Jesus makes some funny hand motions.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 May

Mark 7.31-37 • Matthew 15.29-31.

After Jesus cured the Syrian Greek woman’s daughter, Matthew mentions he impressively cured a bunch of physical disabilities.

Matthew 15.29-31 KWL
29 Leaving there, Jesus went along the Galilean lake, went up a hill, and sat there.
30 A crowd of many came to Jesus, having among them
the maimed, the mute, the blind, the disabled, and many other unwell people.
They deposited them at Jesus’s feet, and he treated them—
31 so the crowd was amazed to see the mute speaking,
the maimed made whole, the disabled walking, the blind seeing.
They glorified Israel’s God.

Y’see, quacks and witch doctors tend to claim their expertise is in curing people of the things we can’t visibly see. If you have an illness, any type of cancer but skin cancer, stomach upset, pain, or anything where they could claim to cure you—and nobody can actually see they cured nothing—they’d claim this was their area of expertise, treat you, and charge you. But if you go to them with your hand mangled in a cart accident… well, they got nothing. They barely knew how to set broken bones.

Whereas Jesus can cure everything. And charges nothing.

So that’s Matthew. But Mark zooms in on one specific case of curing a deafmute, and here’s that story.

Mark 7.31-37 KWL
31 Jesus left the Tyrian border again, traveled through Sidon,
then to the Galilean lake on the Dekapolitan border.
32 The people brought Jesus a deafmute—well, with a speech impediment—
and asked him for help, so he might put his hand on him.
33 Taking him away from the crowd by himself, Jesus put his fingers in his own ears,
spat, touched his own tongue, 34 and groaned while looking into the heavens.
Jesus told him, “הפתח!” (happatákh, i.e. “Open up!”)
35 His hearing opened up, and the bond on his mouth quickly broke; he spoke clearly.
36 Jesus commanded him to tell no one—and many similar commands.
But he proclaimed Jesus all the more.
37 People were completely astounded, saying, “He does everything well!
He makes deafmutes hear, and the speechless speak!”

I’ll briefly mention the geography in verse 31: Sidon is north of Tyre, and the Dekapolis is south; Jesus wasn’t traveling in a straight line. It’s like saying he went from San Francisco to San Jose through Portland. He was traveling all over, preaching his gospel in gentile provinces.

He ended up in the Dekapolis, a province of 10 Syrian Greek communities in northern Israel, east of the lake. You remember he’d been there before: He took his students there for a break, and wound up throwing a legion of demons out of a guy. At the time, he freaked out the locals so bad they wanted him gone. Now they actively sought him out, ’cause word was out about what he could do.

Jazz hands!

Mickey Mouse demonstrates jazz hands.

Y’might notice my translation of Jesus’s behavior is a little different from popular interpretations. In them, Jesus is sticking his fingers in the deafmute’s ears and touching the deafmute’s tongue. He’s not touching his own face; he’s touching the other guy, and getting awfully handsy.

Thing is, Mark didn’t identify who was touching whom. He kept using pronouns. “He” and “his” could refer to either Jesus or the deafmute; Mark doesn’t say, so people have just assumed Jesus is manhandling the guy he’s about to cure—’cause why would he stick his fingers in his own ears?—and interpret it accordingly. You can see what they’re thinking in a translation which capitalizes all the pronouns they think belong to Jesus:

Mark 7.33-34 NKJV
33 And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

What we wind up with is Jesus doing some really weird things to this poor deafmute, and many a Christian has guessed—and guessed completely wrong—that Jesus was behaving ritually. That these are the movements you gotta make before you cure a deafmute. Or these are the movements Pharisee faith-healers might make; or even pagan witch doctors might make. (As if Jesus is gonna give any validation whatsoever to witch doctors!)

Yet what you see in too many biblical commentaries looks like Larry W. Hurtado’s notes in his commentary on Mark:

However, it is also possible to see these actions, against the context of the stories of Jewish and pagan healers and wonderworkers of ancient times, as similar to the magical techniques they are reported to have employed. It is not difficult to think that Jesus may have employed gestures in his healings and exorcisms that resembled the actions of others who attempted similar miracles, though there are important distinctions to be seen between Jesus’ ministry and the professional exorcists and magical practices of the ancient world. [At 7.31-37]

It’s pretty darned difficult for me to think Jesus was mimicking people who weren’t empowered by the Holy Spirit, who thought waving your hands like an enchanter actually did stuff. Jesus cured people by touching them, or with words. He could do it long distance. He didn’t need to put on a magic show; you realize he went away from the crowds because they wanted a magic show.

So what’s he doing? Duh; sign language.

  • Putting his fingers in his ears: “It’s about your ears.”
  • Spitting and touching his tongue: “It’s about your tongue.”
  • Groaning and looking to heaven: “I’m gonna pray.”

Then he cured the guy with a word.

הפתח/Happatákh isn’t any incantation. It’s Aramaic, the everyday language of both Jews and Syrian Greeks, for “Open up,” which Mark transliterates as ἐφφαθά/effathá. Jesus doesn’t bother with magic spells; he uses ordinary language, which is why Mark includes a direct quote. Pagans make all sorts of weird noises, or borrow ancient languages like Latin or Sanskrit—secret, mystic words with supposed healing power. For Jesus, ordinary words work just fine.

Just as Jesus doesn’t have to perform any ritual before curing anyone, Jesus likewise didn’t have to tell the deafmute what he was up to. He could’ve just walked right up to him, said hippatákh, and cured him. Why’d he try to talk to the man first? Simple: Jesus was being kind. Because he is kind.

And that should be our takeaway from this story: Jesus’s kindness. Certainly not the idea that if we wanna be faith healers, we need to grab people and rough ’em up a little, and spit on them, smear them with mud, touch bodyparts we have no business touching unless the Holy Spirit gives us specific orders. Usually he orders no such thing, and faith healers get physical simply because they feel like getting rough with the illness they’re trying to throw out: “Get out, you illness! Be gone, you demon! I rebuke you!” And we forget we’re ministering to a sick, hurting, or tormented human being. A person who needs our sympathy, not our foolish, selfish histrionics—which, by the way, are as much done for show as the weird pagan rituals.

Once again: Tell no one.

After Jesus cures someone, he regularly tells ’em to keep a lid on it. We assume it’s because, as happened with the first guy he did this to, it made him too famous too quickly, and he got swarmed by sick people when he was trying to rest.

I figure it’s a combination of that… and the fact there are certain people who make really bad evangelists for Jesus. Namely people who don’t obey him. ’Cause none of these people, whom Jesus told to keep quiet, obeyed him! And disobedient Christians are the reason so many pagans think we’re all a bunch of hypocrites: They don’t always know much about Jesus, but they know Jesus taught us better than this.

So this former deafmute put his Jesus-cured mouth to disobedient use, told everyone who cured him and how, and that’s kinda what leads us to scenarios… like the one at the beginning of this article, the Matthew passage, where Jesus shows up in a province and people bring him their sick. And he’s kind, so of course he cures them. But again: He might’ve been hanging out in gentile provinces because he wanted to take a vacation, and thanks to his fame, he just wasn’t gonna get one.

Christ Almighty!