by Daniel Harrell
It’s a sweet coincidence that President-elect Obama’s inauguration occurs the day after we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Sweeter still would have been having Dr. King live long enough to see it. Some insist he that did, at least prophetically speaking. On the night before his assassination, King famously said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I was intrigued to read last week about how for many people in their 20s, the reality of a black president in America is no great shakes. Nursed on the Cosby Show, having admired Morgan Freeman as president as a comet plowed toward the earth, and most recently watching David Palmer manage the Oval Office so ably for five seasons on 24: what’s the big deal about Barack Obama being black?. Shoot, 24 has already moved on to elect a woman president.
However, for those of us over 20 years old, albeit barely, watching Barack Obama take the oath of office on Tuesday remains monumental. I was in seventh grade when forced busing came to my Southern, Klan-infested town. I vividly remember the fear and anger that fueled months of race-based violence. Though ironically, as bad as it was in my Southern town, it never got as bad as Boston in 1974. Clearly, the United States has come a long way. Thank God.
Given Tuesday’s historic occasion, especially in the face of a dire economic crisis and two wars, Obama’s renown oratorical skills, like King’s, have raised expectations high for his inaugural address. As a devotee of Abraham Lincoln, who more than any single President made this coming Tuesday possible, Obama would love to emulate the rhetorical power of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, arguably the greatest speech ever made by a president. Obama said that every time he reads that speech he feels intimidated; first because it’s short (just over 700 words), and secondly because there’s a genius to Lincoln that’s never going to be matched. As something of a Lincoln log myself, I used Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as the text for our ministerial staff devotionals this past week. In 1865, with the Civil War mercifully drawing to an end, Lincoln sought to articulate his understanding of the unparalleled bloodbath the war brought. Moving from the historical to the political to the theological, Lincoln ultimately attributed the war’s ferocity to God’s judgment on America for its 250 years of human slavery. Citing Jesus’ words from Matthew 18 (in King James), Lincoln said, “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” He then drew the following conclusion: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
We struggle to accept that God would ever will something as horrific as war, and yet to page through the Bible is to find war used as God’s judgment with alarming frequency. And yet, as Lincoln himself acknowledged, “if God wills that [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Granted, skeptics will counter that the trickier question is why God ever allowed human slavery to begin with. It’s a question that immediately slips into that perennial conundrum of the existence of evil itself, a conundrum that often incorporates disease, natural disaster and disability too. However when it comes to disability, toward which our prayers and ministry moments are directed today, divine will takes on different meaning.
In the book of Exodus, God’s people had likewise endured 250 years of slavery in Egypt when the Lord called Moses to be his prophet and lead his people to the Promised Land. Yet unlike Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama, Moses was not an eloquent speaker. He pleaded his own disability in an attempt to get out of God’s plan for his life, describing himself as a man with a heavy tongue. However there’s no arguing with a burning bush. Rather than repairing Moses’ impediment, the Lord chastised him for trying to use it as an excuse. God said to Moses, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?”
God’s words to Moses apply to our passage tonight from Mark’s gospel, as I continue my red-letter series, stopping at those places in Mark where Jesus speaks. For those keeping track, I’ll return to Jesus’ encounter with the Syophoenician woman next Sunday. Tonight, Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment. The encounter occurs in the Decapolis region, significant in that the area was largely inhabited by Gentiles. If you heard last Sunday’s sermon, then you’ll remember how Jesus ripped the religious legal experts for misusing the law to discriminate against Gentiles, much like Southern Jim Crow laws segregated bathrooms and buses in the 1960s. Jesus labeled the whole thing a crock of doo-doo. Making matters worse, the Pharisees manipulated the law to oppress women and people with disabilities too. Although the book of Leviticus forbade “reviling the deaf or putting a stumbling block in front of the blind for fear of God,” by the time we get to Jesus, the religious interpretive tradition had managed to group the deaf, the blind and women with children, slaves and those regarded as “imbeciles” as people too ignorant to keep the law.
Of course if you’ve read rabbinic law, you might consider being labeled too ignorant to keep it as a welcome designation. Except that in first century Jewish society, the inability to keep the law put you at a severe social and religious disadvantage. Not only were you excluded from proper society, but you were excluded from proper worship. You weren’t allowed access to God. If the deaf man in this passage was also a Gentile (which was likely since Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic), he was doubly doomed. It is of no small consequence, then, that when the doubly excluded man was brought to Jesus, Jesus not only welcomed him, but granted him a private audience. On the one hand this could be interpreted as just another episode of a rebel Jesus trying to tick off the religious establishment. But by using the word Mark uses to describe the man’s condition, we recognize something else at work. The Greek word for the man’s speech disability shows up only here in the New Testament, and in only one other place in the entire Bible. Turn to Isaiah 35 in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and you read how “God is coming to save… the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless (here’s the word) will shout for joy.” Like much of Isaiah, this passage portends the arrival of the Christ, a new Moses who would bring with him a new creation. “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. …only the redeemed will walk there, the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Of course, if God is the one who makes people deaf and speechless, and all that God does is good, then Isaiah’s mention of giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf should be understood spiritually rather than somatically. But if that is the case, what is Jesus doing giving this deaf man his hearing? For an answer, turn back to chapter 2 and you’ll recall another group of friends lowering a paralytic buddy down through the roof of a house to meet Jesus. Jesus responded not by saying “get up and walk” but rather “your sins are forgiven,” the clear implication being that sin and not paralysis was the man’s problem. But the Pharisees had a fit about that, since nobody forgave sins but God. Jesus then reasoned that since nobody but God could make a paralyzed man walk either, if he could do one, he could also do the other. So Jesus told the paralyzed man to get up and walk so that everyone would now know that [quote] “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Presumably, had the friends had to carry their forgiven friend home on his mat, all would have been just as well.
