Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Listening: Root & Fruit

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I. Introduction

We hear the Word of God more often than not. However, we might go unmoved by it; or perhaps do exactly what is contrary to it. The problem is then not in the Word nor in the hearing but in the listener's heart. King David the prophet and psalmist defined a good listener in the first verses of his first psalm saying, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper" (Psalm 1:1-3). In these few verses, David defines a godly person as someone who is blessed by God because:

  • He delights in the law of God. Such a person cannot find delight except through attentive listening and hearkening to the word and will of God.

  • He meditates day and night on God's commandments and teachings. Such a person has no spare time to waste on any futile activities that would avail no good to him nor serve the purpose for which God has brought him into this world.

  • He has fixed his eye upon the Lord and eternity. Such a person will ultimately blossom and prosper and be like a strong tree that has its roots seated deep in the ground, its branches shot high in the sky and its plentiful fruits scattered in love and service.
These are the characteristics of a good listener so what defines a bad listener? He is one of two types: slow of hearing or itching ears.

II. The First Type: Slow of Hearing

The slow of hearing are those whose ears have become slow in picking up messages. St. Paul tells us "of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing" (Hebrews 5:11). So, instead of being good listeners and doers working fruitfully and diligently in the Kingdom of the Lord, bad listeners have become in dire need of hearing the message over and over again. A good analogy of the situation is that of a deaf student who will not benefit from explanation of even a simple lesson or a basic mathematical problem although there is nothing wrong with the teaching or the mathematical theory. The problem resides mainly in the heart of the listener.

The Spiritual Implication of the Slowness of Hearing
Our Lord Jesus Christ diagnosed this type of spiritual ailment in His parable of the Sewer (Matthew 13:13). He purposefully spoke to the multitude in parables in order for those who have the right heart to understand what He wanted to say, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him" (Matthew 13:11,12). And those who do not, because of their hardened heart, will see Isaiah's prophecy fulfilled in them "Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them" (Matthew 13:14,15). The harder the heart, the slower the hearing. The Lord spoke to the Scribes and the Pharisees with the parable of the bad stewards (Luke 20:9-19). So, they knew that they were the ones the parable applies to. Instead of repenting and offering a genuine contrition over their sin, they did not benefit from the lesson they had heard and connived to kill our Lord Jesus Christ.

Outcomes of the Slowness of Hearing Hardness of heart comes from four sources:

  1. Living a sinful life
  2. Love of materialism
  3. Hatred and its ramifications (jealousy, envy, and love of retaliation)
  4. Spiritual sluggishness
These four sources make one deaf to God's word and even if he listens whenever he listens, he will bear no fruit and the Word of God will be of no results.

Examples of Hardness of heart:
1. Cain: presented an offering to God (Genesis 4:5-7). But it was not accepted because it was not done according to the will of God who stipulated a blood offering.

  • Cain overtly opposed God's instructions, "but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell" (Genesis 4:5).
  • God dialogued with Cain in love and sympathy, "So the LORD said to Cain, 'Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?'" (Genesis 4:6).
  • Obviously, God the Almighty was still interested in helping Cain walk down the correct path. So, He offered to help him "'If you do well, will you not be accepted?'" (Genesis 4:7).
  • He also warned him not to rebel or go against God's will, "'And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.'" (Genesis 4:7).
  • God also drew Cain's attention to what was awaiting him if he disobeyed further. "'And its desire is for you,'" (Genesis 4:7)
  • God went even further down the road of love and gave Cain the solution and the way out of the danger he was about to be trapped in "'but you should rule over it.'" (Genesis 4:7)

However, inspite of all God's efforts to bring Cain back, the Cain would not listen nor heed to God's words. He revolted against his brother and killed him. Is it God to blame for not accepting the offering; or is it Cain for his hard heart full of jealousy, hatred, anger, envy and retaliation and dull ears which refused to listen to God's direct messages to him?

