This Sunday brings us to reflect on the importance of listening. In which way is it fundamental in a relationship? And how can the quality of listening help us to improve our relationships both with our fellow humans and with God?
Bible readings Deuteronomy 6: 2–6 Psalm 18: 2–4, 47, 51 Hebrews 7: 23–28 Mark 12: 28–34
Too many laws
A quick skim through the Old Testament, especially the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is enough to leave you amazed not only at a big number of laws, rules, or prescriptions but also the details. You risk remaining with the impression that this people were liberated, quite all right, from slavery in Egypt only to find themselves into another form of slavery -the letter of the law. I confess, when I decided to read the books of the bible I skipped a good number of pages on prescriptions -I was thoroughly bored. But, can we reduce God’s relationship with his people to dos and don’ts?
Well, the readings of this Sunday bring us new light which enables us to appreciate the place of these laws in the relationship. There we discover that the basic law is simple and clear, it’s about listening. So, any observance of the law that misses out on it -doesn’t do much good. God wants a people with whom he can enter a relationship of communication. And it’s impossible to speak of communication if listening is absent.
But what’s listening?
It’s to give attention to someone, to give ear in order to understand. Not only the ears are involved but the whole person. When you are interested in hearing what the other is saying, you go close and incline towards that person. You are available to enter a relationship with someone. Naturally, then, refusing to listen, is refusing a relationship. L. J. Isham echoes the same view: “Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals.”
Listening goes beyond having healthy ears, the readiness to understand is more important. That’s why we differentiate hearing from listening, aware that there are persons with perfect hearing, physically, yet their level of listening may be zero. However, in some cases hearing and listening are used interchangeably. In such cases, hearing is clothed with the quality of good listening.
What about the one who doesn’t listen?
He is seen as someone who relies on his own counsel, not ready to receive from others. Such person will not incline towards others. Stubbornness and obstinacy are other terms used for those who welcome no guidance. Indeed, how many times has that been applied to Israel in her relationship with God!
Here are some examples: “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24). We find also some analogical speech: “However, they did not listen, but stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God” (2 Kg 17:24). The image of stiff-necked refers to a rebellious ox that won’t lower its head in order to walk uniformly with the other for smooth ploughing. It means the one who listens not, does not collaborate. That can be serious specially in an intimate relationship.
Place of listening in a relationship
Can you imagine the pain of a wife or a husband who says my partner doesn’t listen to me? When that happens, it’s like we have two persons who, under the cover of Mr and Mrs, share the same roof, yet, each is locked up in one’s world. There you have two “Big egos [who] have little ears” as Robert Schuller would say. The relationship becomes numb, drained of compassion. On the contrary, it’s edifying, and indeed heart-warming, when one feels listened to by the other partner. There we realise that listening is life line for a relationship.
Then, we can appreciate that listening is not just a pious act of faith, it’s fundamental to any relationship. No wonder Paul does not hesitate to affirm: “Faith comes by hearing” (Rm 10:17). And that’s why Shemar Israel is the commandment number one for Jews, as we see in the first reading: “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4). When Israel listens no longer to her God, or gives herself to listening to other voices, the relationship with her God suffers. She can only come to love God if she first trains herself to listen to his voice. It means, listening demands also, in a certain way, making a choice as: to what kind of talk do I want to incline my ear? What voice do I leave to mould my life? Then, I can evaluate my faith in God, that is, my relationship with him, in terms of the quality of listening I accord to him.
Betrayal of listening
While the first reading is an exultant call to listening to the voice of God, in the Gospel we find obstinacy. It opens in the following way: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well….” Disputing about what? Sadducees seem to have made up their minds, locking themselves up in their denial of the resurrection and they are just not ready to listen to anything different from what they hold as true. Evidently, when they pose a question, by means of the story of woman married to seven brothers, it’s not because they want to learn something new. Their intention, apparently, is only to ridicule what others believe. Is my attitude any different?
What’s the quality of my listening?
Well, the word of God this Sunday comes to challenge the quality of our interactions with others; it could be in a couple, family, among friends or workmates. The question I should ask myself is this: how ready am I to put my ideas on hold in order to incline my ear and listen to others with sincere attention and respect?
And when it comes to my relationship with God it’s helpful, perhaps, to look at the way I pray. How much listening is involved in my prayer? It may not be exaggerating to say that what consists my prayer is a series of discourses and petitions that I present to God, and once that is done, I’m satisfied to have prayed. But what kind of relationship is that where your friend is never given a chance to say a word? Our love of God may be measured by the quality of our listening to him (cf. Paul Tillich). Take some time to make a mental review of your moments of prayer; you may be surprised by how absent your listening is.
That’s why only one thing I ask of the Lord
Speak Lord, your servant is listening! What a beautiful phrase, often repeated piously by many good Christians. But how much do they actually practise the listening? That’s why this week only one thing I want to ask of the Lord: an ear of a disciple (cf. Isaiah 50:4-10), that is, someone who’s ready to listen.
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