Today’s reading is Mark 7:31-37:
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
I read and listen to a lot of poems. The most powerful ones seem to take possession over the language they use, latching on to this word or that image, so that for a long time, when I encounter the word or image in another context, it springs the whole poem on me again.
Mark 7:31-37 sprang a poem on me. The trigger was the imperative Jesus uses in his healing of the deaf and speech-impaired man: “‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’)” (7:34). When I read that command, I heard Ocean Vuong reciting his poem “Aubade with Burning City.”
In the poem, which Vuong recorded for Poetry Magazine last year, two Vietnamese lovers are in a hotel room in Saigon, trying to wait out the fall of the city at the end of the Vietnam War. In the first few lines, as the Armed Forces Radio plays Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—the code for US troops to begin evacuating American civilians and Vietnamese refugees—the man raises a cup of champagne to his lover’s lips and tells her to drink: “Open, he says. / She opens.” Those same words close the poem: outside the lovers’ window, after a bomb explodes nearby, a nun burning to death “runs silently toward her god— / Open, he says. / She opens.”
Vuong’s deployment of that imperative is lyrical and haunting. And it has nothing to do with the New Testament scene detailed in today’s reading, so initially I was annoyed by its intrusion. As Vuong’s “open” kept repeating itself in my head, though, I realized it was highlighting something about Jesus’ speech I’d never really noticed before: his use of the passive voice.
Mark writes that Jesus is traveling through the Decapolis region when some people bring him a man who can’t hear and can barely talk; they ask him to heal the man by touching him (7:32). Jesus does, tenderly and mysteriously: he takes the man aside from the crowd and puts his fingers in the man’s ears, then on his tongue. But he completes the healing with a command—not to open, but to “be opened.”
Jesus is using a construction known as the divine passive. As John Pilch explains in The Cultural World of Jesus, it’s a use of the passive voice that “acknowledges God as the one who performs the action without having to use God’s name.” It’s everywhere in Jesus’ teachings: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matt. 5:7). Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done… (Matt. 6:9-10). In avoiding a direct expression of God’s agency, the language itself seems to bow down and admit its inability to convey just how powerful he is.
And when Jesus uses the divine passive to heal, its structure emphasizes God as the source of his own power. Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven (Matt. 9:2). Woman, you are set free from your infirmity (Luke 13:12). Jesus, uttering these statements in the dusty streets where he stands face to face with broken human beings, wills the healing of their bodies and souls; God heals them. It’s a beautiful reminder of the intimate connection between Father and Son.
Most of the definitions I could find for the divine passive focus on how its structure communicates God’s incredible power. What seems equally beautiful about it in these stories of healing, however, is the way its structure creates room for the people on the receiving end of that power. Jesus addresses them directly, using his speech to involve them in the very act of healing they’re powerless to perform themselves.
In this particular story, his address to the disabled man takes the passive imperative form: “Be opened!” (Mark 7:34). Linguistically speaking, the command seems like a dizzying contradiction. He’s ordering the man to be the recipient of an action whose power—God’s—would be impossible to resist.
But the more I think about it, the more I hear two spiritual truths inside that contradiction: We can’t restore our own hearing or straighten our own crooked souls or generally transform ourselves into the people God designed us to become; we can only be transformed by God himself. At the same time, we still have a fundamental role to play in our transformation, in that Jesus tells us to bring him our full attention—hearts that are ready and eager to surrender to His love. The passive voice communicates our helplessness. The direct address summons our hearts.
Maybe these thoughts are placing too much weight on the language. But I needed a reminder this week of what it means to receive the gift of Jesus’ salvation, and I was given it (get it?) in the form of the divine passive. When we come to him—or when we’re brought to him—aware of our lack of power and ready with our full attention, he embraces us. “Be opened,” he says. And we’re opened.
Sarah Wade is a writer and editor in DC. She lives with Ruirui Kuang ’12 and Rachel Jiang ’13 in a Christian intentional community.