2. Judas Iscariot: decided to betray Jesus and hand Him over to the Jews because of his hard heartedness and love for money (Matthew 26).

  • He negotiated before hand with the authorities for the price he would give them Christ for "'What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?' And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him" (Matthew 26:14-16).
  • The Lord Jesus Christ had hinted to him that woe to that man who would betray the son of man, yet Judas would not listen and went and did as he had planned to "'The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.'" (Matthew 26:24).
  • Again during the last supper, the Lord wanted to alert Judas, "He answered and said, 'He who dipped his hand with Me in the dish will betray Me.'" (Matthew 26:23). One would assume that there is no more overt warning than what Christ had offered to Judas. However, the Judas' heart was full of the love for money that he could not hear properly. Even to the end, our Lord's rebuking words were enough to make him change his mind "But Jesus said to him, 'Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?'" (Luke 22:48). Unlike Peter whose soft heart was moved by a glance from the Lord; and he turned and cried bitterly for denouncing his Master before the maid.

3. The angel of the church of the Laodiceans: an example of people who are not moved by any teachings at all. They have reached a stage of lukewarmness that going to and staying away from church are of equal effect on them; and the Gospel's words and the Church teachings are sources of either derision or agitation or both. To such people God has given His verdict, "'These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: 'I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth'" (Revelation 3:14,15).

4. Samson: another example of a spiritually deaf person who could not hear not even from the person closest to his heart and emotions.

  • Delilah literally disclosed to him the intention of her people to hurt him. However, he would not listen. "So Delilah said to Samson, 'Please tell me where your great strength lies, and with what you may be bound to afflict you.'" (Judges 16:6).
  • He would get so annoyed with her pestering him to know his secret of his power. "And it came to pass, when she pestered him daily with her words and pressed him, so that his soul was vexed to death" (Judges 16:16).
  • Would he heed? His ears remained deaf unable to hear God's voice. In the end the Palestinians overcame him, plucked his eyes degraded and tortured him.

What is the Solution?
The solution lies in a remedy that the prophet Isaiah provides, "The Lord God has opened My ear; and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away"(Isaiah 50:5).

  • Opening the ear requires removing any obstacle in the way of hearing. These obstacles that have their seat and residence in the heart need to be removed. St. Stephen in his sermon to the Israelites, knew exactly what their problem was: hard hearts and deaf ears, "'You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.'" (Acts 7:51).
  • Examples of people who did not go against God's words are: the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, "The Lord GOD has opened My ear; and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away" (Isaiah 50:5) and St Antony the Great who did not hear directly from God but from a simple deacon reading the Word of God "So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, 'You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.'" (Luke 18:22).

III. The Second Type: Itching Ears

St. Paul mentioned this second type in his second epistle to Timothy, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). What does it mean to "have itching ears"?

  • Being allergic to God's teachings and His true Word. According to St. Paul, there will come a time, and is already here, when people will not tolerate listening to spiritual teaching and will just want to run away and escape from it.
  • Looking for whoever is willing to tell them what they want to hear not what they need and should listen to. "Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many" (Matthew 24:11).
  • Moving from one Spiritual Father to the next, looking for the easier and the softer advice, becomes a prominent feature in the church these days.
  • Rejecting parents' advice and following those of strangers, wrong teachings, new thoughts and theories
  • Moving from one denomination to the next in search for the one that is ready to twist the original traditional apostolic teachings in order to suit their purposes of divorce and living a lost life
  • Finding it difficult to accept and consequently repent for their sins and hence try to find all excuses to evade repentance and confession. A good example is Herod who wanted to take his brother's wife to himself. When John the Baptist said "no" to him, Herod wanted to get rid of the voice of truth. So, he did not hesitate to take John's life at the mere demand of that harlot. "For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.' Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias' daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, 'Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.' He also swore to her, 'Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.' So she went out and said to her mother, 'What shall I ask?' And she said, 'The head of John the Baptist!' Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, 'I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.' And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to" (Mark 6:17-29). Every time we do not lend our ears and respond to a word of truth or rebuke, we kill John the Baptist in our hearts.

