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The last time Jesus had been in the region of the Decapolis, on the East side of the Sea of Galilee, things had been much different. He had cast a legion of demons out of a man and allowed them to enter a herd of pigs. The pigs ran off a cliff and into the lake and drowned. When the people learned that their herd had been destroyed, they told Jesus to go away. They didn’t want him there. The man from whom Jesus had cast out the demons begged to go with Jesus, but Jesus instructed him to remain and proclaim what God had done for him to his family, friends and neighbors.
God must have used this man’s testimony to effectively reach the hearts of many because this time, when Jesus came to the Decapolis, they didn’t beg Jesus to leave. Instead, they brought many people to Jesus for healing. Mark tells us about one of those who was brought to Jesus to be healed, a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.
This man must have had a very difficult life. Think of the struggles his parents must have had when he was a toddler. You could shout “No” if he was toddling toward something hot or dangerous, but he couldn’t hear you. If he was crying and something was wrong, he couldn’t tell you what it was. As he grew older and tried to say things by copying the movement of people’s lips no one could understand what he was trying to say. When other children heard him try to speak, they likely made fun of him. He had probably learned some coping skills, some form of sign language of his own, pointing at things he wanted, shaking his head for yes or no, but I doubt there was a carefully developed sign language like we have today. Few outside of his own family would have the patience to help him and care for his needs. But someone cared.
We don’t know who the “They” were who brought this man to Jesus and pleaded with Jesus to place his hand on him and heal him. They remind us of those other unnamed men who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus, and when they couldn’t get into the house through the doors lowered him down on his stretcher through the roof. They remind us of Peter and John who took pity on the lame man begging at the gate of the temple. Who can forget what Peter said, silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I will give you, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!
A value that we want to have for ourselves and instill in our children is empathy, the ability to see someone with disabilities and try to put yourself in their shoes, to realize that anyone could be born with disabilities or become disabled. We want to overcome the temptation of our sinful nature to make fun of someone who is different, or who is unable to function like most others. We want to remember that a disability does not make someone less human. People with disabilities are just like us. They have feelings, needs, desires, and an immortal soul just as we do.
I am grateful that I was able to learn a lot of these things by experience. My father was disabled. He got Polio before I was a year old. I always knew him as disabled, in a wheelchair. I never saw him walk. I saw some people physically avoid him because he was disabled. I had people act as if he wasn’t there by asking me to answer questions for him when he was perfectly able to hear and respond for himself. I also learned that he often attracted some very strange people who would come over and talk to him I guess because he was a captive audience and couldn’t walk away from them like most people did. I learned about lifts and wheelchairs and physical therapy and how to find ramps or back ways into buildings that had less steps, and tables that were the right height or didn’t have legs in the way. I learned about providing almost 24/7 care and I learned patience. But most of all I learned not to see a wheelchair, or a disability, but a person, a fellow human with feelings and an eternal soul.
Whoever the people were who brought this man to Jesus and begged Jesus to heal him had learned to value the disabled as fellow humans just like them.
What about Jesus? What kind of care did he demonstrate toward this man?
Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd. Why did he do that? From his next actions it would seem that he did this for the sake of this man who was likely frightened and wondering what was going on and what Jesus was going to do?
Once they were away from the crowds Jesus demonstrates his patient loving care for this disabled man. He put his fingers into the man’s ears. A form of sign language that said, “I know that you are deaf, and I intend to do something about these ears that don’t work.”
Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Again, a form of sign language that said, “I know you have a speech impediment and I intend to do something about that as well.”
Then he looked up to heaven. “What’s about to happen to you is a gift given to you by the power of God himself.”
And he sighed. Many times, the gospels use a different word, a word that means that Jesus was deeply moved by all the things sin brought into the world. His heart goes out to all who are sick, disabled, suffering from disease, mourning the loss of a loved one, struggling against demons, because it’s not what he intended. When God created all that exists and put Adam and Eve in the garden he had made for them, everything was perfect. There was no sickness, disease, pain or death. There weren’t even any weeds! But look at what sin has done!
