I have to admit that I’ve always been a little perplexed by the frequent appearance in the Gospels that we hear in today’s selection from Mark (Mark 7:31-37). In one form or another, we are often told that Jesus tells those he’s healed and bystanders not to relay what has happened, and inevitably the word spreads like wildfire: “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.”
There is a cynical part of me that has always gravitated toward reading this as some sort of divine “reverse psychology.” In a way, we might imagine an ironical Jesus going about the countryside telling people not to say anything about how they were suddenly healed or made whole with the intention of doing precisely that.
Yet, there is something unsettling about that way of interpreting the Gospel. Another way that I’ve often interpreted these sayings of Jesus and actions of the crowd is according to the simple conclusion that most people have no discipline and just outrightly ignore Jesus’s command. They do what they please. Period.
Though, these days I’m less inclined to simply blame the healed and the onlookers any more than I am willing to claim Jesus was manipulating people with reverse psychology. Instead, it seems that there may be something else going on; something subtler, something easily overlooked.
If we consider the pattern of the healing accounts that end with Jesus’s admonition not to tell anyone about what happened, we begin to see a behavior that is modeled for our sake and an instruction for those disciples who would come after Jesus.
Rather than performing acts in order to be lauded or doing something for attention, Jesus’s exceptional ministry of healing and teaching is presented to us in as simple a way as we could imagine. The healing of the man in today’s Gospel is done away from the crowds, it includes a one-on-one experience of encounter.
And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.
One of our clues is found in that verse 33 where Jesus takes the man “off by himself away from the crowd.” If Jesus had performed this impressive act of healing in a crowd, it would have certainly garnered attention. But how does this happen that the new of Jesus spreads from such isolated and individual encounters?
I think this is the real focal point of the story. Like a magic show, we are often dazzled and distracted by the showiness of the healing as such, but we miss the model Jesus presents that occasions the healing.
It is really, to quote the lyrics of the band Blink 182, “all the small things” that matter. What draws the attention of the crowds are the little things like personal encounters. How Jesus treats a Samaritan woman, for example. Or how Jesus forgives his persecutors. Or how Jesus dines not with the wealthy and powerful, but the tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus’s encounter with this deaf man, someone already on the outside of society, this is what draws the attention of the crowds and elicits the ire of the powerful religious leaders.
Similarly, this is what helps me to understand a more-modern version of the same sort of thing: the fascination the world has with Pope Francis’s ordinary, daily actions.
Perhaps the most perplexing for me was the front-page photos of Pope Francis having lunch in the Vatican cafeteria with ordinary employees. These images were, for a time, everywhere. There was no big declaration, there were no treaties signed, there was nothing ostensibly newsworthy about the image. And yet, the small things capture the attention of the world and send a clear message of Christian authenticity and real discipleship. Many people looked at these photographs and thought to themselves, “Wow, look at that. This guy really gets it — he kind of reminds me of Jesus.”
Which is exactly James’s point for us in the Second Reading today (James 2:1-5).
My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?
Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ is really all about the small things related to how we treat people. Do we show partiality? Do we favor the wealthy and powerful over the poor or socially unimportant? Or do we take the deaf man aside, away from the crowds, and simply relate to him in the must human way possible? Do we grab our lunch tray like everybody else and sit down with the ordinary stranger in our midst expecting nothing but an encounter with another in return?
Today’s readings challenge us not to perform big, impressive miracles. Instead, they call us to consider “all the small things.” Today’s readings can be summarized in an expression often attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Whether she said that or not is unimportant. The sentiment is precisely the same as treating the poor as you would a wealthy person, a deaf man as you would a hearing one, grounds keepers in a cafeteria as you would a diplomat or head of state.
Pope Francis has interpreted these readings in exactly this way today, as he announced to the world that, “with the nearing of the Jubilee of Mercy, I address an appeal to the parishes, to the religious communities, to the monasteries and sanctuaries of all of Europe to express the concreteness of the Gospel and welcome a family of refugees.”
He has called on all parishes and religious communities of Europe to host at least one of the refugee families fleeing the violence of Syria and neighboring countries. A community caring for one family is, like healing a deaf man in private, not that big of a deal, but it is a tremendously powerful “small thing” that can make the biggest difference in our world.