Back in 1993 amid all the other culture wars that were igniting, a book was published that made a bit of a splash in religious circles, called The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say? A group of scholars, collectively known as The Jesus Seminar, had voted on each and every one of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, using the best resources they could, in order to express a consensus on the likelihood that the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, had actually uttered the words in question. They decided that “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.” (p.5). By their own accounting, in the Gospel of John they were “unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus” that was unique to that Gospel. (p.10) And they did allow that “the fact that some words attributed to Jesus were not likely spoken by him does not necessarily diminish their importance.” (p.33)
Back in my seminary days these bold statements seemed a lot more affronting to me than they do now, and it seemed like they must be something approaching heresy. But, to begin with, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are far from established truth. Plus, the older I get, the more I see that Jesus must always have been more than a historical figure, anyway, and that his words must always have been, and must always be, more than dialogue that may or may not have been recorded accurately. And the more I see that Jesus is still speaking to his church, even now - often through the pages of scripture. And it may well be that Jesus intends some words more for us than he did for the originally recorded hearer. So it’s not inconceivable to me that a historical rendering of his sayings seems out of whack. So be it, I say. Or, to put it another way, Amen.
The scholars who published The Five Gospels generally took the view, as most scholars do, that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic in his daily life, not Hebrew or Greek. Most scholars also agree that the New Testament was written in Greek. But the New Testament does include ten words or phrases that are preserved in their Aramaic forms. Among those words and phrases are some of Christ’s final words on the Cross, quoting Psalm 22, as well as the word he used to address God the Father: “Abba.”
Curiously, with the exception of one word in the line from the Psalm, only two of the Aramaic words are verbs. Both of those are found in Saint Mark’s Gospel, in somewhat close proximity to one another: the first in Chapter 5; the second in Chapter 7.
The first Aramaic verb Jesus uses is found in the account of the leader of the synagogue who comes to Jesus to ask him to save the man’s daughter, who is near death. Jesus goes to her, although the crowd around him laughs at him when he tells them that the child is not dead, only sleeping. Jesus takes the girl by the hand and says to her, in his own tongue, “Talitha cum,” which Saint Mark tells us means, “little girl, get up.”
The second and last instance of Jesus’ use of an Aramaic verb, we heard a few minutes ago in the account of Jesus and a deaf man. Now, I confess to you a certain struggle with my own language here. The heading in my study Bible says, just above these verses, “Jesus cures a deaf man.” But I am not so sure we should be comfortable with this language, even if it was once common. For it is more than a semantic question whether or not deafness is, without question, a condition in need of a cure.
Interestingly, the text itself makes no assertion that this action of Jesus’ is a “cure” or a “healing.” True, Saint Mark tells us that the man has an “impediment in his speech.” But otherwise the language is not clinical or judgmental, merely descriptive. The man’s friends don’t ask Jesus to heal him, rather, they “begged him to lay his hand on him.” This Jesus does with a certain panache, putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting and touching his tongue; and then... “looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him” in the only other use of a verb in Aramaic in the Gospels, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”
Now, Saint Mark is very clear that Jesus was not putting on a show. We are told that “he took [the man] aside in private, away from the crowd.” But if you ask me, Jesus is trying to get someone’s attention.
The scholars of The Jesus Seminar point out that this single Aramaic word is also the only word spoken by Jesus in this entire encounter, and they are not impressed. It gets the lowest possible ranking in their voting for whether or not Jesus actually said it. And their notes attribute the use of the word to “storyteller’s license,” and suggest that the “Aramaic makes it sound like a magical formula to the Greek-speaking ear.” (p. 71)
And all of this skeptical background could suggest that I have not found a great deal of good news in the Gospel reading this morning to share with you. But I hope you know me better than that by now.
I, myself, am inclined to believe that Jesus really did say this word, “Ephphatha,” Be opened. I am, admittedly, no scholar, but I am inclined to believe that Jesus really sighed. I’m not sure the saying or the sigh are made up at all. I think they could be for real.