Like the paralyzed man’s friends thought his paralysis to be the problem in chapter 2, so the deaf man’s friends thought his inability to hear and speak was the problem her in chapter 7. They begged Jesus to lay his hands on their friend and fix him. But as in chapter 2, Jesus responded in unexpected fashion. Rather than simply saying, “be healed!” and having the crowd applaud their approval, Jesus takes the deaf man off to the side and does this bit with his fingers and spit. Scholars assume that Jesus was using gestures common to miracle-workers of his day. First century societies associated curative powers with touch and saliva, not unlike the way we kiss boo-boos on babies to make them all better. But why would Jesus want to mimic so-called miracle workers, especially since they were likely to be frauds anyway? And not only that, he used his gestures in private for the deaf man only. Verse 33 literally says that Jesus “put his fingers in his ears… and touched his tongue” which could just as easily mean Jesus’ own ears and tongue. What if instead of using his fingers and spit to heal, Jesus used his fingers and spit to communicate? You know, like sign language? What if Jesus put his fingers in his ears and touched his tongue in order to give the deaf man heads up, or even ask permission for what he was going to do?
But wait a minute, if being deaf, like being paralyzed, is never a bad thing in God’s eyes, why make a deaf man hear or a paralytic walk? Perhaps, given the social segregation of people with disabilities from community and worship, perhaps Jesus’ reasons for giving this man his hearing were social rather than somatic. Unlike the rabbinic tradition that interpreted Isaiah for its own benefit, Isaiah himself grouped people without sight or hearing or mobility or speech alongside the redeemed who get to travel the holy highway. For Jesus, it was never the deaf who couldn’t hear or the blind who couldn’t see; but rather, it was those with ears to hear who never get it and those with eyes to see who never see what God is doing. What if new creation isn’t about getting a new and so-called perfect body, but perfect perception instead? Our ministers Toni and Walter Kim, whose daughter Naomi has Down’s Syndrome, say how they can’t imagine her ever being without it since then Naomi wouldn’t be Naomi. What if instead of seeing people as we think they should be, heaven is about seeing each other as God sees us—not according to the color of our skin or our cognitive capacities and physical abilities, but according to the content of our character――a character shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, even Jesus keeps his scars in heaven.
Leslie Bodkin, who directs our Enable Boston work here at the church, pointed me to a blog posted by a couple who met here at Park Street and whose son, Noah, has retinoblastoma which has led to the removal of one of his eyes. The parents remark how they couldn’t help but recall Jesus’ words, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.” They write, “Noah’s eye is of course not causing him to sin (yet, lol) but this scripture does apply because it is better for Noah’s health to have the eye removed than to have two eyes but with a poorer prognosis. We’re thankful to God for all that He does for us and we trust Him. In the end, in this fallen world, all you can do is praise, fear, and love the Lord. In a way, Noah is unwittingly doing the Lord’s work even before he learns about the Lord. Noah has caused us to praise the Lord more, fear the Lord more, seek the Lord more and love the Lord more, and repent. This makes him, in our weird parental opinions, a little servant of God.”
In verse 34, Jesus looked up to heaven, a customary posture of prayer, and then sighed, a verb the Bible generally reserves for expressing frustration. Why the frustration? Because the man was deaf? No, God made him that way. Because it bothered Jesus that he was going to give him hearing? Maybe. Maybe Jesus sighed because nobody would receive the man as God received him—as God made him. Not the religious experts. Not society. Not even his friends who wanted him fixed. Jesus said to the deaf man, “Be opened,” but he may just as well have been talking to everybody. Besides, at the point Jesus said it, only those with ears to hear could have heard him say it. Mark writes that immediately afterwards the man could hear and speak, and immediately after that Jesus told him to keep his mouth shut (with everyone else). Curious isn’t it? I always wonder why instead of giving the one man his speech, Jesus didn’t just make everybody else mute. Why did Jesus want everyone to keep quiet? Most think it was because Jesus didn’t want to people to think he’d just come to fix people on earth. Jesus wasn’t running a body shop. Our bodies weren’t broken. It was our relationships that were broken――our relationships with God and each other.
Jesus did fix that. By the time we get to Paul, this former Pharisee is preaching how Jesus has done away with the law, by which he meant the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah with all of its added barriers and prejudices. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Now that faith has come [by which he meant faith in Jesus]…, you are all children of God. … There is no longer Jew and Gentile, there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female, [and I might add hearing and deaf, black and white, abled and disabled or whatever], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” May God give us ears to hear it.