Modern medicine is amazing. Just think about how many illnesses can be treated today, which would have been debilitating or maybe even fatal just a hundred year ago. My husband, who has type 1 diabetes, often says that he probably would not have survived very long, had he lived at the beginning of the 20th century, since insulin treatment hadn’t been in use until 1922 – and those were rather crude beginnings. And I dare say most of us here today, and that includes myself, would be in much worse shape, if not dead, if it weren’t for the great medical treatments we have access to in our day and age.
We have cataract surgeries that prevent people from going blind, we have hip and knee replacements to keep people from going lame, and we have hearing aids that keep us from going totally deaf, thanks be to God! But, with regards to hearing, there is now even something more amazing out there: cochlear implants.
A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that, in a nutshell, stimulates nerves and sensory cells in the ear. What is so amazing about this device is that even people who have been deaf from birth can hear sounds after it is implanted. And if you go on the internet, you can find these very moving video clips, often of little children who were born deaf, and their reaction to the first sounds they ever hear after a cochlear implant. In the Bible, we read the term ‘fear and joy’ quite often, and this is exactly what you find on the faces of many of these children: fear and joy. Often these children are somewhere between crying and laughing, and I think it’s quite understandable why: imagine you had never heard a sound in your entire life, and all of sudden, you hear – voices, noises. A whole new world is opened, and of course that’s scary at first – but exciting, too. It takes the brain a little while to process all this new data.
In Jesus’ days, medical treatment was extremely limited, and people could often only hope for a miracle. The blind, the lame, the deaf, and the possessed would often lead rather miserable lives, shunned by society, and begging in the streets. Just like many of our homeless today, who suffer from mental illness and/or addiction.
When people come or a brought to Jesus to be healed, much is at stake: healing means to become a member of society once more. Healing means to be restored to life – most of all, life in community. No wonder people come in droves to Jesus for healing. They are hungry for life – and Jesus, in his compassion, gives the gift of life to those who come.
We usually have a pattern when it comes to stories about Jesus healing people. Someone comes or is brought to Jesus for healing. Either the afflicted or those who bring them express their confidence in Jesus’ healing powers. Jesus says, ‘Your faith has made you well,’ or something similar, and the afflicted are healed.
The healings in today’s gospel lessons are different; one could argue that the Gentile woman, who begs Jesus to heal her daughter, expresses her faith in Jesus and his compassion by countering his initial refusal with the famous line, ‘Well, even the dogs under the table get some crumbs.’ However, this is not a standard healing story.
But I want to focus on the second healing story, the healing of the deaf man. What a story! This man isn’t coming to Jesus to be healed. No, he has to be brought, which is interesting – he isn’t lame, after all. Somehow I imagine him being dragged by some well-meaning friends or family members. Maybe the deaf man is filled with shame, since his disability surely must be a punishment from God. Maybe he thinks he is not deserving of the gift of healing. Maybe he is disillusioned and has given up all hope – maybe he doesn’t want to be disappointed. And maybe he is just scared of a radical change in his life– after all, there is always comfort in a situation that is familiar to us, there is safety in the things we are used to. What would life be after healing? How would life be after such a radical change?
Jesus doesn’t say: be healed, or your faith has made you well, as we know it from other stories. No, he sighs and uses this mysterious word; Ephphatha – which means be opened. Be opened! And the gates are opened, sounds are flooding in, and: words are streaming out of this man. And we can only speculate what else now is flowing in and out of this man, who has experienced God’s love, the touch of Jesus. This story is about so much more than just a physical healing – it is about a transformation of life.
A modern day example for this kind of radical transformation would be the story of Helen Keller, the American writer and activist, who was born in 1880. Helen Keller turned deaf and blind as a result of Scarlett Fever or Meningitis at the age of 1 ½. No one around her knew how to approach the young disabled child. Trapped in a world of silence and darkness, Keller felt isolated and could only express her pain through anger. So she was considered extremely difficult. But then a miracle happened to her – no, sight and sound were not miraculously restored to her, but there was a young teacher, Anne Sullivan, who patiently worked with the then 7 year old Helen, trying to teach her words by signing on her hands. Helen at first did not understand the purpose of those signs and reacted in anger in frustration; the break-through happened when Sullivan had water run over Helen’s hand, signing the word for ‘water’ at the same time.
Once Helen understood the concept, a whole new world was opened for her. It was not only her ability to now communicate better with the people around her, or her ability to use her intellect and learn – she even went on to get a Bachelor of Arts degree, at a time when few women went to college, let alone disabled women – the emotional component was even more important for her. Helen Keller was able to have relationships once more. The gates were opened for her, her life was completely transformed, and she lived a long and fulfilled life.
Keller knew she was given the gift of life – but she didn’t keep it for herself. As someone who had received, she felt the responsibility to give as well. I already mentioned she became an activist, and fought for the rights and education of the deaf and blind; she became a women’s activist, and an advocate for the poor, too.
The gates are opened, and there is a come and go, a give and take. That’s how gates usually work – it’s not a one-way passage, but something that permits access from both sides.
We don’t know exactly what happened to the deaf man in today’s gospel story after he is healed, after he is opened up. But one thing we do know: once the man can hear, he also talks. And the message of this miracle spreads. Thus others are touched by the good news of Jesus Christ, who has come to restore life to all of us. I can also imagine that the opening up of the deaf man’s ears also opened up his heart – just as Helen Keller’s heart was opened after she learned how to connect with the world. And that he passed on some of the grace and the blessing he had received. When we are opened up by God’s grace, it’s always a two-way street.
Ephphatha! Be opened! We here today may not need the gift of hearing in the sense the deaf man in the gospel story needed it. But we still need the gift of open ears to hear God’s word, which we often encounter in the sighs and cries and calls for help in this world. We still need the gift of open hearts and minds, especially in a world, which seems to get more and more narrow-minded and, which is even more worrisome to me, narrow-hearted. We need openness to receive God’s good gifts and blessing – and to pass them on.
That means there is a great responsibility as well as a task hidden behind that simple word ‘ephphatha’, “Be opened”. Nothing will ever be the same once the gates are opened, once we truly remain open to God’s Spirit and God’s presence, which is comforting and demanding at the same time, in our lives. Jesus never said it would be easy to follow him. But at the same time we know, we feel that the moment God’s Spirit enters our open ears, eyes, hearts and minds, we’ll never be alone. Things may change, people come and go in our lives, the present day will be a memory tomorrow, but God is with us. God’s love and grace embrace us and give us hope wherever we go, through life’s ups and down, in all situations.
The gates are opened. We receive life and healing – and are called to let these gifts overflow our hearts and flow out into the world. Amen
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