I have deaf friends for whom the passage in Mark 7:31-37 is quite confusing.
The Bible seems clear enough. As Jesus was passing through an area, some locals asked Jesus to touch a deaf guy. Long story cut short, Jesus made the man hearing and gave him the ability to speak. Everyone was thrilled. Handshakes and backslaps were exchanged. Everyone went home. The end.
What’s so confusing?
“Why,” a deaf friend once said, “would Jesus do that? Why would He force this deaf guy to become hearing? He didn’t even ask to be ‘healed’! Being deaf isn’t a disease!”
Another pal chimed in. “The best thing to have done was to change the problematic attitudes within the hearing community so that the deaf man could have fit better. The community was the problem, not the deaf man.”
And one more…
“What do I tell my deaf non-Christian friends? They want nothing to do with a faith that views them as broken.”
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll need to admit here that I am deaf, or close to it (more on that later). My wife is deaf. Most of our friends are deaf. We attend a deaf church. Got it? Just getting my biases out in the open here.
What’s more, I will readily admit to a theologically true and yet personally uncomfortable reality: being deaf is a result of sin. Not my sins, of course, but the general state of sin. Something my deaf friends struggle to accept at times is that deafness is, in fact, a deviation from the divinely-designed biological norm. Of course, lots of things are deviations: high blood pressure, poor vision, hypoglycemia, the New York Yankees, MS, gout, coconut-based cuisine, and ingrown toenails, to name a few.
The difference is that for my deaf friends and me, we are proud of being deaf. We share a personal identity that is deeply rooted in deafness, in its community and language. Stacy and I have been to lots of places around the world and have become a part of deaf communities in other countries; there, too, the deaf are proud of who they are.
That sense of identity, of culture, and of language has led to a new way of referring to the community in the United States; we are not deaf, but instead are Deaf. A deaf person, in the United States, is someone whose hearing ability is lacking. Your grandma might be deaf due to age effects. Your uncle might be deaf because of an accident at work. A woman in your home town might be deaf as a result of neonatal illness.
However, someone with hearing loss who identities himself as being a part of a deaf community is Deaf. There are worldview issues, values, and the tendency to absolutely treasure sign language. Your grandma is deaf, but she’s not Deaf; same goes for your uncle. The deaf woman in your hometown might be Deaf, but only if that is a part of her self-claimed identity. This is difficult for many hearing people to understand, but I view myself as Deaf; physically speaking, most would refer to me as hard of hearing, or hearing impaired. I can hear stuff and I have hearing aids and all that. However, self-identity with the community is more important to me than how many auditory nerves cells I have left.
So where does this leave us in our understanding of Jesus’ actions regarding the deaf man? And what does this miracle imply about my own identity? As usual, we’ll need to look at context while making sure we don’t place our own assumptions on the people in the passage.
Most illnesses and trauma that cause deafness today would have been fatal in Jesus’ time. Therefore, the number of deaf adults would be fewer than you or I encounter; just as a reference point, in most industrial societies today .48% of the population is deaf. Add in a likely tendency to misclassify deaf children as being mentally deficient and the number of interacting deaf adults drops even further. Spread the deaf across predominantly small towns and villages and interaction drops to nearly nothing. Without a group of deaf adults interacting consistently over time and across generations, a language and sense of community would not likely develop.
Therefore, we likely see in this encounter a deaf man who is known in his community and yet likely does not use sign language. He has no deaf identity, but instead is someone who doesn’t know what is being said. He might attend the required feasts, if his family takes him to Jerusalem. He has never sat at the feet of a master and learned through debate. He’s never sat with older men in the temple, asking questions. The chants and psalms that were a part of temple life were closed to him, as were other rich oral traditions of the Jews. We can only guess whether he had taken a sacrifice to the priest himself. Judging from contemporary attitudes expressed about the blind man in John 9, local residents perhaps viewed the deaf man as a living symbol of divine punishment for sin. He was, in essence, in his community but not of it.
So what did Jesus accomplish through this act? For my part, I say the hearing and the speech were secondary; parents of deaf children would slap me for that one. The primary result was the man was given the chance to be a part of the community, to belong to something, to have a place in the temple.
So what do I tell my Deaf friends?
I tell them that Jesus did not have compassion on the man’s deafness, but on his isolation.
I tell them not to assume this likely isolated deaf man was as proud of his condition as we are of ours; identity is a personal decision.
I tell them that Jesus gave that man a place in the only community that existed: a hearing one.
I tell them God Himself claimed to have made the deaf, and as such we are a part of His plans; we are not broken.
I tell them that sin is the root of all deviations from divine designs, but even deviations are within the scope of His plans.
I tell them Jesus changed a single individual because that’s how He always does it.
This story of Jesus’ actions and compassion for this deaf man does not threaten me. It does not make me think that my identity is misplaced. I know that Jesus did something in a moment for that man that He has also done for the Deaf world over centuries: He gave membership in a community, a place to fit, and a way to know Him. Just as when He changed water to wine, Jesus performed a miracle that was basically just a short cut. He took a time-consuming process and made it the work of a moment.
That’s something the deaf man of first century Israel and the deaf of 21st century America can both understand; I suppose hearing people can understand it, too.