In the past few months, we have been reminded of how the writer of John’s gospel can use one word or phrase to some theological heavy lifting in several dimensions at once. I am sure that the composer of Mark’s gospel is an artistic equal in that regard to the writer of John’s gospel. One of the great oversights of scholarship in the Christian scriptures has been the minimization of the Markan composer as a full-fledged theologian in their own right. Only in the last fifty years has that oversight been remedied to some extent.
In Mark 7:34, Jesus looks up to the heavens, heaves a deep sigh, and issues a command: “Be opened.” The verb Jesus uses is reported in Aramaic, his daily spoken language. The composer of Mark’s gospel translates the term for his Gentile audience. It is “dianoigo,” which means to open up completely or fully. The opening takes place by completing the process necessary for the opening to happen.
The Greek term is used in the Septuagint to translate the same Aramaic/Hebrew word Jesus uses. The Hebrew word means to open by dividing or drawing asunder. It points to opening thoroughly what had previously been closed. In both Aramaic and Hebrew, the verb can also mean to be “loosed” or “released.” What a perfect command for the healing of a man who needed his ears opened and his tongue released from captivity.
Lincicum wonders who (or what) Jesus is commanding to “be opened.” The most obvious point of reference is the ears of the deaf man that need to be “unstopped” as Isaiah 35 would have it. But that’s not the only option.
Lincicum argues that in grammatical terms the most obvious referent here is “heaven.” While the command is in the singular, the man has plural ears needing opening. He notes that this could be a mere matter of style (or, I would add, Mark’s characteristic looseness with Greek grammar). There is precedent for commands to plural organs being addressed to the singular possessor of those multiple organs. But the expression is, at best, “awkward,” according to Lincicum (page 650).
Jesus “sighs” as part of the process, an action often directed toward heaven and a deity. The desire for the heavens to be opened and for God to come down among us is expressed at Jesus’ baptism. The heavens are torn asunder, and the Spirit descends. “In Mark’s cosmology, heaven is porously open to earth in blessing,” Lincicum writes.
“Jesus is here ordering the heaven to open in blessing for this deaf-mute, imploring the divine power to be used to heal a difficult ailment,” he continues, “and the clear proof that heaven has replied is offered in the corresponding ‘opening’ of the man’s ears, with the concomitant ability to speak and to proclaim what Jesus has done” (page 652).
It could also be that the sighing shows that Jesus is experiencing the work it takes for the “opening” to happen, whether that is of the man’s ears or of the heavenly access. The composer of Mark uses a more intensive form of the work in Mark 8:12 as he describes Jesus’ frustration with the desire for a further “sign” to authenticate his mission. Why, perhaps Jesus asks, is this generation not opened to the truth of what they have already seen?
We could, Lincicum argues, have at least two referents for Jesus’ command. The opening of heaven in divine revelation creates the “apocalyptic trope” mentioned in his title. The opening of the man’s ears reveals the openness of heaven to Jesus, and through him to us. So far, so good.
It’s obvious, however, that the Markan composer intends for us to connect this healing to the open/closed theme that comes through earlier in the chapter. Perhaps Jesus is also praying that the ears, eyes, and heart of the disciples would “be opened” as well.
This becomes clearer in the repetition the composer includes in Mark 8:22-26. If the preacher focuses on the Ephphatha story, then a connection to this later story is important for interpretation. In verses 14-21, the disciples demonstrate that they don’t understand the import of the feeding miracles.
Jesus wonders if they have eyes to see, ears to hear, and memories to encompass what Jesus has done. It appears they do not. “The healing of the blind man at Bethsaida is thoroughly intertwined with the preceding material,” Joanne Dewey writes, “it would not strike the listener as a new beginning” (pages 71-72). In fact, she notes that this is the first of four healings that “ring the changes on restoring hearing, speech and sight.” These healings illustrate the struggles of the disciples to hear, speak, and see the Good News in their midst.
The second of these stories is the healing of the blind man from Bethsaida. It takes two stages and a bit of work, but Jesus restores the man’s sight. That’s a prelude for the brief flash of insight the disciples get in Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi. And it is an echo of the opening Jesus himself experiences in Gentile country. More eyes and ears need opening than those of the two men who are healed.
Be completely opened! Is this a prayer of reminder for Jesus himself? The Syro-Phoenician woman opens him to a much wider perspective on the potential and power of the Good News among the Gentiles. This was not an easy opening by any means. It cost the woman, and it cost Jesus. But the result was an openness to the world that had not been possible previously.
Be completely opened! And be set free from the previous constraints of the old ways of hearing, speaking, and seeing! Is this prayer really for the disciples? And for us? We have discussed this before, but it’s worth re-visiting here. Most congregations make the claim that “All are welcome.” The real work happens when that claim is converted into a question: “Are all welcome?”
