23rd Sunday of Year B (2018)
Forty Martyrs'; St Bede's
When I was a student in Rome a priest brought out on pilgrimage a little old lady called Maria. Maria was blind and deaf. She had been blind all her life and the deafness had befallen her when she was a little girl, though after she had learnt to talk. So remarkably while she lived in a dark and silent world she could speak, and she spoke clearly and readily. Communication with her was through sign language tapped on to her hand. And so the sites and sounds of Rome were described to her and she 'wow'ed and 'gosh'ed in astonishment, delighting in being in a place she would never see and never hear except in her imagination. But she was there, in Rome, and loved every moment of it.
The man in the Gospel story is deaf and has an impediment of his speech. It is a combination you would expect to find, even if the deafness had developed later in life, as Maria's had. Being unable to hear oneself must affect the way sounds come forth, even though we are all astonished to hear our own voices when recordings are played back to us. Do I really sound like that? Yes, I am afraid you do. Maria was astonishing in that she spoke so clearly from within her silent world.
The man's deafness and his in-articulation are his chief worries, but he will have had a great many more. There was no health care. Physicians were unskilled and expensive, remember the woman with the issue of blood who has spent all she had on doctors without being any better for it. In fact she was getting worse. That was the norm. There would have been wise women in each village who knew remedies handed down the generations, but, outside Egypt, that was as far as health care went. You caught a fever, you died.
Everyone will have had ticks and parasites and certainly lice as well. Stomach complaints and eye conditions. Think how many of us require spectacles. I have recently joined the ranks of those who require glasses for some reading, as you will have noticed, if you remembered to bring your glasses. Up to the modern age when the lenses have been discovered and polished and put to good effect on our noses, all of us who need spectacles will have been in part blind, viewing the world through a fuzzy, cloudy blur.
Talking of noses, the thing which would probably affect a time-traveller whose TARDIS landed in Palestine in the 1st century of this era, would have been the smells. There was no sewerage disposal, and while people might have gone out away from the city to pooh, a lot of excrement would have been around. Remember the animals were brought in to the house at night. This was a basic healing system in the chilly nights but an assault on the nose. Lack of hygiene would also affect the general health of everyone except the very rich. The Romans developed bath houses and were brilliant at water-delivery systems, but that was for the big cities, and the minority, not the ninety-five per cent who were in the rural areas.
Peasants and artisans would have one set of clothes. As we passed through the market in Nazareth on my recent trip, our guide identified the home-village of a trader from the style of the dress she was wearing. He explained, as she generously allowed us to photograph her, that she would possess two such dresses: One she wore for her wedding and that would be kept safely stored away to come out for her to wear after she had died. The other dress was for daily wear. Village life changes only very slowly. So Jesus and his companions would have owned one tunic and one cloak. And the cloak doubled as a blanket at night. If used to secure a loan Torah insisted it be returned before nightfall.
This necessary frugality in clothes was matched by frugality of diet. Meat was seldom eaten. Times of pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the offering of sacrifices might be the only time that you tasted meat. Fish was a delicacy, even close to the Sea of Galilee. Vegetables and grains were the staples. A banquet is an apt image for the Kingdom of God because food was scarce. Jesus constant table-fellowship was a sign of the coming of that Kingdom.
So our deaf man with unclear speech has many more troubles to deal with than these afflictions, serious as they are. Into this world, sharing those afflictions comes Jesus, to take on himself the consequences of our fallen world and promising transformation through the coming of the Kingdom.
For all our complaints about the National Health Service and its shortcomings, its lack of GP's and nurses, its funding crises, we are blessed in a way that no previous age has seen, and most countries rightly envy. South Africa has a wonderful health system with the finest hospitals and expertise available – to those who have insurance or wealth. Without these, as in Jesus' Palestine, people die. Like Maria we should 'wow' and 'gosh' and be very grateful that we are here.