“He even makes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently said that the best thing that had happened to him in his life was meeting Jesus. I am sure many, many others down the years and still today, would say the same, though I suspect that on St. Valentine’s Day this week the rhetoric might have been different. I am not sure exactly why the Archbishop said what he did, but for many of us meeting Jesus was a life changing experience. This was certainly true for the mute man we read about in the gospel today.
Meeting Jesus must surely have been the best thing that happened to him. It was the day he began to hear for the first time, and began to speak without the impediment with which he had been born. When Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue, so the story tells us, the man’s “eyes were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
Jesus was undoubtedly a healer who, time and again, brought physical healing to people. The gospel stories are full of such stories. But this story, like many others, can be understood in an allegorical as well as a literal way. In meeting Jesus many people who had normal hearing and speaking ability often began to hear in a new way and speak with a new voice, and to speak plainly. The physical healing, as it so often does, points us to a deeper meaning that is relevant for all of us, not just for those who are literally deaf and dumb. When we meet Jesus we begin to hear differently, and speak in a new way.
Tim Stones, one of my former students whom some of you may remember from a visit he made to Volmoed some years ago with his wife and children, works with the deaf and dumb in Worcester. He is exercising a great ministry there helping them excel at sport. I am sure Tim would tells us that those who are deaf or who have difficulty speaking are often people who listen at a deeper level than some of us who have no hearing disability, and they may also communicate with others at a deeper level than we often do. Because hearing is not just a matter of hearing, it is a matter of listening and discerning, of hearing more than the words that are spoken — reading body language, listening to the tone in which the words are expressed, listening intently rather than with half our attention. And speaking is not just about saying things, but communicating with people — speaking plainly, not speaking down to people, but speaking appropriately, finding the right words whether of challenge or comfort..
The Old Testament prophets kept on telling us the people of Israel that they “hear, hear” but buty do not grasp what is being said to them. Jesus said the same. In a story that soon follows the one we read about the healing of the mute man, the disciples misunderstand something he tells them. So Jesus says to them:
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? (Mark 817-18)
The disciples had already been journeying with Jesus for some time, they had often listened to his teaching and observed his actions. Yet they so often did not get the point of what he was saying and doing. It was as though they were hearing but not listening, something Isobel tells meI do far too often. But I suspect this is probably true for most of us. How often we don’t really hear, and too often we therefore fail to get what others are trying to tell us or misunderstand what they are saying! And then when we speak we actually pass on what we think we heared rather than what was actually spoken to us. It’s much like that game we used to play when, sitting in a circle, someone whispered something to the person next to her, and he in turn passed it on. And so the message went round the circle. But when the last person reported it, it was significantly different from what was originally said. Despite everyone having ears and the ability to hear, not everyone actually heard the message or communicated it accurately. This is how gossip turns into slander, and how truth becomes half-true and eventually turns into lies. And that in turn will affect attitudes and actions. Listening to debates in Parliament, and often in conferences of one kind or another, I am certain that many members or participants simply do not listen to others most of the time, and when they speak, they don’t always speak the truth about what they have heard. They might as well be deaf and dumb, except that I think the deaf and dumb people are much better than they are.
The fact is, hearing is about more than just hearing, it is about listening in order to understand what is being spoken, and speaking is about more than uttering words, it is communicating what has actually been said and speaking truthfully and honestly. Misunderstanding, whether wilful or not, not only distorts or subverts the truth, when passed on whether through education or gossip, whether through the media or in passing conversation, breaks down communication and reinforces the lie. That is why hearing rightly is so important, and therefore listening intently in order to hear rightly, is so important; and that is why communicating accurately and speaking the truth is so fundamental to human relations and well-being. There is far too much fake news circulating today, far too many lies being spread. But those of us who have met Jesus should know better. We should have ears that truly hear and lips that speak the truth.
The only way to truly hear what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel and through other people is to develop the habit of listening carefully. Let’s not assume that because we may have been a Christian for a long time, and journeyed with him as a disciple, we have actually understood what he has been trying to tell us. That is why ongoing meditation and reflection on the gospel is so important if we are going to truly follow Jesus. Our ears have to be opened through the practice of listening. That is why when we meet Jesus and begin to follow him he touches our ears and our lips so that we may truly listen and plainly speak.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 16 February 2017