Jesus sighed. He may also have sighed as he, more than anyone, could put himself in this man’s shoes. He may have seen in an instant all the struggles, all the pain, all the mockery and abuse this man had experienced at the hands of others. His disability provided an opportunity for others to love their neighbor as themselves, but many had done the opposite, ignoring, or even making fun of him. Jesus sighed as he felt compassion and sympathy.
He sighed and said, “Ephphatha” which means “Be opened!” Immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was set free, and he began to speak plainly.
All it took to heal this man, to open his ears and unloose his tongue, was one word. Like every word of God, this word had the power to do what it said. Ephphatha, be opened! And his ears were opened. Ephphatha was the first word, the first sound this man had ever heard. Immediately, without any speech therapy, he was able to speak plainly, understandably. No one could tell that he ever had a speech impediment. What a wonderful gift Jesus gave this man!
Those who brought this man to Jesus, and then Jesus himself demonstrate us how to show loving care for those with disabilities. Did you know that the great majority of deaf people today are unchurched? They often feel isolated from and unwelcome in the hearing world. Unlike Jesus, we can’t put our fingers in their ears, look up to heaven and say Ephphatha and restore their hearing. But we can say something similar to what Peter said to the lame man. “I may not have a lot of money, and I don’t have the ability to heal you, but I want to learn to communicate with you so that I can tell you about Jesus. I want to let you know that I care for you as a person, a fellow human being who has an eternal soul. I want to let you know about the one who cares for you more than anyone else ever could. His name is Jesus. He lived and died for you so that you are healed from the disease of sin. He lived and died for you so that, in the resurrection on the last day you will be able to hear him with the perfectly restored hearing of your resurrected body, you will be able to hear him say to you, come blessed by my father inherit the kingdom prepared for you. Come and spend eternity with me. Come eat from the tree of life and drink from the water of life. Come and live with me in perfection forever.”
Almost all of us here today can hear, either naturally, or with the help of a hearing aid. But often we act as if we are deaf when it comes to the words of Jesus. Often, we are like the people who heard Jesus give them strict orders not to tell others about this healing, but the more he gave them these orders, the more they kept proclaiming it. Yes, they had seen something amazing. Yes, they were excited and when you are excited about something it’s hard not to tell someone. But by doing the opposite of what Jesus told them to do they were showing that they thought they knew better than Jesus. Instead of helping they were hindering his work.
Think about the times when you did something similar. Think about the times when you were silent when you know you could have, should have, said something and shared God’s word, but didn’t. Think about the times when you spoke, when you gave you own opinion about something, an opinion that hindered the work of Jesus because it was either not spoken in love, or because it contradicted something Jesus clearly says.
We have a lot to confess. We have often failed to care for those with disabilities. Maybe we have even ignored them or made fun of them. We have often done the opposite of what Jesus asks us to do, either being silent when we should share his word, or spouting our own opinion as if it were God’s word.
Thankfully Jesus cares for us in our disabilities, our sins, our lack of caring. He always cared perfectly for everyone he met. He truly did do everything well, perfectly. He still reaches out to us and puts his finger in our ears that have not listened to him or to others as we should. He still reaches out to us and touches our tongues that have mocked and made fun of others, or failed to speak to others about his love and grace. He still looks up to heaven and reminds us of what he did for us on the cross when he proclaimed in a loud voice It is Finished! And father into your hands I commit my spirit.
Remind yourself and your family every day about the care that Jesus showed for people with all kinds of disabilities. Remind yourself and your family every day that the best thing that Jesus did was not making the deaf hear and the mute speak, but providing forgiveness and eternal life for all by his life, death and resurrection. As you review for yourself and your family the words and works of Jesus, he will enlarge your heart and fill you with his love and compassion for all. He will enable you to value those with disabilities as people who have eternal souls who need you to care for not just their bodies, but their souls.