As people in general, and Americans in particular, we are inclined to measure the import of an event in terms of the scale of its effect. However in Mark 7 we see a small relatively insignificant miracle recorded in preference to the large scale healing that Matthew records about the same period. We will also see that the smaller scale, more personal approach can bring Christ into closer focus with the onlookers than the larger, less personal events typically manage.
Mark 7 details a phase in the Lord's ministry where he was moving rapidly from place to place attempting to avoid large gatherings and widespread recognition. At the start of this miracle we see the Lord arriving in Decapolis. Whether this was to avoid the ire of the Pharisees as Barnes suggests, to avoid Herod Antipas as Robertson suggests or simply because there was work to be done there as Matthew Henry suggests, is not clear.
What we do know is that the people of Decapolis had had a significant attitude change since they asked the Lord to leave their borders in Mk 5:17. In Matthew 15:29-31 we see that many of the sick were brought to the Lord whilst he was here. In fact v33 certainly states that there was a multitude which suggests a largish crowd. Although we are not specifically told what produced this change of heart I suspect it was actually the work of the healed demoniac who had been told to tell those '... great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.'.
If we blend the accounts in Matthew and Mark we see the Lord seated and operating what is almost a production line of people being healed. We are told he healed "those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others". Then they bring a deaf and dumb man to the Lord expecting a laying-on of hands, presumably as the Lord had been doing until now. But suddenly the process halts; the Lord rises, takes the man and leaves the multitude behind. We don't know why this case was special, we have no reason to believe the medical condition was any worse; all we know is that at that moment in time, for that person, the Lord needed to do something a little different from that which he did for everybody else.
When we then analyze what the Lord did it becomes even more baffling. The commentators diverge drastically. For example:
Adam Clarke is only able to satisfy his mind on this section by attributing the actions of the Lord to the deaf and dumb himself. Thus he touches his ears to show that he is deaf. He spits to ensure he has a clean mouth and then touches his tongue to show he has a speech impediment. He then looks up to ask for assistance and groans to show helplessness.
Abbe Giradeau spiritualizes the actions into a mini-gospel message. The taking aside shows separation of a sinner from old companions. The 'fingers in the ears' is to show that they should be stopped to outside influences. The spitting is to show that our tastes should be inverted so that we relish what would otherwise be gross. The looking to heaven shows our need to depend upon God and then the groan is to show the wretched state of man in his sins. The "be opened" is then the grace of God in Christ opening our ears to His message and readying our tongue to praise Him.
Matthew Henry attempts to derive a physical explanation for the proceedings. He considers that the fingers in the ears were a form of syringing and that the spitting and tongue touching were to moisten the mouth so that the tongue could move again.
Poole views the actions as a form of sign or ritual done purely because He chose to.
Dr Graves in the British Family Bible points out that spitting and anointing was used on two other occasions (Mr 8:23-26 & John 9:1-7) and believed that the Lord did it to show he was 'doing something' so that when the healing took place it should be clear that Christ had done it.
JFB believes the touching on the ears was the equivalent of asking if the man wished to be made whole. They then go with Henry in believing the spitting was to moisten the mouth.
The remaining commentators generally take some form of variation upon these themes most agreeing that the actions themselves were not efficacious but were symbolic or indicative of something else.
For me the explanation is much simpler and is tied to the commission given the ex-demoniac in Mark 5. He was to tell of the great things done but he was also to tell of the compassion Christ had upon him. The passage in Matthew 15 shows that the great things that the Lord could do were already being told forth with great clarity. Here was a huge crowd with a very efficient production line that was healing many sick people and the multitude was already giving glory to the God of Israel because of it.
But sometimes as individuals; weak, helpless, scared and lonely individuals we need something more than big events and big promises and impressive statistics. We need to feel the individual touch of God in our lives. We need to see, hear and even feel that the God who upholds all things with the word of his power has time for us too. I believe that we see exactly this happening in the miracle recorded in Mark. We see the compassion of Christ as distinct from simple raw power.
First he takes the man aside. Big noisy crowds can be terrifying and impersonal to those unable to adequately join in. The Lord showed he had time for the individual as well as the multitude. Then He touches the man's ears. Before any cure can be affected an adequate diagnosis has to be made of the problem. I believe Christ was showing that He knew what the problem was. However I also believe that JFB could be right and that Christ was requesting that the man should also understand and acknowledge the issue at hand.
The spitting is very interesting. With the apparent exception of the three healings the sign of spitting is almost always one of disgrace. In Le 15:8 it is seen to make you unclean. Num 12:14 & De 25:9 show that it can bring shame upon you. Job 30:10 and many references to the Lord's crucifixion show that it is a sign of contempt. Yet in three cases it is used in healing. I suggest that the spit might actually be a symbol of the shame or consequences of the illness. In the particular case of the deaf man it could be that his speech impediment was a simple consequence of deafness; yet most people view severe speech difficulties as an indicator of low mental intelligence. In fact the very word 'dumb' is used ambiguously in English to denote someone unable to speak or of low IQ.
If I am correct then the Lord was showing a willingness to associate with and fix not just the clean and pleasant problems but also the degrading and shameful ones. The looking to heaven and groaning is surely an indication of empathy. We are specifically told that Christ is touched with the feeling of our infirmities and here we see it both happen (the groan) and produce the correct result (looking heavenwards).
Finally we see the Lord's command. This is the piece that makes the compassion of Christ so valuable. On Earth we may have been granted good friends, who will stick by us, sympathize and empathize with our problems, but ultimately there is little or nothing they can do about it.
Christ however can heal us fully. He IS the one prophesied of in Is 35. It IS true that the Christ who told Moses in Ex 4 that He had made mans' hearing and speech was the same one in Mark 7 that could heal it. I'm sure the standard answer to "what is the significance of Christ being able to heal the deaf and dumb" is supposed to be "it shows He is God". And that is true, Christ is God. However, for me, the significance of Christ healing that man, at that time, in that manner is that Christ is the God who cared and ultimately a Christ that cares for me too!
Finally, I think the subtle distinction between the healing of the many in Matthew 15 and the healing of the individual in Mark 7 is shown also in the response of the crowd. In Matthew we find the God of Israel gets glory. Of course there is only one God yet the names given Him reflect the character trait He is exhibiting in that situation. The God of Israel suggests a distant God whose dealings are with an entire nation; a benevolent foreign power sending aid, if you will. In Mark the crowd focuses in directly on the Christ in their midst and states that He has done all things well. So we see the individual actions of Christ persuades men to evaluate Him individually themselves.
Of course as individuals we don't have the power of God to alter the course of planets or even, usually, to affect miraculous healings. Thus the standard interpretation of this passage gives us nothing to do but stand back in awe and wonder. However, if my interpretation is correct, and Mark is showing us the compassion of Christ here, then we have a challenge.
How many of the people we see in the crowd are really coping in it? How many people we know really need individual time, empathy and acceptance by us? Whilst we cannot ultimately issue the divine decree 'be opened' we can lift our eyes to heaven with them and groan. We usually avoid doing this on the basis that we are too busy. Yet here is the Lord pursued by the multitudes with a great long line of people queuing to be healed.
He found the time, maybe we should too.