Long ago, in those fabled years before the pandemic, I embarked on an arduous quest to learn to make Cuban bread at home. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cuban bread, it is the holy grail of baked goods in Tampa. I have encountered many trials and setbacks on my quest. All my failed attempts taste good, but fall short of the light, tender interior surrounded by the flaky crust of good Cuban bread. In my Homeric wanderings, I came across a blogsite that claimed to hold secret knowledge that would lead me to the end of my quest.
The blog is written by a (professional?) baker who wants to share his experiences with the non-professional public. I assume that he knows what he’s writing about. I say, “I assume,” because it is impossible for the reader to know what he’s writing about. His compositional skills are so poor as to be laughable. Each blog post consists of about a thousand words, but no punctuation. Perhaps, he was never taught to avoid run-on sentences or, perhaps, the hosting company for his blog charges by the comma.
Mark’s Gospel says that the crowds brought to Jesus “a deaf man with a speech impediment.” (Mk. 7:32) The word translated into English as “speech impediment” means literally, “with difficulty of speech.” I thought immediately of the blogging baker. He, too, is afflicted “with difficulty of speech”; he is nearly unintelligible.
Given the inclusive ideals of our society, we might ask whether it is necessary to be literate. Following the example of Yoda, other people to make an effort to understand what we say, shouldn’t we expect?
Personally, I’m more old-fashioned even than those who lived long, long ago in a place far, far away. Notably, my expectations of literacy are supported by the Gospel.
In the Gospels, the physical maladies afflicting the people brought to Jesus function as parables about spiritual weakness. Specifically, in today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, the man “with difficulty of speech” is a direct reference to the disciples’ weak faith. The disciples did not yet understand Jesus and the nature of his vocation from God. Consequently, they were unable to speak authoritatively about him; with regard to faith in Jesus, they were afflicted “with difficulty of speech.” Eventually, the deficiencies in the disciples’ faith were remedied, but only after a long period of instruction that concluded with their experience of Jesus’ resurrection.
Today, many of the baptized are afflicted “with difficulty of speech.” Catholics often struggle to explain their religion and beliefs to non-Catholics. The steady decline in Mass attendance indicates that the Church often struggles to explain itself to the baptized as well as non-believers. Today’s Gospel reading offers helpful instruction to those who struggle “with difficulty of speech” about faith.
In Jesus’ culture, physical maladies were social problems rather than medical problems. Deafness, or a speech impediment, separated one from normal interaction with society. Jesus’ healing miracles restored the afflicted to normal relationships with family and neighbors. The lesson taught by the miracles is about the value of normal relationships rather than about the value of the suspension of the physical laws of the universe. The lesson taught by the miracles intends to bring healing to those “with difficulty of speech” about explaining the value of religious faith to others.
Jesus’ teaching leads to salvation because it brings Divine healing to our relationships. As teaching, then, Jesus’ words must be learned, understood, and appropriated. Religious practice and beliefs serve as a school where one learns the teachings that lead to a life at peace with God and neighbor. The community of the Church is a microcosm of the world where we learn to apply Jesus’ teachings.
Those who have learned the lessons of faith taught by Jesus are able to verbalize both the content of those lessons and the purpose of those lessons. Those who have not learned those lessons adequately are able to talk about them only “with difficulty of speech.”
Each person’s life is an arduous quest to learn to be a decent human being. While every person has the capacity for good, not every person is able to fulfill that capacity. As with any other natural talent, the ability to be good must be informed by authoritative teaching and practiced until it becomes a habit. Church membership and religious practice provide the instruction necessary to prevent us from struggling “with difficulty of speech” about the goodness of human life and the goodness of God.
The goal of the quest of Jesus’ disciples is to learn to speak plainly about the hope of salvation and to teach others to do the same. School is in session every time we gather to pray together as a congregation. Let’s not waste a moment of this rare opportunity.