Friday, January 25, 2013

A Word worth Listening

Third Ordinary Sunday Year C

There was a time when academic performance was the conclusive benchmark of intelligence. You were either graded as excellent, good, average, below average or just simply stupid (Ok, the last one was my addition). Then experts in pedagogical sciences and gurus of motivation began telling us that some of us who didn’t make the marks weren’t really stupid. Apart from IQ, you also had the benefit of EQ. It was music to the ears to learn how this had now leveled the playing field. These experts argued that it all came down to learning styles. To learn, we depend on our senses to process the information around us. Most people tend to use one of their senses more than the others. Therefore, there are generally three types of learning styles based on different modes of acquiring information: auditory (hearing), visual (seeing) and kinaesthetic (using hands or action).  Some educationist would also insist that the learning capacity increases as we move from auditory methods to kinaesthetic, thus the auditory style is regarded as the least effective. This is best articulated in the Chinese saying, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

Today’s readings remind us that Christians, following the tradition of the Jews and the Hebrews before them, are intentionally auditory. But this does not mean that the Judeo-Christian culture is inferior to others which emphasised ‘doing’. Israel was a nation of prophets, not philosophers. Prophets listen to God. Philosophers envision. For the Greek philosopher, intellectual understanding came through the eye. For the Hebrew prophet, it came through the ear. The eye sees and dissects. The ear, on the other hand, hears and obeys. The Hebrews began their scriptures by saying that God spoke and all came into existence. The most fundamental statement of the Law (Dt 6:4), begins with the words, “Hear” or “Listen”.  The logic of the Hebrew scriptures is the logic of revelation. God is the cause; we are the result. The Lord speaks and his word has effect. In the logic of revelation, the most illogical thing is to refuse to listen to the Voice of God. To refuse to listen is to refuse to participate in what God is doing. The prophets called it rebellion. Thus we call evil irrational.

It is interesting to note that the etymology of the word ‘obedience’, which comes from the Latin ‘obedire’, or in the original Biblical languages, Hebrew (shema) and Greek (hupakouo), means to listen. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why listening is so under-rated in today’s society that places ‘doing’ or activism as the benchmark of achievement. In a “just do it” culture, the whole notion of obedience seems absurd and even anachronistic. Everything in our culture resists obedience, because we are made to feel that any loss of control over self-fulfillment is a loss of self. Because of the emphasis placed on freedom, self-will, autonomy and personal determination, obedience does little to suggest a good life. From a marketing perspective, obedience is a hard sell, especially because the very notion of obedience seems to be a suffocation of life rather than the promotion of it.

Yet obedience is a core element of the gospel, a primary dimension of Jesus’ life and relationship with his Father, but also of what it means to a Christian. Jesus is the wholly obedient one. "He humbled Himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8) and "through the obedience of the One, the many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). Jesus not only listened and obeyed the word of God, He totally identified with it - He is the Word. Thus at the end today’s gospel, he could confidently announced that he is the fulfillment of the prophetic word. For many centuries the Hebrews strained to listen to the Word of God through their prophets, but then the Word came even closer. The Word became flesh.  Humanity was allowed to see the Word, not as a written word, but a living Word.

Unfortunately, many often reduce obedience to just a matter of following rules and conforming to obligations. Today’s readings remind us that obedience is more about an encounter with the Living Word, Jesus. It is more about effective listening than blind obedience to dead letter of the law. It means getting in touch with the voice and life of the Spirit. The three readings provide us with different levels of listening.

In the first reading, we read about the reconstruction of the moral and religious fibre of a foundering nation that has lost not only its independence but also its integrity. The foundation of this reconstruction would be the Law, which is the name given by Jews to their scriptures. As they listened attentively to the words of their holy book being read by Ezra the scribe, the crowd was moved not only to tears but ultimately to worship. For them, the Law was not just a set of religious and moral rules and obligations, it was the voice of God, the God that had not abandoned them, the God who was now restoring their fortune. Thus the first level of listening is listening to God, a listening which inspires worship, a listening that inspires conversion, and a listening that demands obedience and surrender to the sovereignty of God.

The second reading proposes a second level of listening. In obedience we also listen to the voice of the Church, the Body of Christ. In the face of the human heart’s tendency towards narcissism, individualism and exclusiveness more than towards the needs of the other, obedience as attentive listening to the other members of the Body of Christ frees us to live for the other and become an integral part of the family we call Church. Obedience can challenge our worldviews and prejudices which often filters our perception of God’s will.

Finally, the gospel speaks of the third level of listening – listening to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised. By citing a text from Isaiah, Luke attempts to explain Jesus’ mission as a proclamation of gladness for the poor, liberty for the captives, sight for the blind, release for prisoners and a year of favour for all. These categories are often regarded by the larger society as invisible, thus not deserving its attention or time. The rich and the powerful have our ears, but not the poor. Thus, the cries of the poor are a great corrective to our self-importance, selfishness and pride. If our heart’s desires are gifts from God, then listening to the cries of the poor reveals the demands these gifts make on us. Any Christian life which does not listen to the voice of the poor effectively shuts out the voice of God.

Christ’s powerful words spoken to us at Mass are meant to change things, to change us, to change the hearts and the lives of all who hear them. In the past when the mass was said in Latin, many people would resort to ‘reading’ the word from their missals. But now that the Word of God is proclaimed in our own language, we should put aside our missals, abandon the need to see the text projected on the screen, because listening to the word requires more than just our attention, it demands a total investment of ourselves, it demands obedience. Reading along and listening attentively are very different activities and have very different results. Most people would prefer reading. We are independent of the lector who proclaims the Word. Reading allows us to set the pace and affords an opportunity to analyse the text. In a certain way, we continue to assert mastery over the word. But we are a people called to ‘listen.’ Listening makes us uncomfortable because we strain to listen not just with our ears but also with our hearts. Listening treats the word in a personal way, rather than just a subject to be studied. Listening is relational. Thus, we listen to God, we do not read or study him. In listening, we make no demands of the Word – we merely listen, embrace the Word and obey. We seek not to substitute the Word with our words. But rather we allow the Word to form, challenge, comfort and finally consume us.

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