17th Sunday of the Year
30 July 2017
Listening is a skill often unpracticed today; we only need to note current political discourse, TV commentators on current events, and even observe carefully our own family communications to realize that we tend to talk a lot and listen relatively little.
In the midst of a world where there is so much chatter and so little respectful attention we hear Solomon asking God in today's first reading for the gift of "a listening heart", preferring this disposition of openness to others more than power or wealth. For his part the Psalmist extolls the virtue of listening, the wisdom books of the Old Testament insist upon it ceaselessly, and our Lord himself often begins his teaching by urging his disciples to "hear a parable…" as we heard at mass two weeks ago.
In that same passage Jesus explained why active, conscious listening was critical for those to whom he preached, and remains so for us; he says that if we do not make this effort: "they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand… they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them" (Matt 13:13, 15).
St. Benedict too, not surprisingly, gets in on the act, beginning his monastic Rule with the words: "Listen carefully with the ear of the heart…", and urging his monks to have a great esteem for silence and attentiveness. The wisdom that arises from careful listening enables us to discern what is truly important in life and in our faith; this is what Jesus was trying to explain in the parable of the buried treasure and that of the pearl of great price. We do not sell everything we have and use the proceeds to buy an object if that object is not of truly compelling worth.
Circling back to the first reading for today we behold the great Solomon, faced with a momentous choice: God has offered to give him anything he asks for, even immense wealth, victory over his enemies, prestige-anything. The way Solomon responds is instructive: "I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong" (1 Kings 3:8-9).
What is rendered in the lectionary as an "understanding" heart actually means a "listening" heart in Hebrew. Perhaps the translators sought to explain what the metaphor of a listening heart is getting at, but I believe it requires no explanation. We all know how powerful language can be even when it is figurative: when we say or hear "my heart is broken", or "I jumped out of my skin". These are ways of capturing in limited human words the visceral reality of sadness or fear…or careful attentiveness.
In any case Solomon recognized what was of real value in living his vocation as a follower of the Lord and as the King of Israel: the wisdom that only comes with "a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5). In turn this wisdom only comes to those who are humble enough to listen to it quietly and peaceably. May we attune our hearts to be listening and understanding so that the Lord's precious gifts might not be lost on us, and so we may share them generously, "like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old" (Matt 13:52). (608 words)