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14th Sunday after Trinity

26 August 2021

5 September, Proper 18: Isaiah 35.4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2.1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7.24-end

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THE readings that go with this Gospel in the “related” lectionary track all make reference to changes in human circumstances. We might once have said, unembarrassedly, that these changes went from “worse” to “better”. In Isaiah, impairments in sight, speech, hearing, and mobility are done away, though the lectionary omits the start of the passage (v.3). Perhaps the compilers have not experienced arthritis: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.”

Awareness is growing of new ways of thinking which encourage people to accept themselves as they are. In this instance, that means accepting deafness as an identity, not a state of loss. Not for the first time, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with its “ex-leper” whom Jesus cured, proves prescient: “One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave!”

Putting satire to one side, a serious point is being made. It can be risky to presume that we know what is best for another person (though for parents of young children, it goes with the territory). If that person is (in the old way of speaking) “deaf and dumb”, they may be unable to express their wishes or insist that they are heard. It is also potentially problematic that Jesus uses touch in his healing miracles; for that is a practice to which we have all become super-sensitised through our safeguarding training. Still, touch continues to be indispensable in the rites of the Church: anointing, confirming, ordaining, consecrating, blessing.

Years ago, before praying the office in church one day, I happened to mention that I had a bad headache, and suddenly found my clergy companion jumping up and laying his healing (as he supposed) hands on my head. It was not improper, but it was presumptuous of him to behave as if he knew what was best for me, and as if my consent to his ham-fisted healing effort went without saying. No, my headache did not get better.

I think back to that moment when tackling a Gospel like today’s. We cannot say or think that Jesus was in any sense “wrong” to use touch. Consciously following his example, I see it as sometimes necessary in my work. Words alone are not always enough. James 2.15-17 shows them as a means of evading practical action. Covid restrictions have given us a taste of what words-only faith might be like. It was not a pleasant flavour.

Jesus took the man away from everyone else: another potential danger signal, and yet sometimes a pastoral necessity for those who sit beside other Christian souls in the darkest explorations of their journey. This does not undermine safeguarding. Proper safeguarding is a web consisting of both of rules and principles, and careful attentiveness. Checklists are not enough. We should aim to trust; but we must also verify.

No wonder Jesus did not want people to see or hear about this healing. Unlike leaders of cults and movements, the kinds of guru and charlatan who in that generation, and in our own, turn out to be “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7.15), he did not set out to attract his followers from malicious motives. His unease about people’s attraction to signs and wonders was well-founded; his disciples had to love and serve God first and foremost (Matthew 4.10).

Tales of trickery are so common when it comes to faith healings that “Trust, but verify” must never be denigrated as a negative, a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. In this Gospel, the ultimate proof of both cure and healing is in the change from silence to sound. The point, after all, is that the man whose speech and hearing had been impaired is visibly cured.

Ephphatha has become a word of power, encapsulating the essence of a life lived in tune with God. But it was not originally such a word. Its preservation, an Aramaic word in a Greek text, suggests to us that Jesus really said it, and that people really remembered it on the occasion of this cure (and perhaps others, too); and that they believed that it mattered. Mark’s Greek-speaking readers, like us, encounter ephphatha as a foreign, magic, word of mysterious power (like avada kedavra or expelliarmus, or lema sabachthani). But to Jesus, and to the man he cured, it was boringly normal and reassuringly, gloriously, ordinary.

Forthcoming Events

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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