They brought to Jesus a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. (Mark 7:32)
Many of us will have had the experience of being tongue-tied or struck dumb in a particular situation, or perhaps of having to grapple with stammering as on ongoing challenge.
Yesterday I read an extraordinary story headed "the man who can only say yes and no". It's about the struggle of 56-year-old Graham Pawley to speak following a stroke, and it's both sad and inspiring.
For some people, experiencing problems with both hearing and speaking is a long-term disability. It would seem that a man whom Jesus encounters – as we continue our fortnightly journey through Mark's Gospel – falls into that category.
And Jesus then does two unexpected things. The first thing he does is take the man away from the crowd, put his fingers in the man's ears, and spit and touch the man's tongue (v33). He looks up to heaven, "sighs" and says "Ephphatha" – an eye-witness recollection of the original word – which means, "Be opened". And the man indeed is healed (v35). But why all the rigmarole with the touching and sighing? Why doesn't Jesus just heal as he does elsewhere?
The second unexpected thing Jesus does is to order those present not to tell anyone about the healing (v36). Now there's an approach we don't often come across from today's televangelists! Why such a covert approach? Indeed, what is going on with both these surprising things Jesus does?
1. The manner in which Jesus heals tells us a lot about who he really is
This is not simply some wandering preacher turning up and performing an unusual miracle. Those present might well have recalled the prophecy of Isaiah (35:5-6) – a prophecy which spoke of a new age to come in which the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. And they might well be prompted to ask, "Who then is this man?"
Jesus' physical actions with the man have also reminded some of the creative actions of God in the primeval opening of Genesis, with the sigh "reflecting his frustration at sin-marred creation" as Jeremy McQuoid puts it. This is flawed creation being given a foretaste of a new creation. And who could do that except God? Bishop Tom Wright describes this healing as "a pointer to the great Healing that will occur... when Jesus is finally revealed to the whole world, and our present stammering praise is turned into full-hearted song."
2. The secrecy with which Jesus heals tells us how easily he is misunderstood
Jesus doesn't want people to follow him because he is a healer. They have to understand that despite his authority to perform miracles, indicating his divinity, he has come to suffer and die (as Mark's next chapter makes clear). Jesus' injunction to secrecy at this point is because he needs time to explain this and for people to get hold of it.
And so once again the figure of Jesus steps out of the gospels to challenge us personally: If we are Christians, have we turned Jesus into a tame Christ rather than the Living Creator Lord he really is? Is the purpose of his coming, the cross – with its implications for us of cross-shaped dying-to-self – as central to our faith as Jesus wants it to be? And if we are yet to become Christians, have we open ears to listen to who Jesus really is? Have we misunderstood him as merely a healer, prophet or legend?
Part of a prayer by devotional writer Scotty Smith says: "Open our eyes to see more of your beauty and nearness today, Lord Jesus. Open our ears that we might hear you rejoicing over us with singing and the affection of an impassioned Bridegroom. Open our mouths that we might offer you the worship and adoration of which you are so worthy."
The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex.