The Urgency of Listening
by Adam S. McHugh
The beginning of discipleship is listening. At the sound of Jesus’ voice, his first followers dropped their nets and followed him. Of course, discipleship must involve more than one episode of listening; it is an ongoing journey of listening. Disciples are walking listeners. If we think that discipleship is lacking in today’s church, then perhaps we should place an emphasis on people learning how to listen.
Listening is important enough to Jesus that he devotes his first parable to it (Mark 4:1-20). In Mark’s Gospel Jesus frames the parable of the sower with the opening word “Listen!” and the closing exclamation “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Overtly about a farmer indiscriminately scattering seed on different types of soil, the story is actually about different types of hearers. There are the path hearers—those who don’t really hear at all, deflecting and dismissing Jesus’ words. There are the rocky listeners, who let the word penetrate a little but then reject it because of adverse voices of struggle and persecution. Third are the thorny listeners, who listen a while longer but slowly allow the subtle power of seductive voices—the accumulation of wealth and the sparkle of material things—to suffocate the word. Finally are the true and fruitful listeners, those who receive the word deep into themselves, where it does its proper work of flowering and bearing fruit.
What seems to separate the different types of listeners is the amount of effort that they put into listening. What we lack in understanding we can make up for in asking questions. The true listeners are those who stay, who crowd around Jesus and ask him the interpretation of the parable. This is the kind of listener God desires: those who pursue and seek and relentlessly question. They sit with Jesus’ words like an old friend that you know yet really don’t know, chewing and digesting, continuing to seek greater clarity and depth of understanding. They don’t just ask the first question; they also ask the second and third questions. They exhaust others with their questions.
We love to talk about listening. It’s easier than actually listening. There is much lip service paid to listening, but listening is a service of the ear, the mind and the heart. Listening is an act of servanthood, and serving is hard. There are no accolades in serving. When a servant is doing his job, no one notices. If we wish to imitate Jesus and become servants, we must learn how to listen.
—Excerpt adapted from Chapter 1, The Listening Life
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