Sunday, August 03, 2014

Through Which Ear?



18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Puff Pieces

Sisters and brothers, I recently saw a drawing of a woman who looked very devilish. Her body was draped in a slinky fire red gown. There were horns growing out of her head. And the words on the drawing explained how she had ended up like this. I have an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. She said. I’m also deaf in one ear. No prizes for guessing to whom she had been turning the deaf ear. It wasn’t the devil.

This is, of course, a familiar image of the spiritual life: A devil whispering temptations into one ear. And an angel offering good advice in the other. How we end up depends on the one to whom we choose to listen. The ear through which we decide to hear. Few of us will deny this. That the spiritual life is indeed an ongoing struggle between good and evil. A constant tussle between two voices. One luring us to destruction. The other leading us into life. Two different sets of voices. Two different ears into which they speak. Two contrasting ways of listening. The devilish and the angelic. The destructive and the life-giving.

This is also the contrast that our readings propose for our consideration today. In the first reading, the Lord God speaks to his people in a voice full of love and compassion. Whispering into their ear, as it were. Assuring them that God desires nothing else but their survival and happiness. Their well-being and satisfaction. There is only one thing the people need to do to enjoy this generous offer. Listen, the Lord says, listen to me. Pay attention, come to me; listen and your soul will live. And listening to God means turning a deaf ear to that other voice. The one that entices them to move in the opposite direction. To spend money on what is not bread. Their wages on what fails to satisfy.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. A contrast between two different sets of voices. Two conflicting ways of listening. This becomes clearer when we consider the reading in its wider context in the bible. Today’s passage, from Matthew’s gospel, begins at verse 13 of chapter 14. Earlier, in verses 1 to 12, we find the tragic tale of the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of John the Baptist. We know the story well. We know that it was king Herod who had John killed. But how did this come about?

The process has much to do with the act of listening. John the Baptist, as you will recall, had scolded Herod for entering into an unlawful marriage with Herod’s sister-in-law, Herodias. And when Herodias complained, Herod chose to listen to her. He had John arrested. Then, during his birthday party, Herod again chose to listen to this Herodias. When she instigated her daughter to ask for John’s head to be handed to her on a plate, the king chose to accede to the girl’s request. He had John killed in prison.

But Herod’s actions were not just prompted by the people to whom he listened. They were also the result of the way in which he chose to listen. Both Herod and Herodias chose to listen and to react to John’s words of warning not with sorrow and regret. Not with humility and obedience. Which might have led to repentance and newness of life. Instead, they reacted with arrogance and anger. With stubbornness and pride. Which resulted not only in the killing of an innocent man. But also in the spiritual death of Herod and Herodias themselves. And, quite ironically, this self-destruction happens precisely at a time when the king was supposed to be celebrating his own birth. This is what happens when people choose to listen to devilish voices. And to turn a deaf ear to God. What should be a joyful celebration is transformed into a fatal festival. A poisonous party.

In stark contrast, the gospel reading presents us with a different form of listening. Not devilish, but angelic. Not destructive, but life-giving. Here the spotlight falls on Jesus. Notice how he listens. Consider how he responds. The gospel gives us three examples. First, upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus responds by withdrawing. Perhaps to mourn the loss. To pray for the dead. And to consider what this development might mean for his own ministry. A more headstrong, more self-centred, person might have decided simply to push on. To act as though nothing had happened. But Jesus is different. He chooses to pause. To listen. To take stock. A sign that his ministry is not self-driven. But God-centred. Not a work of pride. But an exercise in humility.

Second, when Jesus is confronted with a large crowd, he very quickly sets aside his original plans. And the reading tells us why. Seeing the people before him, Jesus took pity on them. He listened to their cries. He was moved by their need. Again showing us that his ministry is centred not on himself, but on his heavenly Father. Who, as the responsorial psalm tells us, is compassionate to all his creatures. It is because Jesus listens with compassion that he decides to change his plans. Instead of withdrawing, he sets about healing the sick.

It is also this same compassion that prompts Jesus to do what at first looks quite illogical. Knowing full well that five loaves and two fish is all the food they have, Jesus still insists on feeding the huge crowd of hungry people. His disciples tell him to send them away. But Jesus decides otherwise. Showing that he listens not just to worried disciples. Not only to needy people. But also, and above all, to his merciful Father.

And it is this humble and trusting obedience that effects a change in the opposite direction to what we saw in the story of Herod. There a birthday celebration was changed into a fatal festival. Here a barren wilderness is transformed into a bountiful banquet. The hungry are satisfied. The sick are healed. The dying find new life. Not only does everyone have enough to eat. But they even have scraps left over. Twelve baskets full. The words of the second reading are proven true. Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ. If only we are willing to listen.

To choose to listen like Jesus. Instead of like Herod. This is the challenge our readings present to us today. And it is a difficult challenge. For our society conditions us to listen in a very particular way. We call it advertising. Everywhere we go. In every direction we turn. Voices call out to us. Telling us what to buy. Showing us the things we must have. The services we cannot do without. And the more we buy, the hungrier we get. Having an iPhone 5 generates a craving for an iPhone 6. Is this not spending money on what fails to satisfy? And while we do this. While we listen to the devilish voice of advertising. We end up turning a deaf ear to other voices. Voices of the poor and needy. Not just strangers who need material help. But also friends and relatives. Fellow parishioners. And even our own selves. Hungry for attention and affection. Crying out for compassion and care. The same compassion and care that God continues to offer us. Especially at this Mass.

Sisters and brothers, whether we choose to admit it or not, we each have an angel on one shoulder. And a devil on the other. To which one are you choosing to listen today?

3 comments:

  1. I'm choosing to listen to my spirit today. The Devil will go away if I don't give it any attention. The Angel is not going anywhere. It has never left & never will. Believe God's word, act in faith & you'll succeed. Believe in the Devil, act in fear & you'll fail. That's the way it works. Try the Angel. You'll be surprised they are totally worth it!

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  2. O that today we will listen to HIS VOICE, harden not our hearts.

    God speaks in His own way, when our hearts are open and when we are attuned to God - we will hear Him.

    For those sheep who are used to the VOICE of THE GOOD SHEPHERD, these sheep will know who is their LORD and MASTER and they will follow HIM and HIM ALONE.

    I know my sheep and my sheep know me... indeed, it takes some getting used to - even with the Lord... and once we recognise HIM and HIS VOICE, no other voices will have any "power" over us.

    Seeing Is Believing
    5 August 2014 @10pm

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  3. O Lord, I "lost" my hearing a couple of days ago (literally, I was "deaf") and yet, You came to heal me and opened my ears that I may hear You!

    Lord, thank you ever so much for yet another EPHAPHATA experience!

    Deo Gratias!

    Sih Ying 6 August 2014

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