We often hear Pope Francis speak of the need to be humble, contrite, and above all, merciful … especially if we are to ask God for something.
Hear what God says in Isaiah 57:14-15: “It shall be said: Open up! Open up! Clear the way, remove all obstacles from the way of my people.
“For thus speaks the Most High, whose home is in eternity, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but I am also with the contrite and humbled spirit, to give the humbled spirit new life, to revive contrite hearts’.”
Let us now go to the New Testament, and in particular to Mark 7:31-37:
“Returning from the district of Tyre, he went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, right through the Decapolis region. And they brought him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they asked him to lay his hand on him.
“He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, put his fingers into the man’s ears and touched his tongue with spittle. Then looking up to heaven he sighed; and said to him, ‘Ephphata’, that is, ‘Be opened’.
“And his ears were opened, and the ligament of his tongue was loosened and he spoke clearly. And Jesus ordered them to tell no one about it, but the more he insisted, the more widely they published it.
“Their admiration was unbounded. ‘He has done all things well,’ they said, ‘He makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak’.”
Notice that we are not told exactly where Jesus healed the man: it could have been anywhere in the Decapolis (Greek for “Ten Cities”).
The Decapolis region goes from north-east of the Sea of Galilee (Damascus), and stretches all the way on the eastern side of the Jordan, right down to Bet Shean (in those days Scythopolis on the western side), and also included Philadelphia (today’s Amman, capital of Jordan), Gadara, Hippos, Pella, Gerasa (now Jerash), Canatha, Abila and Adra (today Dera’a on the Syrian/Jordanian border).
You will also note that all these places were considered in Jesus’ time as Gentile territory. This meant that most of the inhabitants were non-lsraelite pagans. It was precisely because of this reason that Jesus, like all good Jews, seldom went to such territory, and when he did, there was a particularly good reason for it, and we could expect wonderful things to happen.
So, before our extract from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman, and in the fuller parallel Gospel reading from Matthew 15:21-28, and more specifically in verse 24, Jesus says: “l was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. But she came and knelt at his feet [a Jew could not do that: a Jew must not grovel to another human being!].
“Lord, she said, ‘Help me!’” Jesus replied, “It is not fair to throw the children’s [i.e. of Israel] food to the house-dogs [i.e. the Gentiles].” But the woman replied: “Ah, yes, sir; but even the house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table!” Then Jesus answered her: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.” And from that moment her daughter was well again.
Now, back to Mark’s Gospel, and the deaf man who also had a speech impediment.
Being from somewhere in the Decapolis, he was most probably a Gentile, who also spoke Aramaic like Jesus [the lingua franca of the whole region], or at least a closely-related dialect to it. He, like the Canaanite woman, would also be kneeling to Jesus.
You will notice that Jesus does not heal him publicly; we are told in verse 33 that “He took him aside in private, away from the crowd.”
We are not told why, but Jesus is sensitive to the needs of a person, to their feelings and need for privacy, whether that person was Jewish or Gentile.
Jesus does three things:
(a) puts his fingers into the man’s ears;
(b) touches his tongue with his own [Jesus’] spittle; and
(c) says “Ephphata!”, i.e. Aramaic for “Be opened!”
We are told in verse 35 that “his ears were opened” … “and the ligament of his tongue was loosened and he spoke clearly.” And they said around him, “He makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.”
Of course, to modern man this might seem to be unnecessary mumbo-jumbo, but to first century people, the use of saliva reflects the widely held understanding that saliva was a curative substance [that’s why dogs lick their wounds!}, as in:
(i). Mark 7:33 (which I quoted previously), and 8:22-25:
“They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought to him a blind man whom they begged him to touch. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Then putting spittle on his eyes and laying his hands on him, he asked, ‘Can you see anything?’ The man, who was beginning to see, replied, ‘I can see people; they look like trees to me, but they are walking about.’ Then he laid his hands on the man’s eyes again and he saw clearly; he was cured, and he could see everything plainly and distinctly. And Jesus sent him home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village’.”
(ii). John 9:6-7, and I quote:
“Having said this, he spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man, and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the pool of Siloam (a name that means sent)’. So the blind man went off and washed himself, and came away with his sight restored.”
What do we learn from all this? Even though Jesus insists that he came only for his fellow-Jews, but such is his great compassion that he is prepared to cure anyone: Jew or Gentile. In other words, anyone who is humble, contrite, and in need. Halleluyah! Praise the Lord!
Andrew Sholl is co-founder of the Association of Hebrew Christians. He lives in Townsville, Queensland.