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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

06 October 2023

Malcolm Guite recalls, as a child, being astonished by a story in St Mark’s Gospel

THERE are some very brief imperatives from Jesus, recorded in the Gospels, which seem to resonate far beyond their original context, as so many of his sayings do. “Unbind him!” is one. “Be opened” is another.

I have always been attracted to the story of Jesus’s healing of the deaf man with the speech impediment, in which he first says those words “Be opened.” This is partly because it is one of the first Gospel stories that I remember really hearing and registering, though perhaps not for the right reasons.

I was still quite a little boy, aged about five or six, at the back of church, playing discreetly (or so I hoped) with a toy car, running it on the pew shelf in front of me, and only vaguely hearing what was happening in the service.

But, as someone was reading the Gospel, from Mark 7, I must have paid attention for a moment and was astonished to hear them say: “He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.” He spat! Jesus spat! That was the very thing my mother had just told me not to do that morning. Suddenly, Jesus became much more interesting.

I suppose, looking back on it now, that was my first inkling that Jesus was fully human, that he had spittle like the rest of us, and was not just that flimsy ethereal figure who featured in the poster on our Sunday-school wall, clothed in a white nightie and attended by bunny rabbits and little blond children.

So, I listened further, and heard how “looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’” That was also interesting, because the reader was really struggling to say the word ephphatha, and, even when he said it correctly, it made him sound as if he had a speech impediment, too.

As an adult, I have returned to this passage quite often, and reflected that it must have been a very important episode for the disciples; it must have been retold exactly, and with relish, for that interesting Aramaic word ephphatha to have been remembered and passed on, so that it appears even in the Greek of St Mark’s Gospel, and, indeed, the Evangelist has to translate it for us.

So, when I came to write Parable and Paradox (Canterbury Press, 2016), my sequence of sonnets on the sayings of Jesus, I was determined to include this one, although by that time the imperative “Be opened” had become far more important, become a command that I felt both I and my church really needed to hear:

Be Opened

Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
“Be opened and the truth will set you free”,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
“Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty”,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
“Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened,” how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.

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