I AM sure you are familiar with the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everybody was silent when the pretentious king came out and paraded himself in public, believing that he was really dressed in the finest clothes made of the finest fabrics that were so fine they could not be seen by people without culture. He did not know that he had been fooled by swindlers and was now making a fool of himself. But the people were too afraid of commenting or saying anything about the ridiculous truth that they were seeing. They all meekly bowed their heads to reverence the king—all, except a child who spontaneously broke the silence and cried out, BUT THE KING IS NAKED!
Today’s Gospel is about the healing of a man who had lived in silence for a long time. How the Lord touched the man’s ears and his tongue and ordered them to be opened again.
One of the most common reasons why people withdraw into silence when they should be speaking is FEAR OF REPRISAL. It is the kind of silence that makes the tyrants of this world thrive. The bullies usually do everything they can to make sure that their victims keep quiet about what their experience of abuse. They’d say things like, “If you know what’s good for you, you better not say this to anybody, not even to your own parents. Remember, what I can do to you I can do to them too.”
This is the kind of thing that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel did during their time to make sure that nobody would oppose their authority. They murdered all the prophets of Israel precisely to silence their prophetic voices, until no one was left except the prophet Elijah. And he too, at some point became so depressed he wanted to withdraw into silence and just end his life. But the Lord sent an angel to keep waking him up and feeding him until he reached Mount Horeb, where he received a new fire in his belly that enabled him to speak again.
The prophet Jeremiah had gone through the same crisis. When he got into trouble for doing his job, he lamented to God and resolved to just keep quiet. But then after a while he says to himself, how can I keep your word? “It is like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it back, I cannot endure it!” (Jer 20:9).
I wonder if Paul Simon did not have Elijah or Jeremiah in mind when he wrote his song, THE SOUND OF SILENCE. At some point, the singer becomes the prophet himself. He talks about seeing in the naked light
“ten thousand people, maybe more,
people talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening,
people writing songs that voices never share.”
And then he says,
“NO ONE DARED DISTURB THE SOUND OF SILENCE.”
No one but him, who dares to cry out in the town square:
“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
And the saddest part of the song is when he says,
“But my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence.”
In the final verse, he says,
“And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said,
‘The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls’
And whispered in the sounds of silence.”
What Jesus did to the deaf-mute in the Gospel today he did and continues to do to society and the rest of the world. He empowers people to speak out the truth, never to allow themselves to be cowed by fear and withdraw into negative silence. There is one scene at the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where the Pharisees rebuked Jesus and told him to order his disciples to keep quiet. In reply, Jesus says in Luke 19:40 “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones themselves will cry out!”
In the Gospel, Mark says when Jesus touched the deaf-mute’s ears and mouth, he looked up to heaven and GROANED. I find it very descriptive of what he was doing. He was literally drawing out the man’s voice from deep deep within. It is what needs to be done when people have become so used to abuse they no longer resist or run away; they just silently bear it. You find yourself groaning from deep deep within, as if to ask, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU?
People can shut up not just their mouths or ears but their minds and hearts as well. They can be so deluded or fearful, or so traumatized, they just wouldn’t listen to reason anymore. And so I understand that when Jesus said BE OPENED, he wasn’t just saying it like Ali Baba was saying it to the magic mountain, uttering some magic formula like OPEN SESAME. It is often more difficult than that.
Sometimes, we also have to do what Jesus did to unlock their psychological chains or prison cells. Mark says, Jesus “took him off by himself away from the crowd”. Sometimes, it is all that it takes. To give people the attention that they need if we want them to be healed. Some people have been silenced by rejection. Some have gotten used to being ignored, taken for granted, not being given any attention or importance, being treated like trash, like they did not matter at all, or as if they did not exist. It is the common experience of the poor.
I think of people like Zaccheus, or the blind beggar Bartimaeus, or the woman suffering from hemorrhage, and what a little attention from Jesus did to them, how it healed them, opened their eyes, restored their wholeness. Sometimes you have to enter into their world before you can get them out of their isolation and introduce them to your world. You have to understand them before you can get yourself understood by them.
Silence can mean many things to people. Even if Jesus himself went into silence very often and it meant something positive and empowering for him, he knew that for some other people silence can be a torture, an occasion that unleashes their inner monsters.
Before he said goodbye to his disciples, Jesus gave them this assurance. He said in Jn 8:31-32, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This text must have been the inspiration of Neil Diamond when he composed that song with the shortest title: BE. The song says, “Be as a page that aches for a word that speaks of a theme that is timeless.”
The prophet is empowered by God to empower his people to strike down lies and dare to give voice to the voiceless, to speak out the truth, not in whispers, but from the housetops. Like John the Baptist did, until he was beheaded. Like Jesus Christ did, until he was crucified. Here’s the good news. The voice of truth does not end with the silence of the tomb. It resurrects.
It resonates, it is amplified further by more voices. It echoes that creative voice that started with a command LET THERE BE LIGHT! and how it set creation on its course. What is uttered does not remain in the sound of silence. It comes about, it materializes into reality because it is God’s creative, empowering and liberating voice that can never be suppressed by evil.
(Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 5 Sept 2021, Mk 7:31-37)