Are You Listening?

Stop sign superimposed over a large crowd of people walking away

He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:19)

I recently read a delightful book entitled, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I think humor is serious business. No wonder this is among my favorites from Telushkin’s book:

A group of elderly, retired men gathers each morning at a café in Tel Aviv. They drink their coffee and sit for hours discussing the world situation. Given the state of the world, their talks usually are depressing. One day, one of the men startles the others by announcing, “You know what? I am an optimist.” The others are shocked, but then one of them notices something fishy. “Wait a minute! If you’re an optimist, why do you look so worried?” “You think it’s easy to be an optimist?”

This is me. In fact, I surprise myself how positive I can be sometimes. Really! I find life heavy. I am constantly thinking about what’s going on around me, as I try to understand life and how I am to respond to it. I can get discouraged easily as I am perplexed by the complex problems of life. And that was before COVID-19!  And yet, I still see glimpses of heaven’s reality on earth as I catch how God is at work in the midst of our troubles. When I do, my heart leaps for joy.

My main source of encouragement is the Bible. It’s honest assessment of the state of the world combined with insight into God’s plans and purposes, connects me to a more complete reality than the partial and often deceptive message of circumstances. It cuts through the cynical noise of much of the incessant social commentary we are fed.

Still, I need to be reminded to actively engage God’s written word. One of my sons and I are fans of the National Geographic science series, “Brain Games.” The show teaches various components of human brain function by encouraging the viewer to personally interact with the content. Often just before a new interactive segment would begin, the host would say, “Stop! Pay attention.” I was going to write that this reminds me of the words of Yeshua,: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:19), but actually it’s the other way around. Yeshua’s words reminded me of Brain Games even though I had heard and read Yeshua’s words innumerable times many years before watching the show.

The reason for this is that it wasn’t until recently that I began to comprehend what Yeshua meant by these words. As I mentioned a couple of months ago in my article entitled Mountain Movers, I have been on a transformational journey through my studying and preaching the Gospel of Mark. In the past I assumed that “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” meant something along the lines of “these words are for those who can understand them.” In the context of where they first appear in Mark chapter four, Yeshua is speaking parables, beginning with “The Sower.” This parable illustrates four different responses of various people to Yeshua’s teaching. The first three are not good. In the first, Satan snatches the word away. The second are those who initially respond positively, but when pressures arise, they give up. The third are those who are not productive due to the distractions of life. Only the fourth is positive. They are those who truly welcome his teaching, put it into action, and are productive.

Because these are descriptions of different responses, we may think in terms of different people possessing different kinds of receptivity. There is nothing explicit in Yeshua’s words to indicate that those who fall in one of the first three categories should do anything about it. It’s as if this is simply a description of how things are. It’s Yeshua’s version of a personality test, as in “what type of soil are you?”

If so, then why does he close the parable with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”? Is he only interested in informing his disciples through the ages that these types of responses exist? I am aware it is helpful for preachers and teachers to understand that different people respond in different ways. Even Yeshua didn’t always get positive results. But is this parable for the speakers or the hearers? The statement “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” was said to the crowd, not his inner circle to whom he explained the meaning later. Yeshua was calling out to all those within earshot: “Use your ears as intended.” Or in other words: “Are you listening?”

Yeshua invites us to engage his words. We are not to sit back and soak it in, so to speak, nor are we to wait around for him to hit us over the head. Instead, we need to be attentive to what he is saying and get the message. When COVID restrictions first began, I was reminded of Paul’s words when he was in prison:

Remember Yeshua the Messiah, who was raised from the dead, who was a descendant of David. This is the Good News I proclaim, and for which I am suffering to the point of being bound in chains — but the Word of God is not bound in chains! (2 Timothy 2:8-9; Complete Jewish Bible)

Even though Paul was severely restricted to the point of being in chains in a disgusting prison, he understood that God’s Word wasn’t restricted. This wasn’t just a nice encouraging thought of even though he lost his freedom, the Gospel was still making a difference outside his prison walls. Despite his being chained up, he was still composing letters that would powerfully transform lives from his day until our own.

This is not to tell us how amazing Paul was, but how powerful God’s Word is. If God could make a difference through Paul in his restrictive circumstances how much more might we in ours today? Will it be easy? Might we face difficult challenges along the way? Will everything we do automatically be successful? Just like Paul didn’t know he was writing a third of the New Testament, so we have no idea how God might use our efforts. But if we think we cannot make a difference until life gets back to normal, we won’t even try. Let’s seek the Creator for his creative means to fulfill his good pleasure in these difficult and confusing days. It may not be easy to be an optimist, but we have every reason to be.

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