What I’m wondering about is the deaf man. I think maybe he’s the made up part of the story. I think Saint Mark could well be preserving the memory of a prayer and a Spirit-filled sigh that came from Jesus’ mouth, but that no one quite understood what they meant, or who they were for, so they made up the person of the deaf man, since he would provide an explanation for this word on Jesus’ lips: Ephphatha.
I think it’s possible that people heard Jesus utter this word more than once, maybe often or always accompanied by a deep and telling sigh. Couldn’t this apparent command also amount to a prayer wherever Jesus encountered the kind of defensiveness that was resistant to his message? Couldn’t his sighs amount to an effort to gently introduce the possibility of the Spirit into the world around him - a breath that would be more fully realized in due course?
What if Jesus, in his many encounters with those who were offended by his generosity, rankled by his predilection for mercy, confused by his humility, incited by his tenderness, outraged by his forgiveness, piqued by his flouting of tradition, annoyed by his simplicity, irritated by his paradoxes, and frustrated by his singular commandment to love one another... what if in the face of all that is shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in in the lives of those he came to save… what if in the face of all this, Jesus was heard to sigh more than once, and to utter that commanding prayer, Ephphatha, Be opened?
And what if there never was a deaf man at all, who needed Jesus fingers in his ears, or his spit on his tongue? What if the deaf man is a straw man, imagined by those who couldn’t imagine this command was meant for them?
What if, actually, Jesus was praying for those who may not have had a thought that they stood in any need of prayer, for those who had no idea that they needed to be opened. Don’t we know people like that?
This is a trick question, of course. Since we are people like that - you and me. We need to be opened. But it does not often (maybe ever) occur to us to ask Jesus to pray for us, to lay his hands on us, to open us up to all that we have shut ourselves down to - beginning with his sighs, his Spirit.
After all, aren’t we sometimes offended by his generosity, rankled by his predilection for mercy, confused by his humility, incited by his tenderness, outraged by his forgiveness, piqued by his flouting of tradition, annoyed by his simplicity, irritated by his paradoxes, and frustrated by his singular commandment to love? Isn’t there much in us that is shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in in, when it comes to hearing Jesus, listening to Jesus, learning from Jesus, being opened by Jesus? And don’t we often come to Jesus (if we think of coming to church this way)… don’t we often come to Jesus without any consideration whatsoever that any of us might have a condition that’s in need of a cure? We don’t need to be healed. We don’t need to be cured. Our ears work just fine, thank you very much. Now, just tell me: what has Jesus done for me lately?!?
The longer I live on this earth, the less worried I find I am about what can or can’t be proved about what Jesus did or said, all those years ago. I am principally concerned, I find, with what Jesus is doing and saying to us now! And while I don’t want to seem callous about a deaf man, who had an impediment in his speech, who may or may not have existed, and who may or may not have had a conversation with Jesus a couple of thousand years ago, I admit that I am lot more concerned about you and about me.
Which means that I dearly hope that Jesus is sighing right now! I dearly hope that he will put his fingers in my ears and yours, and wiggle them around till it tickles, so we’ll know they are in there! I dearly hope that Jesus is about to lay his hands on you and on me, and on everything in our hearts and everything in this world that is shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in… and that needs to be opened! And I dearly hope that with his sighs, Jesus is sending us, with the breath of his Spirit, that same old prayer, that I am convinced comes from his blessed lips, since it was spoken in his own native tongue: Ephphatah! Be opened!
Give us ears to hear, Lord Christ! And when they are stopped up, and our hearts, our lives, our souls are shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in, then put your fingers in our ears, and spit on our tongues, lay your hands on us, and sigh… and speak your prayer, O Lord, Ephphatah, be opened! And open us to your grace, your mercy, your forgiveness, and your love. Open us, O Lord, and never let us shut you out again!
Ephphatah! Be opened! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
9 September 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia