One vital reason to keep listening to scripture is that God never stops calling to us. The Word is always at work. And we’re still living out the spiritual struggle that began with Adam and Even hiding in the garden as God looked for them and asked, “Where are you?”
To which I typically would answer, “Well, if I knew where I was, I wouldn’t feel so lost.”
Staying open and attentive to the Word can be difficult to do because passages are repeated at church year after year, cycle after cycle. But we’ve never really heard it all. There is always more truth to be revealed because God is eternal and infinite. We will be more sensitive to perceiving different aspects of the truth at different times in our lives. Often a meaning hides in plain sight and is not a treasure hidden in a field but rather a treasure set at our feet, which we overlook as we scan the horizon for something more interesting to scatter the imagination of our hearts. Or maybe that’s just me.
For example, the gospel reading at church for March 29 was the famous passage from Mark’s gospel (12:28-34) in which a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all. Jesus tells him there are two. First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Reading this passage again, I noticed something for the first time. There is a kind of proto-commandment. Jesus begins by saying “The first [commandment] is ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love. . . .’”
Jesus is quoting the first commandment from Deutoronomy and the second one from Leviticus. He could have dropped the formal rhetoric of “Hear, O Israel.” The Jews (and especially a scribe) knew those passages by heart. But Jesus didn’t leave it unspoken and assumed, which is interesting. The incarnation of the Word is the one talking, so it must be important.
To hear is the thing we need to do first. It’s a prerequisite for listening to the commandments or a precondition for understanding God’s will. In some ways, to hear can be the hardest thing to do. If a soul is willing to hear and to be open and receptive to what is heard, there’s a chance of being converted or persuaded.
Apparently, I’m either spiritually hard of hearing or have a spiritual learning disability. It usually takes me a long time to hear what God has been saying repeatedly. I didn’t become a Christian until age 36. Prior to that time, I mostly just didn’t want to hear it. Hearing would have required humility, and I was too cool for a virtue as unimpressive as humility.
Not that I’ve acquired the virtue of humility since then, but . . .
In spiritual terms, being hard of heart is practically the same thing as being hard of hearing or at least it tends to have the same effect. That’s what happens to the pharaoh Rameses in the book of Exodus. Through the mission of Moses and the signs, miracles, and wonders that are performed, God is virtually shouting right into the proud Egyptian’s face. But pharaoh’s heart is hardened, so he might as well be deaf. Isaiah later prophesied about a similar problem affecting the chosen people, and Jesus took up Isaiah’s prophecy, telling his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.”
His use of parables is not a trick to deceive certain people and prevent them from turning to be forgiven. I think it’s a hearing test. There is difference between the fact of hearing the words versus hearing with a heart open to understanding. Part of the difference between the two ways of hearing is good will, which the enemies of Jesus lacked. A lot of the gospel encounters with Jesus turn out to be hearing tests. The disciples often miss the point, and Jesus is amazed by their lack of faith or understanding. At one point, he says, “Having ears do you not hear? . . . Do you not yet understand?”
Maybe the scribe who asks Jesus which commandment is first also fails to hear the full message. When the scribe summarizes what Jesus has told him, he says, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said the Lord He is one. . . .”
The scribe doesn’t repeat the “Hear, O Israel” from the beginning of Jesus’ answer. But by this time in the gospel story, one thing is clear about Jesus—he may speak in parables, but he doesn’t mince or waste words. After all, he is the Word made flesh.
That doesn’t make the scribe wrong. Jesus seems to approve of the scribe’s response. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”
I wonder if that was a hearing test too. There is a powerful dose of irony in telling the scribe he’s not far from the kingdom of God. In fact, the scribe is standing right next to the very incarnation of the kingdom of heaven.
The gospel continues: “And after that no one dared to ask [Jesus] any question.”
The world around Jesus and the scribe hardly looks like an image of heaven. In addition to all the usual problems of sin and the struggles of mortal life, the Jewish people are under an oppressive Roman occupation. Shouldn’t these people wonder exactly what Jesus means about not being far from the kingdom of God? But no one dares ask. Maybe they were afraid to hear what he might say. God knows I often feel that way.
The scene echoes an earlier encounter (Mark 10:17-31) when a rich young man asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. The young man says he has obeyed all the commandments, but Jesus says there is one thing the young man lacks. He needs to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Jesus. Apparently, the young man has a special calling to become a closer disciple and his new destiny lies along a path that leads away from material wealth. (Jesus doesn’t explicitly tell everyone he meets to go sell everything and come follow him.)
The young man doesn’t want to hear that. He goes away sad. Then Jesus tells his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain heaven.
The cost of really hearing the truth might be a price you don’t want to pay. Letting go of desires and attachments is tough, which means loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul is tough.
Take a moment to think about how intimidating the first commandment can seem. Who can honestly claim to love God with such total commitment? I certainly can’t. When I feel like I’m out on open water in a small wooden fishing boat during a storm and it seems like God is asleep in the back of the boat, “love” is not the word that most accurately describes my inner experience. My relationship with Jesus is more often like Philip’s in the gospel of John: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?”
The main point of Lent is to hear so we can turn and be forgiven and hopefully to learn how to love. “Hear, O Israel” is a challenging requirement for people like me who have spiritual hearing loss. When other people say “Amen!” I say “Huh?” Maybe it would be easier for a physically deaf person to hear music than for a spiritually deaf person to enter heaven.