Having the Ears to Hear

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“Let the one with ears to hear listen.”

All the tax agents and sinners were coming to hear him. But the Pharisees and the scribes complained. The said, “This person welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Luke 14: 35; 15: 1-2

Chapter 15 is one of the most beloved and tender chapters in all of the Christian scriptures. It contains the three parables of “the lost and found”: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. It is a unique point of entry into understanding the heart of Jesus and of God. As Simone Weil has put it: “Time is God’s waiting like a beggar for our love.” Our life is a life of constant wandering, of losing and finding ourselves, or better, of losing ourselves and being found. The frame which Luke sets for the three parables is that of those who know they are lost and of those who think they are not.

Luke concludes Chapter 14, the parables that call for renouncing of self and counting the cost of discipleship, with the admonition “Let the one with ears to hear listen.” It is only the person who recognizes her need for a light to guide her way in her personal darkness that will be able to hear. The beginning of Chapter 15 then contrasts those who were coming to hear Jesus with open minds and hearts and those who grumbled and were closed, who lacked the ears to hear. The parables of Luke 15 are so familiar to and appreciated by most of us. Yet, what accounts for the fact that at times they strike us to the core of our being and at others they are merely something we have heard before.

As I read the gospel today, the story of the loving shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep and tenderly puts it on his shoulders, and the diligent and generous woman who searches for the lost coin until she finds it and then invites her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her, I found myself thinking and praying about my mother and grandmother. I never really knew my grandmother well, and, as I aged, I came to realize that some of the reason for that was the difficult relationship my mother had with her. My grandmother’s life, as a widowed immigrant with five children, was a very difficult one, and, as I once heard my aunt say to my mother, “Face it. She didn’t have time for us!” From this thought, I reflected with appreciation and pain on my own mother and on our relationship, and on all the significant relationships of the life of our family: those I experienced personally and all those through the generations that preceded mine.

To consider our lives in the present and through the generations before us is to realize the truth that our hearts and souls are formed by all the experiences of life, the joy and celebration but also the pain and heartache. My mother, an incredibly strong and conscientious person, carried within her for her whole life the pain of a distance between her and her mother that she could never overcome. As I read the gospel parables today, I realized the truth that God’s love and tenderness can only be “heard” and known by the lost, and by ourselves when we are present from the depths of our suffering soul. To be present to and not evade the distance and loneliness that our “good enough” but not perfect relational and formational experiences have evoked in us actually makes us available to know the love at our core and the One who is always both waiting for our love but also seeking us out. To remember the deep and painful lacks of our lives in prayer is to know the love that overcomes those lacks and so to realize the hope and healing that is there, even decades and centuries later. God’s seeking us where we are lost never ceases. We can, however, only experience that seeking when we risk all that we must and can bear when our hearts are open to the truth.

In a reflection on the passage from the book of Revelation which describes Jesus as standing at the door and knocking, Gianfranco Ravasi writes:

The scene, then, outside of the metaphor, celebrates in the first place the primacy of grace, the cháris that becomes caritas, as we have already seen at the beginning of our journey. If Christ did not pass by and knock, we would remain closed up in our solitary and autonomous history. We thus have nearly a summary of the series of Psalmic theophanies examined so far. But a new element makes its entrance. It is up to us to listen to that knocking and to that voice that calls. It is up to the one who is closed off in his space and time to throw open the door. This is the moment of human freedom, of pístis , the faith that accepts cháris , the call, the gift, the theophany. There are some who choose to be disturbed or distracted by the noise, by the chatter, by the high volume of sound, by laziness or indifference, and so remain seated and ignore that voice, like the woman in the Song of Solomon who makes excuses not to get up and open the door for her beloved. But for those who have grasped the handle of the door and opened it, what a surprise: it is he, the Lord! Then, just like Abraham who hastened to welcome the three mysterious guests, preparing a sumptuous feast and receiving the gift of the life of Isaac (Gen 18), so also that family which has welcomed Christ has him as a guest at table. And the meal is a preeminent sign of communion, of sharing, of intimacy. This is the beginning of the new life, the dikaiosyne , the Pauline “justification” that gives rise to the new creature. It is the embrace between the two loves, divine caritas and the amorous trust of the believer.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, The Encounter: Discovering God Through Prayer

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