Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Midweek Lenten Service + March 2, 2016
A reading from the Gospel According to Matthew:
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Matt. 13:10-17, NRSV)
When I was a senior in college, I got to work as a teaching assistant for our Introduction to the New Testament course. One of subjects the professor emphasized over and over was the biblical idea of the resurrection of the dead. She talked about how when modern Christians hear “the resurrection,” we tend to think of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter. But when the Bible says “the resurrection,” most of the time the writers are referring to Last Day when all people will be physically resurrected. This was an ancient Jewish belief that was important in the Jesus movement. In class we studied 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul emphasized this belief: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12).
In the intro class the resurrection of the dead was talked about multiple times; we used it as an example when we were teaching the students Bible study skills; it was on the study guide, and we held study sessions prior to exams. And, of course, there was a short essay question about it on the final. No student should have been able to leave that class without a pretty good understanding of what the biblical writers were talking about when they wrote about the resurrection of the dead.
The semester ended; winter break began. I was pulling into my parents’ driveway after the long drive home from college when my phone rang: it was the professor; she’d been grading the exams. “I don’t really know what to do,” she began. “Do you remember that question on the final about the resurrection?”
“They all got it wrong. Everyone wrote about Jesus’s resurrection. Not a single person wrote about the resurrection of the dead. Did I not cover that well enough in class? Should I just delete that question?”
“No, we covered that pretty well…” I responded. The students didn’t take in the information we’d shared – over and over – because they’d come into the class with their understanding already pretty well set.
One of the main things I learned as a TA that semester is that when people are sure they know something, it is very difficult to get them to actually hear you when you’re telling them something that doesn’t fit into their understanding. There were a number of times that I taught something in a lecture, then got back homework that said something totally opposite – and that was clearly a response they’d either learned in Sunday school or picked up from pop culture’s understanding of Christianity. And that opposite understanding wasn’t written like, “I disagree with you; I think this is what that Bible passage means.” It was written like “This is what I heard you say.” That’s when I started to understand something about what Jesus meant when he talked about “you who have ears to hear” – and you who don’t have ears to hear.
Now, of course, I have that experience all the time. I get into a debate with someone, and I find they aren’t responding to what I’m actually saying, but to what they’ve already decided someone with my viewpoint thinks. I’m sure you’ve all had that experience, too. And then there’s the even-more-common experience of arguing with someone close to you, then feeling like they’re not even trying to understand your opinion or feelings, but just jumping up to defend themselves or prove that they are right and you are wrong.
Since we’re in an election year, we are surrounded by even more examples of people arguing past each other, trying to outshout each other, and just generally not listening.
And, just to make an honest confession – it is Lent, after all – I’ve been the person with closed ears too many times to count.
Having closed ears might be part of being human. After all, self-defense is a natural animal extinct. And scientists talk about “confirmation bias” – the tendency for us to search out information that confirms what we already think; to interpret new information based on how we already understand things; to remember better information that confirms our opinions. Scientists have to work to counter this in their experiments; maybe we ought to work to counter this in our daily lives.
When it comes to listening to the Word of God for our time and place, I think our tendency towards confirmation bias gets even stronger. After all, the stakes are so high: we are trying to listen to what the Creator of the Universe wants for our world. We’re trying to listen for how to act, how to raise our families, how to lead our congregation, how to do our jobs, how to do everything according to God’s will. It seems like a good place to “play it safe” and stick with what we know.
But sometimes that leads to making our understanding, or our community’s understanding, or our culture’s understanding into an idol. We shy away from questioning. We close our ears to alternate understandings.
My fear is that when we do those things, we do not have ears to hear what God is saying to us.
A reading from Isaiah:
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards. (Isaiah 50:4-5, NRSV)
This passage from Isaiah is one of the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” There are four or five of these songs in the book of Isaiah. They tell of a servant chosen by God to bring salvation and justice, comfort and righteousness. The servant is righteous, yet he is scorned and he suffers, he bears afflictions for others. He is obedient, and he is humble.
He is, Christians say, astoundingly Christ-like.
In those few verses I just read the servant says that he listens “as those who are taught,” that God has opened his ear, and he is not rebellious.
Listening with open ears like a student willing to be taught is a humble action. It means putting ourselves in a state where we can admit that maybe this other person has something to offer me that maybe I do not yet have. It means being willing to let another viewpoint past our own. It means being willing to lay down our need to defend ourselves or come out as the top dog. It means putting ourselves at risk of being changed. It is a vulnerable thing to do.
Listening with open ears is also an opportunity to hear from God.
How does God open our ears to hear God’s word in our time and place, and for our time and place?
I believe that one way God opens our ears is through others. When we read scripture with others, we may be opened to new ways of understanding. When we talk about faith with others, we may be given new insights. When we listen to another person’s life experiences, we may be given a new vision of the world and a new sense of mission for our world. Being in community with others is so important. And it is best, our ears are opened most fully, when our community is diverse: when we don’t all agree, when we don’t all come from the same background, when we don’t all live similar lives.
When we listen for God in the midst of diversity, we may just hear God say: “I am doing even more than you could have imagined.”