witnesses to attend the raising up of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37-42).
Jesus touches the man’s ears and tongue. Like the sacraments, Jesus is quite physical. Of course, God’s Word alone is effective (see Isaiah 55:11). But Jesus encounters us where we are, as physical as well as spiritual creatures. Jesus touches those senses that need healing, the man’s ears and tongue. Clearly, Jesus did not get the latest pandemic protocols.
And the man is healed.
Jesus heals all kinds of illnesses, but only certain ones are mentioned in the Gospels. So far in this year’s Gospels, we’ve read of healing of the blind, of lepers, of Peter’s mother-in-law, and of various possessed persons. Those healings also point to the spiritual mission of Jesus — the light of our eyes, the forgiveness of our spiritual leprosy of sin, the one who drives out Satan.
In healing the deaf-mute person, Jesus also points to his will to open our ears to hear his word and our tongue to proclaim his truth. Every morning, when priests pray the Divine Office, they begin with the Invitatory, “Lord, open my lips! And my mouth shall declare your praise.” God gave us lips to “proclaim his Death and Resurrection” (Memorial Acclamation) and to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In keeping with the Messianic Secret, Jesus also enjoined the deaf-mute man to remain mute about his healing. But that’s pretty hard to do when that healing is arguably the best thing that happened to him and, indeed, the very fact he could open his mouth was a clear giveaway that something amazing had happened.
The 18th-century Venetian painter Domenico Maggiotto captured this moment in an oil painting according to the conventions of the late Baroque. Five figures populate the canvas: two (Jesus and the deaf-mute man) in the foreground, three in the rear. The three are clearly witnesses, all of them focused on the handicapped man. While all works should “rest on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1, with roots in Deuteronomy 17:6), their secondary role in the painting is indicated by their brown colors that gradually blend into the even darker background.
The two central characters — Jesus and the deaf-mute person — are front and center. Their colors are more vibrant (although the deaf-mute person’s brown-gold robe and brown cloak also transition him into the witnesses), Jesus alone having unique red and royal blue clothing. They also are larger than those around them and stand more prominently in the light.
Jesus places his finger in the deaf-mute man’s mouth. Jesus looks toward heaven, for he does what the Father does (John 14:31), his lips parted in prayer and command. The deaf-mute person also looks up, almost in expectation. Both his and Jesus’ hands lead us, the viewer, into the painting.
By the time Maggiotto is painting, the Baroque is in its last phase (with something of a new jolt in rococo) before being replaced by neoclassicism. This painting exhibits the traditional marks of Baroque although, by this time, the almost Herculean dimensions typical of earlier Baroque painting have come off steroids. Maggiotto still exhibits some movement in the painting through hands: Jesus’ healing hand in the deaf-mute man’s mouth is reinforced by the index finger of the witness on the right and by the vertical fingers of the deaf-mute’s right hand, in direct alignment below Jesus’. His extended left hand (and the vertical hand of the leftmost witness) also serve to keep our eye from continuing left beyond the center of action.
Earlier this summer, Jesus was rejected in his hometown because of his prophetic word and deeds. When Luke recounts Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, he notes that Jesus reminded his listeners that their response is not unprecedented: Elijah was heard not by Israel but a Zarephath widow, and Elisha was obeyed not by Israel but Naaman the Syrian. Today’s Gospel continues Jesus’ expansion of the Good News beyond Israel. As Jonah learned, God elected Israel not to confine his promises, but to invite that Chosen People to bring them from them to all humanity.