He slipped His fingers in the man’s ears. Spitting, He touched the man’s tongue. Then He looked up to heaven and groaned.
“Ephphatha!” Jesus said.
So goes the account of the healing of the deaf man near the Sea of Galilee, as told in Mark.
The word is one of a handful of words in Aramaic—believed to be the vernacular language of Jesus—that survived into the Greek New Testament. We don’t have to find an Aramaic dictionary to discover the meaning of this word. Mark readily supplies a definition: Be opened! Immediately, then, we are told that the man’s ears were “opened” and that he was able to speak.
Why keep the Aramaic original, especially when the Greek equivalent is provided?
The actual words of Jesus bring readers deep into the story, as if we were right next to Him, hearing the very sounds uttered and not simply reading a report written many decades after the fact in a language other than the original spoken—albeit a completely trustworthy account based on eyewitness testimony and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, some of the most intimate moments of Jesus’ ministry are conveyed in the original Aramaic by Mark. Two instances occur in the Passion. Jesus addresses the Father using the Aramaic Abba during the agony in the garden and, hanging on the cross, His cry of abandonment is recorded in Aramaic by both Matthew and Mark: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?
A third instance involves the raising up of the dead girl, in which Jesus’ command to her to get up is recorded in the Aramaic, Talitha koum. In this, the ultimate act of healing, the circumstances are similar to the account of the deaf man. There, in Mark 7, Jesus takes the man away from the crowd. So also in the raising of the girl, Jesus dismisses any would-be onlookers, save the girl’s parents. In both instances, the use of the Aramaic reinforces Jesus’ personal connection with those healed, as one interpreter observes:
These events are private, and Jesus speaks privately in the common language of those he addresses. Mark’s purpose in thus recording the very words of Jesus is to emphasize Jesus’ identification with, his oneness with, those to whom he ministered, a point that could perhaps have been made in no other way, or at least not as economically as Mark has done it.
On a natural level, this makes sense if one pauses to reflect on it: healing is, after all, a very private act. But Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a 2012 Angelus address, believes that there is more to the story of the healing of the deaf man in Mark 7 than the mere desire for some privacy. In opening the man’s ears and mouth, Christ is foreshadowing His call for all mankind to hear the Word and respond in faith, according to Benedict.
A close reading of the text and meditation on the words confirms—opens up one might say—this deeper meaning of the story.
First, here is the key sentence from Mark 7:34, as recorded in the Revised Edition of the New American Bible: “Then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (that is, ‘Be opened!’).
This word order parallels the Greek, which is significant because the command Ephphatha! is most immediately addressed to the deaf man, as one interpreter points out. Although we learn soon in the next sentence that his ears have been opened, the word order gives the immediate impression that the man himself must in some sense be opened. This is how Benedicts reads it:
There is an inner closing, which covers the deepest core of the person, what the Bible calls the ‘heart.’ That is what Jesus came to ‘open,’ to liberate, to enable us to fully live our relationship with God and with others.
This conclusion is reinforced by one of the alternative meanings of the Greek word Mark uses to define ephphatha—dianoigō. Although the word has the generic meaning of to open, an additional meaning is to connect. (See this post here and this definition here.)
Yet another more specific meaning of that word tells us even more about what kind of opening Jesus asks of us. The word appears a total of eight times in the New Testament. The first and second instances are in the story of the blind man in Mark 7. Otherwise, with just one exception, the remaining uses of the word are all after the resurrection. In Luke 24 the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus are opened to Jesus. They also realize that He has opened the Scriptures to them. A few verses later Jesus opens the understanding of the disciples in Jerusalem to the Scriptures.
In Acts this particular verb appears two more times in this spiritual sense, in the context of Paul’s ministry. In Acts 16:14, the heart of a woman is opened by the Lord. In Acts 17:3 Paul is described, in Christ-like fashion as opening the Scriptures in his ministry.
But there is actually a twofold opening. If we read closely and contemplatively the story in Mark, the text suggests that it is not only the deaf man who is “opened up.” Here is the verse again: “Then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’
Note that, while the command is addressed most immediately to the deaf man, Jesus’ gaze in this scene is fixed not on the man he is healing but on heaven. Indeed, Jesus is not only opening up the man but He is petitioning the Father to open up the heavens. Here it is miraculous healing that is sought. But after the resurrection, very heaven itself has been opened up to us in quite a literal and profound way.
Perhaps now we can appreciate why Benedict considered this one obscure Aramaic word so important:
That is why I said that this little word, ‘Ephphatha—Be opened,’ sums up Christ’s entire mission. He became man so that man, made inwardly deaf and dumb by sin, would become able to hear the voice of God, the voice of love speaking to his heart, and learn to speak in the language of love, to communicate with God and with others.
Reflecting on this story today, we are compelled to ask ourselves, what is blocking our spiritual ears to hearing the word of God? What has stiffened our tongues so that we hesitate to respond fully in faith and love? Let us pray that Jesus opens our ears and mouths to the message of the gospel. Let us pray that Jesus opens heaven anew to us. Let us pray for all this knowing that Jesus has already opened up the heavens for us and even now is interceding for us in heaven.