The pragmatic answer in all congregations, in one way or another, is “no.” We generally are not open to persons from a range of socioeconomic situations. We generally are not open to persons from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We generally are not open to persons from a diversity of gender and sexual orientations. We generally are not open to persons with divergent political views.
Being thoroughly opened is hard work. No wonder Jesus sighed.
Our facilities, despite some excellent efforts, are often still not accessible to the abled and disabled alike. I find the fact that churches are to some extent exempt from ADA accessibility standards to be reprehensible. We should be the first to embrace and embody such standards rather than the last to adopt them.
I have rarely done a good job of finding ways to welcome and serve the members of the deaf community through worship and education. Resources are readily available, but it takes work and financial investment to do it well. I’m still not very open to that effort in pragmatic terms, no matter how important I “think” it is.
Congregations are, unfortunately, heading “back” into their pre-Covid media shells to some degree. It’s been an opportunity to be opened to a larger world of worshippers and participants. Some congregations have embraced the opportunity, but many only took it on grudgingly as a temporary expedient. Will we be opened to what was forced upon us by Covid and has come to be a real chance for new ministry? The jury is out on that one.
I find it ironic that a text which commands “Be opened!” functions to close off our communities to the chronically ill and disabled. As Dr. Rolf Jacobsen points in in a recent “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, the healing stories in the gospel accounts create major roadblocks for the chronically ill and disabled. Why doesn’t Jesus heal me?
Our able-ist assumption as we read and speak these stories is that “abled” is good and “dis-abled” is not. The disabled need “fixing” somehow in order to fit into our dominant paradigm. Between the theological conundrum and the able-ist paradigm, as Jacobsen notes, the chronically ill and disabled are among the least-church people groups on the planet.
Physical conditions are sheer facts. How we manage, respond to, and evaluate those conditions – those arrangements are constructions that we choose. The choices may be so deeply buried in our culture that we think this is just “the way things are.” But that’s not right. We can make choices about what to see, say, and hear. We can make choices about how to arrange our buildings, our technologies, our communities, and our lives.
Will we be completely opened or not?
It’s a tough row to hoe for disciples, that’s for sure. Next week we come to another fork in the road in the Markan account. Peter will get a glimmer of insight, but the price of that understanding is clearly too high.
Not opened yet.
References and Resources
James Baldwin quote: https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867153918/-to-be-in-a-rage-almost-all-the-time.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
King, David M. “The Problem of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: A Reader-Response Analysis of Mark 7:24-31.” Journal of Religion, Identity, and Politics (2014). Pages 1-21. https://www.academia.edu/1353308/The_Problem_of_Jesus_and_the_Syrophoenician_Woman_A_Reader_Response_Analysis_of_Mark_7_24_31.
Lincicum, David. “Ephphatha (Mark 7,34): An Apocalyptic Trope?” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 91/4 (2015) 649-653. doi: 10.2143/ETL.91.4.3129673.
Liu, Rebekah. “A Dog Under the Table at the Messianic Banquet: A Study of Mark 7:24-30.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2, 251-255. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3082&context=auss.
Ruffin, Amber; Lamar, Lacey. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Skinner, Matthew L., “”She Departed to Her House”: Another Aspect of the Syrophoenician Mother’s Faith in Mark 7:24-30″ (2006). Faculty Publications. 193. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/193.
Smith, Mitzi. “Race, Gender, and the Politics of ‘Sass’: Reading Mark 7:24-30 thrugh a Womanist Lens of Intersectionality and Inter(con)textuality).” https://www.google.com/books/edition/Womanist_Interpretations_of_the_Bible/J2esDQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=mark+7:24-30&pg=PA95&printsec=frontcover.
Sun, Poling. “Naming the Dog: Another Asian Reading of Mark 7:24-30.” Review and Expositor, 107, Summer 2010, pages 381-394. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/51627184/Naming_the_Dog.pdf?1486166793=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DTHE_GOSPEL_OF_MARK_Naming_the_Dog_Anothe.pdf&Expires=1629922639&Signature=fehZP7odtynKeFSy1fzAvFRtDVal6YS~V46kODdJJ02umisAs6dCxtI4~JSOJMfyk5qZZ2QufzBFgz8AJv2Xf88aUUSVI-9rHk2D144YJmmgp6tZgdGxYRQo06HC~8knVV6x-721~NKG9coCYxo4zVyk4Y5ostcsx4yFpZe7F8NpFOk8dxcbOPKuhncCX2MU8KY8EgjRJ9kzm3BwuDK~FZERu9k~ZhNvRff5K3jHSQ6-M78ndYjU9L3MzT7qoUMvZsoHQGnA2HNfeIR55mYi5zeCcQ4OD2bh15zlZBK3BjBR5VsN8PcFDGS9hN-Eh4~qOQg1CIz4~fmfS-sI4I1vaw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.