Open hearts and minds

Pentecost 4 2011

Matthew 13:1-23

Marian Free

Loving God, open our eyes that we might see, our ears that we might hear and our hearts that we might love you. Amen.

I said: “Isn’t …….. it ……… a ……….. love-ly ……. day?”

I’m sure we’ve all seen it, even if we haven’t done it ourselves, the way in which someone slows down their speech and raises their voice when speaking to  a person who doesn’t understand English. Apparently slowing down and shouting makes English intelligible to the person whose first language is Swahili or Portuguese! A similar scenario is played out when one person tries to belittle another who just doesn’t understand. “I ….. told ….. you …… ADD ……. the ……. salt ……. and ……… THEN ……  add ……. the ……..flour.”  Again, there appears to be a belief that speaking slowly and loudly will help the stupid person to get it right.

We have lots of ways of trying to make sure that we are understood – many of them bad. One technique is simply to repeat ourselves word for word when someone hasn’t understood the first time. It never occurs to some people that the reason they are misunderstood is that they have expressed themselves badly, or that the person whom they are addressing might understand better if it is put another way.

All kinds of things get in the way of good communication – language, culture, age (especially in our facebook, mobile phone era), hardness of hearing, the level of interest on the part of the hearer and so on.

Today’s gospel reading includes an interruption that is about hearing but not really hearing. At first glance, it would appear that by speaking in parables Jesus is deliberately trying to obscure his message so that only a select few understand and come to faith.

One way to understand this break in Jesus’ teaching is to understand that it was added later. That is, that Jesus (who is in a boat addressing the crowds, doesn’t stop mid-story to talk to a few disciples) but addresses the disciples at a later time, or that the writer of the gospel added this reflection to explain the situation of a later time.  Whether the words are from Jesus or the evangelist, the question asked by the disciples addresses an important issue – why is it that some understand and believe and that others fail to understand not only what Jesus is saying, but who and what he is? In the context of the community for whom this gospel is written, the question might be: “why is it that the Jews, those to whom Jesus came, still steadfastly refuse to believe?” “Why don’t they understand?”

In order to find an answer to these questions, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. In response, Jesus uses a quote from Isaiah, in which Isaiah is instructed to tell the people:

‘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.’

In its original context this was intended as a sarcastic comment. God knew that no matter what Isaiah said, the people would not really pay attention or understand the gravity of their situation. If only they understood, they would turn to God and be healed and restored, but it will take more than Isaiah’s words to wake them from their complacency. The people were too caught up with their own concerns, too self-absorbed to hear what God was saying through the prophet. Isaiah might well have been speaking to the air – the people that he addressed would rather to continue going their own way than heed his warnings about the consequences of their behaviour.

The words of Isaiah describe a real situation. It is not that God closes the ears of the people, just that they will not listen. Their failure to see and hear relates to their own egocentricity rather than a deliberate attempt by God to blind or deafen them.

About seven centuries later Jesus experiences a similar response to his message. Among the Jews, especially among the leaders of the Jews there are many who are so complacent, so self-satisfied that they are certain that there is nothing new that this itinerant preacher has to offer them. Their eyes and ears are closed because they believe that they already know all that there is to know. Jesus could speak in parables or not speak in parables – either way they would fail to grasp what it is he is trying to say to them or its significance for their lives.

The parables are designed to awaken and surprise us, but they are not designed to confuse us or cloud our vision so that we do not see or hear Jesus.  Any failure to see or hear is caused by our own self-certainty and smugness or by a belief that there is nothing more that God can teach us. The difficulty is that if we are smug and self-satisfied we will be blind to the fact that we do not hear!

It is important then, to recognise our own human limitations, to accept that God is far beyond our human understanding, to measure our wisdom against the wisdom of God, to maintain an openness and expectancy to the Spirit and a to develop a willingness to have our assumptions challenged and our beliefs shaken. It is only by staying alert, by refusing to be complacent and accepting that we will never know all that there is to know that our hearts and minds will be free to hear what God is saying to us.

God might be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but our understanding of God should be constantly developing and growing and changing, so let us keep our eyes open, our ears alert and our minds free from stagnation, that we may indeed listen and understand, look and perceive, and understand with our heart and be healed.

 

 

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