Sunday Scriptures

A World of the Deaf and Mute

by Father Thomas Catania

Hearing aids, however necessary and however much they have become all but imperceptible, have not, unlike eyewear, become fashion statements. It is a long while since those “ear trumpets” represented in 18th-century paintings have formed part of our apparatus, but even the little buds that, in teenagers, betoken “I’m tuned into somebody else,” in older persons appear to signify, “I’m out of contact.”

This is not to invite shame on those whose hearing is fading; it is to note that not one of us likes to admit that any of our senses are failing; if we’re not “in contact” with the world around us, we’re distressed because we sense ourselves as, almost by definition, beings who connect, who reach out and grasp what is outside ourselves. We hear, and then we speak; we absorb words, and we make them. God did as much when, if we follow the logic of John’s famous first lines, we contemplate God “making Word-contact” with humankind, with Israel and finally, in the enfleshed Word, with the rest of us — at least those who could hear that Word and speak an “Amen.”

I bring this up because today’s central figure is a deaf-mute, and his story follows hard upon last week’s story about the apparently intransigent Pharisees who’d lost “contact” with the voice of the spirit housed in their religious practices. If I was justified in suggesting that within every cup and jug and kettle to be washed there was a living spirit (of the covenant commitment) — whose origin was the creative breath of the God, who vivified His covenant people with His own life — then I think it fair to say that “what went wrong” in the situation Mark pictured last Sunday was that the people, to whom what James called there “the word spoken in truth…the word that has taken root in you with…power to save you” was addressed, grew deaf and could no longer hear that word for what it was. Deafened, they could not speak (or act, in Hebrew the two words can be the same). Hence, they went through the motions, without making any sense to themselves or others. And, probably Mark would add, they didn’t know how deaf they were and therefore how little effective their words/acts were.

Jesus comes, and the deaf-mute regains his hearing and voice. Keep the story far enough at a distance, and it’s a nice tale about a wonder-worker doing good for a poor fellow. Let it be Gospel, and it becomes a challenge, the meaning of which is made clearer by the “deaf-muteness” of the Pharisees castigated in last week’s story. Examined closely, it says something about the forces at work in “deafening” and making “mute” the people God would have for His own.

The healing is the precondition for the renewal/revival of the people among whom Jesus historically came. And it is the figure for the renewal/revival of all of us who tend to grow deaf, and hence mute, in our response to the covenant call. But look at the response of Jesus to the man: He looks to “heaven” (God) and emits “a groan.”

Gospel “groans” are formidable: When the evangelists use the term, they regularly refer to an inner consciousness of Jesus that He is in the presence of the Evil One. Mark’s whole plot pits Jesus against Satan, a term Mark will use to identify the adversary against whom Jesus is pitted in the narrative. (Wait till next week for real excitement!)

The deaf-mute is not merely a poor fellow whose sorry condition Jesus desires to heal. He is evidence that all the deafness and muteness that have beleaguered Jesus — from the scorn heaped on Him by family and townsfolk, through the mockery of the Scribes and the incomprehension even of the disciples — are signs that Satan is assaulting the work of the Messiah until the hour of the great conflict, when, by His groans on the cross, Jesus will prove the ultimate victor. But the stakes are high, and Mark doesn’t want us to miss them: Jesus “groans” in the face of the deaf-mute because the poor fellow is evidence that evil has its grip on the human race and the kingdom cannot come until that grip is released.

Taken by itself, and even in conjunction with the joyful passage from Isaiah, Mark’s story serves as a powerful metaphor for the life of the Kingdom — when “with divine recompense” God “comes to save you” and there will be “rivers in the steppe” and, concomitantly, no more “rivers” streaming down the faces of neglected and broken human beings.

Yet the Gospel power of it cannot be left at the level of metaphor, as an image of what is promised, yet to be: It has to speak of what we are building now in figure of the kingdom to come. James comes to paint the matter in terms we can recognize as well as his people could have: Picture the assembly on a Sunday; picture the church building that is supposed, as the house of God’s people, the domus ecclesiae, to serve as a figure of the realm of God.

In the building, there are many folk, some better off than others, some the kind we like and some the kind we don’t like. Put that deaf-mute among the crowd, and tune your ear-buds to hear the squawking sounds he’s making; look a little closer at the not-so-dandy shirt he’s wearing. Take him out of the long ago, and he may just become an annoyance amid our respectable assembly. Not a fashion statement at all!

But, think again! He’s you, and he’s me, insofar as we are all “out of contact” and in need of healing. We are the ones James would welcome. We are the deaf-mutes Jesus needs to heal so that we may be covenanted in His kingdom, now in earnest and then in eternity.[hr]

Readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 35:4-7a

Psalm 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10

James 2:1-5

Mark 7:31-37[hr]

Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, L.I., and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.