They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ — Mark 7:32-37 (NRSV)
The reading is a natural one for the commemoration of two souls, Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle, who worked with, taught and ministered to the deaf and who, with others, began to make all of us aware that being deaf was not a stigma but a challenge.
To the people in Jesus’ day, anyone who had something “different” about them — deafness, lameness, paralysis, patches of differently-colored skin (vitiligo or leprosy, both were the same to them) — were believed to be punished by God for something, either their own sin or that of their parents. A difference was not normal; it marked the person and his family as somehow flawed, broken, incomplete.
Today we still look at people in wheelchairs, with extensive scarring, white canes, crutches or odd pigmentation as “different.” We even have names for them — disabled, handicapped, invalid — which seem to make them less “normal” and more abnormal, different, incapable of doing what normal people do, poor or weakened in condition, deficient in substance, somehow not as “valid” as the rest of us. Often we use the words without thinking of how our labeling can affect those we try to tag with such titles. Sometimes (usually?) we wish they could be cured of their affliction, made whole and productive. Jesus healed people like this, but as hard as we try, we can’t always do it either as well or at all.
Part of it is that Jesus healed, we cure. There’s a difference between the two, a very big difference. Curing means taking care of the illness, disease or disorder, restoring the person functionality and normalcy. The condition is partially or completely reversed and, barring some unforeseen difficulty, will not be returning to trouble the patient. Medicine and faith take the credit for the cure, but sometimes there is a ghost remaining inside the patient, the ghost of the illness, disease or disability that often remains when cure takes place.
Jesus healed — blind people, paralyzed people, lepers, women with bent backs or prolonged bleeding, even people who had died. He healed them, not just their bodies but their souls, their relationships, their very beings. The woman at the well didn’t need a cure, she needed to be healed of the mistakes she’d made, the way she lived, even how she appeared to her neighbors. The centurion was not even a Jew but had faith that Jesus could heal his servant, just by his word only, not even by touch or even being in the same house. The servant was healed, just as Jarius’ daughter was. They were cured of whatever caused their deaths but they were also healed, as were their families and households. With Jesus the process was a complete one, both healing and curing.
There is a caution, though. Many who might be thought by others to have disabilities or disorders don’t feel “broken” so they don’t need curing. They make the most of who they are, the abilities, talents and skills that they have, and they bless us with their insights. They teach us what it means to be whole even if something is missing or impaired. They give us the opportunity to practice grace, the grace of acceptance and admiration for their strengths, not pity for their weaknesses. We have learned much in the two thousand years since Jesus walked on earth. We have learned and yet we still remain blind and deaf, more blind and deaf than those who actually need to use white canes or cochlear implants or hearing aids. Perhaps we should ask Jesus to heal us of our disease of superiority and need to “fix” people and things that aren’t broken. And perhaps cure us of failure to see and hear what people like Gallaudet and Syle have to teach us.