There is a big difference between hearing and listening.
If you have ever been to a party, asked someone his or her name and then halfway through the conversation forgotten it, then you know the difference. We sometimes tell ourselves that we are just bad with names. But the fact is that we are really bad at listening.
Have you ever driven home from Mass and asked yourself what the readings were about and could not remember? Have your parents ever asked you to do something and as soon as you left the room forgotten what it was? Have you ever bumped into a friend at the store and stopped to talk but are so busy thinking about all the errands you have to run that you are not at all paying attention to the conversation?
Hearing is simply a matter of letting sounds and words ring in our ears. Listening is something entirely different. It requires focus and attention. We not only hear the words but understand their meaning. Not only do we pay attention to what the person is saying but how he or she is feeling, how important the matter at hand is to them and how in need they are of someone who cares. When we truly listen to others, we are telling them that they are important and that what they care about matters.
Listening brings with it much healing. When marriages are in trouble what is often the issue is that the spouses are not listening to each other. How many marriages would be repaired if the husband and wife took the time to sit down and listen to each other? Or have you ever had the experience of feeling overwhelmed, stressed out or depressed but snapping out of it because someone took the time to listen to you? When we take the time to slow down and really pay attention to one another, we can bring real change into our relationships and even our society. As today’s first reading puts it, “Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man. And the first sound he hears is the voice of Jesus. Because of this encounter with the Savior, he is opened up to a whole new world of chirping birds, wind rustling through the trees and music. He can also enter more deeply into relationship with others because he can really listen to them in a way that was not possible for him before.
Jesus can do the same for us. We may not need to have our hearing corrected but we do need a more impressive miracle. We need to be given the ability to listen. And the first person we need to be listening to is God.
We have all heard so many of the gospel stories. But how many of us have taken them to heart? How many of us have changed our lives because of what we have heard proclaimed in the Scripture? How often is our prayer just about rattling off the Our Father without giving much thought to the words such as “thy will be done” or “as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Or how often are we so busy telling God what we need from Him instead of listening to what He requires of us?
Thankfully, God has given us a remedy for our blocked up ears. It is the Bible. When we read the Bible, we become attuned to God’s voice. By taking time every day to open up the Scriptures and truly listen to what it has to teach us, we learn the mind of our Heavenly Father and desire to know Him more and more. As we ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand it, our ears are opened to the marvels of God’s love for us and we become more attentive to His voice calling us to follow Him.
We all need to be listening to one another and in particular, to the cry of the poor. We are too often deaf to the needs of those around us. We cannot hear the groaning of those who do not have enough to feed their families or who are underemployed. Often we cannot hear them because our own concerns are ringing in our ears. Today’s second reading from the letter of James speaks clearly to this. He is speaking to a parish and a community much like our own with a mix of wealthy and poor people. To which are we most attentive? Which are most important in our eyes? How are we listening to the needs of all the members of our community and what are we doing to help meet those needs?
Again, God gives us a remedy for our deafness to the needs of our neighbors. It is the practice of the works of mercy. When we go out of our way to feed the hungry, to instruct the ignorant or to pray for the dead, we become more attuned to the needs of others. Our own needs are put into perspective as we reach out to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We see first hand the pain and burdens that so many of our brothers and sisters deal with daily. We come to treat them as persons created in the image and likeness of God and refuse to look down on them or blame them for their misfortunes. Then we become able to truly listen to them and respond in a way that will really help.
It is often said that God gave us two ears and only one mouth; so we should be listening twice as much as speaking. We are called to pay attention to God’s call to us to live in accordance with His word and also to listen to the groanings of our brothers and sisters in need. We gather here to do just that. As we lift our voices in prayer to our Heavenly Father we hear Him say, “Be strong, fear not!” He will accomplish great things in and through us if we will only take the time to listen and obey.