God’s Dirty Hands (Mark 7:31-37)February 18th, 2010
It’s fascinating to think about how much time Mark spends demonstrating Jesus’ encounters with human pain and suffering. According to one early church tradition, Mark himself had deformed hands. This may explain his special interest in Peter’s eye witness accounts of Jesus’ healings. Throughout the gospel, we regularly see Jesus encountering the blind, the lame, the hungry, the leper, and here in this particular text, a deaf-mute man. The very drama of the Creator of the universe walking in the midst of His creation is a staggering thought. We spend our whole lives running from sickness and disease and death, and yet here we find Jesus meeting it face to face; and in the life of Jesus, contagion is overturned, and death and sickness flee.
This particular story of Christ’s encounter with the deaf-mute man is an intimate account filled with eye-witness details. In verse 32, Mark records that the mute man “could speak a little.” This is an interesting detail that lets us know that the person telling the story was actually there and saw the whole thing. The man was completely deaf and functionally mute, but he could mumble some words. In verse 33, Mark records that Jesus took the man aside, away from the crowd. This is a very specific detail that demonstrates to us the intimacy of the scene. We as readers should feel as though we are being drawn into an intimate encounter between Jesus and a deaf-mute man, rather than just gaping at the whole event from the midst of a great throng of people.
The next fascinating detail of this story is that Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears, took spittle from His mouth, and used it to touch the man’s tongue. He then looked up to heaven, sighed deeply, and cried out, “Ephphatha!” (Be opened!) The natural question we might ask is: Why did Jesus stick His fingers into the man’s ears? Why did Jesus put spittle on His finger and touch the man’s tongue? After all, Jesus did not need to touch this man at all. He could have just spoken the word, and the man would have been healed. Why did Jesus do something like this? We probably won’t know for sure until we get to heaven why Jesus healed people in such different ways during His ministry, but I am convinced that this account has something to do with the very nature of the incarnation. If you ask the question, “Why did Jesus stick His fingers into the man’s ears?” then, if you think about it, you are almost forced to ask the larger question: “Why did Jesus come to earth in the first place?” The little question inevitably leads to the big question, because if you ask why Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, the larger question looms directly in your path. Why did Jesus come to earth? Why was Jesus born into a despised race of an occupied people who were discriminated against and dominated by the Romans? Could He not have found some easier way to save us from a distance? In the Middle Ages, Anselm wrote a famous little book, Cur Deus Homo? – Why did God become a man? You could ask the question a thousand ways: Why was God born in a stable? Why did God touch the leper? Why did God talk to the woman at the well? Why did God put His fingers in the deaf man’s ears and put spittle on his tongue?
The answer has to do with the very nature of the Trinitarian God of Christian faith. The great distinctiveness of the Christian faith is that God has drawn near to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The gospel is about intimacy and relationship with God. It is about the nature of God as a relational God. Christianity alone of all the religions in the world proclaims the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity, or Tri-unity. One God – one divine essence – but known to us in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That means that God is a relational God – it is integral to who He is! There are intimacies even within the Godhead. As the Puritans said of the Trinity, “God in Himself is a sweet society.”
Mark’s gospel doesn’t point us to the abstract god of the philosophers. We are not peeking in on Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. This is the God-Man, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. This is God like we have never seen Him, and man like we have never known – fully God and fully man, without confusion, without compromise. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John declares. Literally, the Greek in John 1:14 says, the Word became flesh and tabernacled – or set His tent up – among us. It is a picture of God coming into the desert of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, into our barrenness and the ragged edges of our parched existence. This is one of the great themes of Mark’s gospel: Christ coming to where we are. God comes out to us, even though we live in the exile of sin and condemnation. Since the time of the Fall, we have lived in exile, away from God’s immediate presence and His divine favor. But now, in Jesus Christ, God comes to us and touches our broken humanity. When we see Jesus touching a leper, or putting his fingers into a deaf man’s ears, we should not merely see God’s compassion on those special few with extraordinary maladies. Rather, we should see ourselves in each of these pictures because, in our own way, we all bear the marks and signs of the crippling effects of the Fall.
In the touching of the deaf and mute man, then, we are learning something about what God is like in His very inner nature. In the process, we should be challenged to the core about what it means to be called a Christian. In the miracle of Jesus putting His fingers in the deaf man’s ears and touching his stammering tongue with spittle, the whole of the Christian gospel is present in seed form. While we live in an increasingly remote world, one in which nobody wants to be bothered getting their hands dirty with other people’s problems. We serve a God who sinks His hands deep into the filth of our world in order to heal us.
What has become more ubiquitous in our society than the many remote control devices which fill our lives? We have remotes for our garage doors, our televisions, our stereos, and so forth. These devices save us from getting up off the sofa or getting out of our car into the rain. By extension, couldn’t God have thought of a way to save us while remaining in the remote safety and bliss of heaven? To do this, however, would have been a denial of Himself. In Jesus Christ, we are learning that there is nothing remote about God. God has always been about drawing near, rolling up his sleeves and getting His hands dirty in our world, touching us in our brokenness.
Ultimately, the ministry of the church must be lived out in this context. We often want to carry on ministry from a distance. We think, Why set up a food kitchen to feed the hungry when we can just write a check for it? Or, Why send one of our own children onto the mission field when we can just stay back and send a check to someone else who is willing to go? This kind of reasoning falls short of the full dignity of our Christian work in the world. The reason is because we serve a God who became a part of our world, touching our brokenness and putting His fingers in our ears. We serve a God who was willing to get his hands dirty in this world. Jesus did not love us remotely. Jesus, the Great Physician, has made a “house call” on the human race! Our condition required a house call. There are people all over the world who will not be healed unless you pay them a house call. Christ calls us to get our hands dirty in the world because that is what He did. We are to bring the life and light of Jesus to places of darkness and pain.
When Jesus healed the deaf-mute man, Mark records that Jesus sighed deeply, and cried out in Aramaic, “Ephphatha!” This is an Aramaic word which means “be opened.” In this intimate moment, Mark does not want to mediate the words of Jesus by giving it to his readers in translation. Instead, we are hearing the very word Jesus spoke – Ephphatha! It is one more attempt by Mark to draw us into the intimacy of this encounter.
When those gathered saw the deaf-mute man speaking clearly and able to hear, the text tells us that they were “overwhelmed with amazement.” Then they declared, “He has done everything well!” Why did they say this? He had healed one man. It is, of course, remarkable, but is it grounds for declaring that He does everything well? Why did they say this? The reason flows directly from the passage. Any God who would come down from heaven, become incarnate in human flesh, be born into a despised race, and stick his fingers into a deaf-mute man’s ears, will do everything well. In the healing of the deaf-mute man, the entire incarnation, and indeed the whole nature of God, is present in seed form. In the same way, every act of compassion, every act of grace, every deed which we do in the name of Christ is a re-enactment on a tiny scale of the incarnation; for in every authentically Christian act, the incarnation is again proclaimed: God is still coming near through His Spirit in the people of God. This ennobles all Christian activity in the world. When the world sees our lives and we let His light shine through us, they will declare afresh in our own day, “He does everything well.”
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