Grown-ups have such interesting conversations, or so I thought when I was a child. They always seemd to be interesting conversations, especially when they were talking about an absent member of the family or the shenanigans of a neighbour. The trouble was, whenever I tried to join in the conversation or ask who it was they were talking about, invariably the reply I got was, “Children should be seen and not heard”. With this I was dismissed, this was adult talk and not intended for my hearing. Then why, I wanted to know, were they indulging in such conversations when I was in the same room? “Go upstairs and play with your train set”, was the answer I received for my audacity.
Another concept I became acquainted with in my childhood is the image of the three wise monkeys: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. This was the proverbial wisdom which I ought to infuse in order to grow up to be a ‘good’ person. If this were true, then why did I hear my parents, aunts and uncles, etc lapping up the juicy gossip about other family members, neighbours and work colleagues? What a confusing world for a child. And now that I am a grown-up galloping towards my demise, did I absorb the wisdom handed down to me? No! For now I indulge in similar gossip about others, although I believe that my mouth has yet to utter to any child that critical phrase, “children should be seen and not heard.”
The episode in the gospels of the healing by Jesus of the man with a speech impediment (Mark 7:31-37) has been with many of us since the day of our baptism as infants because on that occasion the priest enacts exactly what Jesus did to the man. Touching the ears and mouth of the child, those who understand and speak little, the priest in today’s rite says, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” Thus, from the beginning of our lives, when it was yet impossible to understand words, we are nevertheless instructed that hearing the Word is our salvation.
A significant aspect of this healing is that it took place in the pagan region of Tyre (the Decapolis – literally a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria). Performing the miracle there meant opening up the Gospel beyond the borders of Israel, so that every man and woman, wherever and whenever they live and whatever the culture to which they belong, can be reached by the Word of God and be touched by God’s mercy and love.
It could be that this man’s speech impediment was in fact a severe stutter. In which case, the cure in fact consisted of him being able to speak clearly and correctly. Jesus took him aside, away from the crowd, as if to stress the importance of a one-on-one, direct, intimate encounter between him and the sick man. In this way, the miracle occurs in the realm of a deep friendship and of trust in God and, following ancient custom, Jesus puts his fingers into his ears, and then, with saliva touches his tongue. What follows is a sort of current of love bursting forth as Jesus sighs and, raising his eyes, as though presenting the man to his Father, he utters the word, “Ephphata!” that is, “Be opened!”
This miracle leads us to reflect on the connection between our words and the Word of God. We often do not pay enough attention to the weight our words have, to the value our own language has. And yet through it we express ourselves much more than we think. Often we waste our words or, worse, we misuse them. In the letter of James he reminds us, “Nobody can tame the tongue – it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison. We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse the people who are made in God’s image: the blessing and curse come out of the same mouth” (3:8-10).
The miracle proclaimed to us concerns not so much the restoration of speech as it does speaking correctly. We could say that we find ourselves before the miracle of speaking well, that is, the healing of speaking which is divisive and evil, which James condemns. Which one of us does not need to be freed from speech that is too improper, at times even violent or evil, deceitful and malicious? Often, too often, we forget the constructive and destructive power of our tongue. It is, thus, first of all, necessary that we hear the “Word” of God that it might purify and make fertile our “words”, our speech, our very way of expressing ourselves. It is the matter of gravest responsibility, because the only way we have of achieving the communication of the Gospel is through the vehicle of our “words”. They are poor, but can be incredibly efficacious; moving mountains if they reflect the “Word”. Jesus says, “For I tell you this, that for every unfounded word people utter they will answer on Judgement Day, since it is by your words you will be justified, and by your words condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Keep in mind the three wise monkeys.
Photo: Three Wise Monkies, photo by Julia S.Simon, flickr.com, licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 68 (Winter 2013-14)