Another example of itching ears are the Jewish people who left the Lord Jesus Christ and walked no more with Him because they did not accept the true teaching regarding the Communion, that this is indeed His body and His Blood (John 6:41-69).

What is the Solution?
1. Listen with a Spirit of Attentiveness and Awe
After every Divine liturgy, ask yourself:

  • What were the readings about?
  • How has it touched you?
  • How have you benefited from it spiritually?

These three questions will act as an attention and concentration detector regarding your ears and heart during the prayers. It is not arbitrary that the Church prays the Litany of the Gospel "that we may hear and act according to the holy gospels." Also the Church has with the direction of the Holy Spirit organized the prayer prayed inaudibly by the priest during the reading of the Pauline letter and which says "You also now, O Good One and Lover of Mankind, we ask You, grant us and all Your people a mind free from wandering and a clear understanding that we may know and understand how profitable are Your holy teachings which are now read to us through him."

2. Listen with a Spirit of Prayer
Pray to God in a spirit of and lawlessness and humbleness that He may open your heart, remove the stony one and grant you flesh one that feels and responds, "'Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. but as for those whose hearts follow the desire for their detestable things and their abominations; I will recompense their deeds on their own heads,' says the Lord God" (Ezekiel 11:19-21).

It is God who opens the heart to heed His words as He did with Lydia "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14).

3. Listen with a Spirit of Faith
It is very important that we believe what we hear from the Word of God. Faith will change our life. Let us not follow the footsteps of Jonah and take God lightly. God gave Jonah the Prophet a specific message with a specific time limit and action plan. However, he took all of them in a spirit of doubt. The people of Nineveh proved more proactive than him and hearkened to God's admonishment. "And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day's walk. Then he cried out and said, 'Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!' So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them" (Jonah 3:4-5). When we hear it said, read or quoted, that liars will be thrown in the lake of fir, "But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie" (Revelation 22:15), let us believe those words will come true. Let us take them seriously and act in repentance of our sins, reformation of our conduct and restoration of God's image in us before it becomes too late and we find the door shut before our face.

4. Listen with a Spirit of Pro-activity
Listening to God's Word has to be translated into readiness on our side to act on it. Otherwise it becomes worse than not having listened at all.

Listen to God describing to Ezekiel the prophet people's attitude towards His Word, "As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses; and they speak to one another, everyone saying to his brother, 'Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.' So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them, and when this comes to pass —surely it will come— then they will know that a prophet has been among them"(Ezekiel 33:30-33). What God the Almighty implies here is that people come and listen to His commandments, teachings and admonishment, admire them the way they admire a song and uplift the prophet and teacher as they would a singer. But how far have their lives been affected by the Word and the prophet; and how much change has occurred in their lives? That is what God is wondering about in His words to Ezekiel.

IV. Conclusion

Sinning lies not so much in sinning, but in not listening to the Holy Spirit while it rebukes us for our sins and urges us to return to God in repentance, obedience and readiness to listen. We should follow the footsteps of St. Paul when he submitted himself totally and willfully with no resistance to the Will of God, "And he said, 'Who are You, Lord?' Then the Lord said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'" (Acts 9:5). King David is a classic example of someone whose soft heart and attentive ears helped him work out his salvation. Like Herod, King David did cover his first sin with a second one. However, unlike Herod, when the voice of rebuke came to him through Nathan, "Thus says the Lord: 'Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun" (2 Samuel 11:12), King David did not resist but hearkened, admitted and repented thus becoming legend in tearful heart-felt repentance as revealed in Psalm 50. The Holy Spirit constantly rebukes the world for every sin.

May we all become good listeners and heed to the Word of our Lord throughout our life,

Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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