The weekly Bible study I lead is in the middle of the Gospel of Mark, so the timing of these readings has been fortuitous. Over the years, I have studied all four Gospels, but Mark is the one I’ve studied the least; my guess is that it is often overlooked or read the least of the four. After all, Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount and the longer account of Peter’s proclamation of faith, Luke has unique details about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and John has many singular narratives and discourses.
Mark’s Gospel, however, is equally engaging. As Peter Kreeft notes, it has a “let’s-get-right-to-the-point style” perfectly suited for “busy Romans” of the first century and “busy Americans” of the 21st century. There is an obvious immediacy to Mark’s Gospel. Mark “does not comment on the events he describes,” says Kreeft in “You Can Understand the Bible” (Ignatius Press, 2005), “or interpret their deeper meanings. … He simply gives the facts, the fast-moving events of Christ’s life and death. Mark is data.”
That is true, but there is a sophistication to Mark revealed in reading the Gospel as a whole. The individual trees — the pithy, pointed stories — are so fast-paced that we can miss the forest — that is, the grand theological vista that culminates in Christ revealed fully in his passion, crucifixion and resurrection.
There are many unique features to Mark’s Gospel, including today’s reading, which describes a healing not found in the other Gospels. Having healed and fed fellow Jews, Jesus and his disciples spent time in Gentile territory, circling north and then east before traveling south to the district of Decapolis, south of the Sea of Galilee.
During a previous visit there (Mk 5:1-20), Jesus had liberated a man from demonic possession by sending the unclean spirits into a herd of pigs (Mk 5:1-20). Although the people had begged Jesus to leave during that visit (5:17), they bring him a deaf and mute man upon his return. The implication is that the Gentiles, despite not having the Law, are open to learning the truth about Jesus. This is contrasted with the antagonism of the Pharisees and scribes, who later demand a sign despite the numerous healings and miracles (8:11-13).
Mark, despite his quick-moving narrative, always provides fascinating, meaningful details. Jesus, we hear, did seven things: He took the man away from the crowd, touched his finger to the man’s ears, spit, touched the man’s tongue, looked to heaven, groaned, and said, “Be opened!” Many ancient people believed that saliva contained healing properties. More striking for readers today is the intimacy of the action, as if Jesus knew the man personally. This points to the perfect humanity of Christ, who was not some sort of deified robot, but the Lover of Mankind, who came to heal both body and soul. Having embraced humanity fully in the Incarnation, he continued to embrace humanity fully in the difficulties of everyday life.
The utterance of the word, Ephphatha! (“Be opened!”) must have been striking. Again, Mark does not explain, but the power of the event is palpable. Jesus, in looking to heaven, looks to his Father. As many commentators have noted, the moment is an expression of the reality of the Trinity, for the Holy Spirit looses tongues, opens ears and brings spiritual healing, as evidenced on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-5, 33). As is often the case in Mark’s Gospel, there is more going on than first meets the eyes or ears.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.