Sermon: Proper 19 RCL B – “Ephphatha!”

The podcast is available here.


An elderly gentleman had serious hearing problems for a number of years. Finally, he relented, and went to see a hearing specialist.

After examining the old man, the doctor was able to have him fitted for a set of hearing aids. The tests showed that the hearing aids allowed the elderly man to hear perfectly. The doctor told the man to return in a month for a quick check up.

One month later, the elderly gentleman was back at the doctor’s office. The doctor said, “Your hearing is perfect! Your family must be really pleased you can hear so well.”

The old man replied, “Ha! I haven’t even told my family yet.”

The doctor was confused.

The old man continued. “I just sit and listen to their conversations. I’ve changed my will three times!”

Our Gospel reading begins with a clue for our understanding: “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.”  Jesus set out and went away into the region of the dogs… of the Gentiles.  This is a passage we’ve discussed before, so briefly: the relationship between Jews and Gentiles was horrible at best.  The Jews looked down upon the Gentiles and considered them unclean, so for the Syrophoenician woman to come and speak to Jesus, a Jew, was simply unheard of.  Jesus’ seeming referral to the woman as a dog is so far out of his nature, that we understand something else is taking place, and theologian N.T. Wright describes it as “banter.”  Jesus played the roll of a “clean” Jew who comes into contact with an “unclean” Gentile, but this does not stop him from responding to the woman’s needs by healing her daughter of the demon.

The later Church will use this event as an indicator of Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God to all.  As He said in the Great Commission, “go and make disciples of all nations.”  Even so, this event reminds us of the primacy of the Jews at that time, for it is from them and the Covenant that God made with them, that the Messiah would come.  Perhaps the greatest point we can gain from this event is that it is not the outward appearance of the person—“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)—but the willingness to accept Jesus as the Son of God, so that he may then enter into our lives and bring healing.

From Tyre, Jesus then goes to Sidon, “in the region of the Decapolis,” also a Gentile area.  While there, like in Tyre, he is trying to lay low and not draw too much attention to himself, but he is known and the people soon begin coming to him for healing.

A group brings a man who is a deaf mute and ask Jesus to heal him.  He takes the man away from the crowd and does what they ask.  “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  Not only is the man able to hear, but he is also able to speak clearly.

I read an article written by a young woman, Cristina, who was born deaf and who was six years old when she received a cochlear implant.  After a month, she was able to turn them on for the first time.  She says, “I ran down the hall, screaming. I expected that I would be able to hear instantaneously. That proved not to be the case.  You see, if you never heard before, any unfamiliar sensation feels like pain. I stood at the end of the hallway, half-aghast, half-sobbing since all I felt was pain, and I didn’t hear anything.”  Later that day she heard her first sound, she thought it was a motorcycle revving.  

It took her two years of daily speech therapy to be able to hear and understand a full sentence.  It took another few years before she was confident enough to speak in public.  She said that the first thing she was able to order at a restaurant with her voice alone was a soft-serve ice-cream from Wendy’s.  She says, “I was around 9 and that, to this day, was the best ice cream cone that I’ve ever had.”  In the end, it took ten years of speech therapy for her to be able to hear and speak as you and I would understand it. (Source)

That is the technological way that we say, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  What Jesus accomplished in an instant, in Cristina’s case, took ten years.  Both miracles: a miracle of faith and a miracle of science.  Yet, the event in Sidon is not only about a miracle of hearing and speaking.

Just a short time prior to the events in our Gospel, Jesus had told a parable while still among the Jews.  It was the parable of the farmer who goes out and scatters seed, some falling on the path, other in rocky places, still other among the thorns, and lastly, some on good soil.  Later, he explains the parable to his disciples: “Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.  Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.  Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.  Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Soon after saying this, Jesus had a confrontation with the religious leaders, turning to the people he said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand!”  And when the disciples failed to comprehend, he asked them, “Then do you also fail to understand?”  Do you also fail to hear me?

Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God.  He tells them what it is like and how they may enter.  He performs miracles, not just for the miracles sake, but so that when they hear his words they will know and believe that he is speaking the truth to them, and how do they respond?  “Huh?”  “This guy is crazy!”  “What’s he talking about?”  I’m surprised he didn’t shake them so hard that they chipped a tooth, but because he is Jesus and not me, he performed a miracle instead: “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  Jesus opened the ears and loosed the tongue of the deaf mute.  In the same way, he seeks to open the ears of our hearts, which is a miracle that not even a cochlear implant can accomplish.   The ears of our hearts must be opened so that when he speaks, we might hear him clearly and understand what he is saying, and that we might be able to speak clearly and give him praise, recognizing him as the Son of God, so that we might sing with the Psalmist those words we read this morning:

Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

But it doesn’t end there, because what flows from the opening of the ears of our hearts to God, is the opening of the ears of our hearts to one another. 

Most have fallen in love at least once.  Do you remember it?  That person who you could stay up all night talking with and how you hated to be separated from them for even a minute?  But then, if you remained with them for a period of time that sort of wore away, and if it was a relationship that led to marriage, you may just find yourself sort of grunting at each other instead of actually speaking.  Or what about a relationship with a friend or someone else that had been strong for many years, but soured due to various hurts, disappointments, bitterness, or miscommunications?  In these circumstances, we can become deaf mutes in our relationships.  We no longer hear one another, we no longer speak to one another.  In such situations, we need a miracle that is equal, if not greater, than the one that occurred with the deaf mute in Sidon.  We need Jesus to enter into our lives and speak those words, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened,” to our hearts that we might hear and speak clearly to one another again.  

Perhaps this story is really no different than the story of the Syrophoenician woman who accepted Jesus as the Son of God and allowed Him to enter in and bring healing.

“Ephphatha.”  Be opened to God.  Be opened to one another.  Allow the Lord to enter in and bring healing, not only to your lives, but to your soul and your relationships as well.

Let us pray: Lord, You invite all who are burdened to come to you. Allow Your healing Hand to heal us. Touch our souls with Your compassion for others; touch our hearts with Your courage and infinite Love for all; touch our minds with Your Wisdom, and may our mouths always proclaim Your praise. Teach us to reach out to You in all our needs, and help us to lead others to You by our example.  Most loving Heart of Jesus, touch gently our lives which you have created, now and forever.  Amen.

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