Sound and Hearing

By Sigrid Fowler

All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views  and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser. 

            If silence is a topic of biblical concern, so is sound. First to last, the Bible is full of it. We hear God’s voice: “Let there be light,” and creation is spoken into existence (Gen. 1: 3). The record ends with the voice of Jesus, “Yes, I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22: 20). We also hear the in-betweens–royal decrees, prophecies, histories, singing and instrumental music, challenges, confessions, words of wisdom, parables. Ears are essential, but not all ears hear.

            Jesus directs his preaching to hearers, “He who has ears, let him hear,” he says (Matt 11: 15). In minor variations the charge is repeated eight times in the gospels, and it’s not a statement of the obvious. This isn’t sound waves and decibels, pitch and timbre. Jesus means spiritual hearing. When his disciples ask why he teaches in parables, he explains two teaching styles and his two very different purposes: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them, it has not been granted” (Matt 13: 11). Then he adds, “For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance, but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Matt 13: 12). Privilege? This sure isn’t socialism! It’s definitely not “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Karl Marx,1875). No, it’s this: If you have, you’ll be given more. If you lack, even your little will be taken away from you. Atrophy? Whatever, the assertion is stunning. 

            Jesus elaborates on the distinction he’s making: “I speak to them in parables because while seeing they do not see and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Now Jesus brings in Isaiah. “And in their case [those who are taught in parables], the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says: ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; and you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive, for the heart of this people has become dull, and with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn again and I should heal them’”(Matt 13: 13-15; Isaiah 6: 9, 10). But to the disciples, he says, “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matt 13: 16).

            The frame of Jesus’ interchange with the disciples on why he teaches the crowds in a veiled way but explains fully to them is the parable of four soils. He teaches on the soils, he explains why he teaches in parables, and then he returns to the soils–packed soil on a worn path, rocky soil, a weedy plot, and good soil. His point about abundance and gain, lack and loss is a farming analogy. A seed planted in good ground is privileged with resources to grow and produce. One seed is sown and it becomes many; the seed planted in poor soil will produce little, maybe nothing so that even the single seed is lost—abundance to gain, lack to loss. So much for Marx’s good idea. Maybe he wasn’t interested in growing things.

            When Jesus refers to dull ears and unseeing eyes, he quotes Isaiah’s passage on his call to prophetic ministry—a vision of heaven, of seraphim, and the throne of God. Overwhelmed by his own sinfulness, Isaiah confesses to unclean lips, his and the people’s, and he is cleansed. Then he hears God say, “Who shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me” (Isa 6: 1- 11). The prophet is offering himself, but when he hears how poorly someone speaking for God will be received, he asks. “Lord, how long?” The answer isn’t comforting: “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without men, and the land utterly desolate” (Isa 6: 11). Judgment, plain and simple. 

            Jesus brings Isaiah’s prophecy right into the present—the disciples’ and ours. Hearing without understanding? Seeing and no sight? Jesus speaks to all of us when he quotes Isaiah: “Their heart has become dull.” They “scarcely hear” with their ears and “have closed their eyes lest they should see.” We have to ask ourselves, how am I hearing? Perception can be dulled by distractions, concentration dithered by busyness. Spiritual sensitivity can wither or be negated as surely as is living seed sown in rocky soil or on a path hardened by foot traffic. Birds will do the rest. Spiritual hearing? God’s people have Isaiah for a model: Repent, confess, hear and understand. Seeing eyes and hearing ears are blessed, according to Jesus.