The Human Tendency Toward Acquired Deafness

There was an important passage in the Gospel for Saturday’s Mass (Saturday of the 25th Week of the Year). It displays the human tendency to filter out or ignore what we do not want to hear.

Jesus had been casting out demons. We then read,

While they were all amazed at his every deed, Jesus said to his disciples, “Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was hidden from them so that they should not understand it, and they were afraid to ask him about this saying (Luke 9:43-45).

Note that Jesus admonishes them to pay attention. These strong words highlight the human tendency to be inattentive to what the Lord is telling us. In the Greek text, the construction is even more intense (Θέσθε ὑμεῖς εἰς τὰ ὦτα ὑμῶν τοὺς λόγους τούτους). Here is the literal translation of the Greek: Let sink you into the ears of you the words of these. The repetition of the word “you” has the effect of saying: “Hey, you! Pay attention to what I’m telling you! Yeah, I’m talking to you!

So the Lord wants our attention. He wants us to listen closely, word for word, to what He is about to tell us. What is He going to tell us? He is going to tell us about the cross; and we don’t want to hear it. In effect we say, “Tell us about anything but the cross, Jesus. Tell us about how much you love us, that you are our shepherd, that you are going to open Heaven. Tell us how you will destroy our enemies and Satan, but don’t tell us about the cross you will endure or that we must share in it! We don’t want to hear about sacrifice—yours or ours. We don’t want hear about our need to repent or to change.”

Add to this tendency the historical context wherein the Jews expected the Messiah to be a conquering warlord, not a suffering servant. The Messiah would mow down the Romans by the sword and drown them in their own blood. He would usher in an era of prosperity and restore the Kingdom of David in all its glory. Peter and the others were thinking of a place in the palace, of being heads in the new Government. They were thinking of power and prestige, of a corner office with a commanding view.

On hearing of a suffering servant (cf Isaiah 53) the disciples just tuned out; their eyes glazed over and they seemed incapable of processing the plain meaning of the words The Son of Man is to be handed over to men. Their minds were closed to this truth or they rationalized it as mere hyperbole or some highly unlikely possibility.

That is why Jesus says to them and to us, “Pay attention!”

Are we paying attention? Do we think that the Christian life is merely to be a pleasant one without the need of dying in order to rise with Christ (2 Cor 4:10)? Do we think we can avoid going to Jerusalem to die with Jesus (Jn 11:16), to suffer with Him outside the gate (Hebrews 13:12)? Do we think He was just exaggerating when He said that the world would hate us (Mat 24:9, Jn 15:19), that we would have tribulation, that we would be hauled into court (Lk 21:12), that some in our very families would turn against us (Lk 12:53)?

Too easily we tune out emotionally and intellectually. We dismiss these admonitions as unlikely for us, or at least an exaggeration. Our eyes glaze over we become sluggish about listening.

The text goes on to say that the meaning of Jesus’ words was hidden from them (notice the use of the passive voice). This translation may be too passive, however. The Greek παρακεκαλυμμένον (parakekalummenon) is a perfect participle translated as “veiled” or “hidden” but it is actually in the middle voice. The middle voice is in between the passive and the active voices and indicates some cooperation by the person who is acted upon. Thus, while the meaning may be hidden or veiled in some sense, the disciples cooperate in keeping it veiled; they want to keep it this way. They will not ask questions or even try to understand the teaching because it is paradoxical and threatening to them.

This is true for us as well. Often, when we sense something difficult or challenging in a teaching we fail to pursue any clarification. Our philosophy seems to be this: Ask not, lest you be answered (in a way you don’t like)! We feign ignorance with difficult or challenging teachings. We are forgetful or dull of hearing.

Much of this is attributable to our human weakness. Somewhere, I hear the Lord saying to us, especially regarding the controversial and difficult teachings of our day, “Pay attention to what I am saying to you. Are you listening?”

Does the Lord have your attention?

2 Replies to “The Human Tendency Toward Acquired Deafness”

  1. IMHO, these are good points (plus you provide a bonus music track). Refusal to hear can be multi-faceted in its causes. We can have the mechanics for hearing and know the vocabulary but the message doesn’t get through. Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah experienced a problem with not being heard or else being ignored. Denial, sloth, dishonesty, presumption, pride, deliberately “stopping the ears, interruptions to block hearing seem like they can all contribute to the outcome.

  2. A great essay. Paradoxically, this reminder of the Cross makes me feel better, because I always seem to slip into the belief that if you’re suffering, it’s because God doesn’t love you anymore (or maybe He never did!), or God has abandoned you. It’s never a conscious thought, just an emotional weight or dread in the background that colors everything. It helps to remember that Jesus came not to deliver us from all suffering in this life, but to suffer WITH us, in solidarity with us.

Comments are closed.