Hearing and Obeying

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 35:4-7A
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

My mother – who, while alive, would have been mortified to be called a saint – often told us how God spoke to her in her prayers. She said so without irony or apparent metaphor, nor did she claim special standing, privilege, or insight. In fact, she gave no reason to believe her experience wasn’t available to every praying person. Furthermore, she never claimed to speak for God to others and, as far as I could tell, God’s speaking to her was more important than the words themselves, if indeed what she understood herself to hear were words. In truth, I’ve never understood quite what she meant. Her experience was not mine, though I’ve never doubted she had profound encounters with real presence.

In my own prayer life, which has at long last begun to bear fruit (a consequence that ought never be mistaken for effectiveness), I hear no voices, see no visions. What words I receive and say are those of scripture – especially the psalms – and prayers that have been used and passed on across generations. It’s much the same on Sundays, in the gathered assembly, when we hear with our ears and say with our mouths words that have been handed down to us as if our lives depended on them, which they do. Tradition (from tradere – “to hand over”) is, after all, in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Chestertonian turn of phrase, “the living faith of the dead.”

But ours is a profoundly visual culture, where “seeing is believing” and image is, if not quite everything, pretty close to it. I’m especially guilty in this regard, being more of a reader and viewer than a listener, and much more likely to remember a face than a name. Speak to me and I’m prone to forget; send it in an email, and I remember.

It’s hard for those who wallow in images to recall that, for most of the centuries the words of Isaiah, James, and Mark have been available to us, they were received through the ear – spoken aloud to the gathered assembly – rather than the eye. If Augustine was astonished to discover Ambrose reading silently to himself rather than aloud, imagine how strange we moderns might look to our forebears as we silently pore over Bible passages in the comfort and solitude of our one family houses.

I’m not arguing against private reading of scripture, which has profoundly enriched my life and the lives of many, many others, but the readings today call our attention to hearing in ways our visual culture may make us prone to forget. In the Isaiah portion, clearing the ears of the deaf is equal to opening the eyes of the blind. In Mark’s gospel, after truly hearing the words of a foreigner, Jesus heads south and opens a deaf man’s ears and “releases” his tongue, a healing which even those charged with the “messianic secret” are compelled to share with others as a sign of Jesus “doing everything well.”

And in James, whose single canonical letter grows with richness and significance for me with every encounter, we learn how to hear rightly. Today’s text portion, after all, immediately follows James’s admonition that we be doers of the word and not just hearers (James 1:19-27). Happily, the connection between hearing and faithful doing is buried in our language, waiting for us to uncover: the words “obey” and “obedience” come from the Latin ob-audire, “to hear” or, perhaps, “to hear thoroughly.” It is in obeying the word of God that we truly – thoroughly – hear it, so that the words become flesh – in this case, our own.

Every link in the chain of obedient hearing is, of course, God’s gift: the word and the Word, our ears and our ability to hear, our flesh and our power to obey. All we offer back to God, our words and our actions, is a form of praise and thanksgiving.

The late Aidan Kavanaugh understood that the hard line some attempt to draw between orthodoxy and orthopraxis is misguided and contrived. If, he said, orthodoxa were indeed reducible to “right belief,” it would be synonymous with orthopistis (“right faith, right belief”) or orthodidascalia (“right teaching”). The early church, however – following the example of the Septuagint, which translated the Hebrew kavod (in this instance, “glory”) as the Greek doxa – understood orthodoxy as “right glory” or “right praise,” something we do with our mouths, ears, and entire bodies, not simply in our minds.

So we, too, are invited to let Christ open our ears and release our tongues so that, through the words we receive, utter, and do, we may offer right praise to the God who made us, our brothers, our sisters, and all Creation.

2 Responses to “Hearing and Obeying”

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  1. Rich Irwin says:

    Thanks Brian. Trying to write a sermon with these passages this morning and not sure what will happen. I think there is a bridge between Mark and James that perhaps I can extend to our congregation. If there is praise from all this may take some of the weight off of our differences (some of us look and act like “gentile dogs” more than others) Your piece also reminded me to pray for Nancy. Peace, Rich

  2. Thank you for your words.

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