One of the ways Jesus described himself, while he walked among us, was by saying, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He praised anyone and everyone who was seeking the Truth, even if that person had a sketchy past as a despised tax collector or was known as the village prostitute. That did not matter to Jesus as long as you were seeking the truth. Jesus praised those who were sincerely seeking the truth and tried to correct the arrogant who thought they alone had the truth. When you seek the truth, you become righteous. When you stop seeking the truth–but choose to live as if you have all the truth–you become self-righteous. The self-righteous in Jesus’ time were called Pharisees, or as Jesus correctly named them—hypocrites. When Jesus is condemned and stands before Pontius Pilate he tells us why he came into the world. He said, “I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth.” He didn’t come to be a fundraiser; he didn’t come to oversee building projects; he didn’t come to start a new religion; he didn’t come to seek his own glory. He came to bear witness to the truth, the truth about God and the truth about us. He is divine, so he can show us the truth about the divine. Jesus is also fully human, so he can tell us the truth about ourselves.
When I was a boy, we had altar boys, not altar servers. Now we have boys and girls, men and women serving in the sanctuary, which is a good thing. As altar boys, the parish priest would always do something special for us, usually at the end of the school year, to express his gratitude. One year we spent two days in Oka, at the Trappist Monastery. After welcoming us, the abbot of the monastery asked us boys if we had any questions we wanted answered. One boy asked: why do monks not speak? The abbot, not using sign language but actually speaking said, “We don’t speak so that we can listen to God better. When we are talking, we are not listening.”
That is how we all come to know truth in our lives, by talking less and listening more. When I take the time to listen to others and hear their truth, I enter more deeply into the great Truth that is guiding both my life and the other person’s life. It’s the same dynamic at work in my relationship with God. When I stop talking and just listen, then I have a chance of being guided by God and God’s great Truth rather than my own ramblings.
In Biblical times before a prophet could be considered a prophet, that person first had to be a good listener. Makes sense. If you are going to speak God’s word, you better know God’s word. And the only way of knowing God’s word is to listen. Ezekiel is considered the last of the major prophets. He spent many years in exile, in Babylon, after the Babylonians destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem and took over his beloved country of Judah. During those years, while in a foreign country–basically a refugee camp–Ezekiel learned to listen to the stories of pain and struggle of his fellow citizens. He also strained to listen to what God was saying to these refugees in the midst of their suffering. Only after five years of listening did God allow Ezekiel to speak on God’s behalf as a prophet. You do not have the luxury of speaking as God’s prophet until you learn how to listen. In commissioning Ezekiel to speak on his behalf, he tells Ezekiel, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a Prophet among them.”
Question: Do you know what the worst thing you can do to Phil Mulligan?
Answer: Ignore me, do not acknowledge me. If you want to wound me deeply, treat me like a non-entity. Pretend I’m not even there. I do not have to be the life of the party, but nothing cuts more deeply than to be snubbed, disregarded, or overlooked. I would rather you throw rocks at me than walk by me and ignore me. (Please, don’t try it just to prove me right).
Jesus in the synagogue is the Truth those peoples’ lives needed, but they preferred their little, limited truth…thank you very much. They closed their ears to the Prophet of all prophets who was in their midst. They took offense at him. They closed their ears and then their hearts to this local boy. How dare he, the son of a lowly carpenter, the son of Mary—a nobody—speak like he knows the truth about God. He was ignored, warned not to come back, and in one version of the gospel almost thrown over a cliff and killed. And this is at a church service!
When we stop listening to greater truths and settle for only shoring up our small, convenient truths, we are never far away from doing violence. Every Good Friday when we listen to that long Passion reading, we hear about how Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter draws a sword and cuts off the right ear of the servant of the high priest. Apart from obvious reasons, why is cutting off someone’s ear a bad thing? The reason it’s a bad thing is that without ears, we cannot hear each other. Once we stop listening to each other, we are never far from doing each other violence. The swords are sure to come out. When my truth is the only truth, I will even defend it with the sword, and I don’t care whose right ear gets in the way.
They did not listen to Jesus when he preached in the synagogue in his own home town of Capernaum. They already had their minds made up and were not about to change. Because they shut down the truth from reaching their ears and their hearts, it says Jesus could do no deed of power there, except to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them. The few who were cured, opened their ears and their hearts to the truth that walked among them.
I wonder what kind of a Church we would have, what kind of a country we would have, and what kind of relationship we would have with our First Nations brothers and sisters had we first taken the time to listen before we spoke. I wonder how differently history would have unfolded if we as a Church would have recognized that truth inherent within the First Nations people rather than assuming we had the entire truth. What would the Church be like if we erred from an excess of compassion rather than from a stingy and legalistic lack of it?
Jesus knew the necessity and the power of prayer. It was in prayer that he got in touch with God, the source of all truth. It was in prayer that he was able to say, “Not my will but yours; not my little truth but your great Truth.” Listening to God was Jesus’ food, his nourishment, and he demands the same diet from his followers.
The same weakness, the same sinfulness, that plagued the Church in the past, still plagues us now. I know the Pharisee, the hypocrite, the one willing to draw the sword and stop listening lives on in me. I wish it didn’t, but I just know I am no better than those who came before me. And like Paul, I too pray that this thorn be taken away from me. Perhaps I have to live with the thorn of my own imperfection and the Church’s as well for a little while longer until I learn its lesson. In the meantime, like Paul, we have to learn that God’s grace is sufficient for ourselves, for those we have hurt, for our country and for the entire world. While we take offense at God, God never takes offense at us. If we dare to enter into our weakness, and admit our limitations, our very weakness will be transformed into the strength of God.
Fr. Phil Mulligan