Listen to Him

February 14, 2010

(Exodus 34.29-35; Luke 9, 28-36)

“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, the chosen one; listen to him!”

In our readings today we have two accounts of people listening to God’s voice. Moses went up onto Mount Sinai, and came back with the commandments of God written on two tablets. He told the leaders of the Hebrews, and then all the people, what God had said to him on the mountain. When he had listened to God, his face shone, though he was unaware of it at first.

In the Gospel reading we have Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus. As he speaks to Moses and Elijah, his face shines, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Then out of a cloud comes the voice of God, telling the awed disciples to listen to Jesus.

In the Old Testament, the voice of God is heard through the Law and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah are a sort of shorthand for these two collections of writings.

In the New Testament, the word of God is heard through Jesus, both in what he does and in what he says. But, as the three Synoptic Gospel writers all emphasise, the disciples find it much easier to listen to the message of God through what they see of Jesus than through what they hear him say. They rejoice to see the power of God at work in the healing miracles; they want to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus shines with the glory of the spiritual world; but they argue with him when he says that the way to that glory goes through suffering, persecution and death on the cross. They heard the words – but they could not accept their true meaning.

The first disciples were able to listen to Jesus directly. But how do we 21st century disciples listen to him? Our main channel is through the written word – especially in the Bible. But the written word has severe limitations. In particular, we cannot hear the tone of voice in which something was spoken, or see the body language that accompanies it. This means that we may get quite the wrong idea about what the speaker really means.

I can illustrate this by telling you about an essay I wrote when I was a teenager at school. We had been asked to write about ‘The Youth of Today’, which I obviously thought was a very boring title, so I amused myself by writing it in the style of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, saying how undisciplined  young people were and how a spell in the army would do them all a lot of good, etc. When the essay was commented on, and bits of it read out in class, I was horrified to realise that my teacher had taken it all seriously, and thought this was what I really thought. The written word had not conveyed the irony I had intended.

So, when we read the words of Jesus in the Bible we need to ask ourselves how Jesus intended us to hear it. Was he telling a joke when he said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Was he really being as rude as he sounds when he told the Syro-Phonecian woman that the children had to be fed first before the dogs? How serious was he when he said ‘if your eye offends you, pluck it out’? We need to be aware of the possibilities of these different ways of speaking when we read the Bible, and not treat everything Jesus says as if it is a direct command.

The second thing we need to keep in mind is that we don’t have any words of Jesus written by him. What we have are accounts of his words and actions, mediated through writers  and editors, who all have their own agendas, with different understandings of who Jesus is and what his coming means for the Jews and for the world. They also have a different understanding from us of what it means to record the teaching of a person. In New Testament times it was considered perfectly proper to put words into the mouth of a person, if it fitted with the general drift of their teaching. It’s like the sort of thing we get nowadays in ‘faction’ television programmes.

So, we need to listen to those Biblical scholars who try to tease out what are likely to be the authentic words of Jesus, from those which are teachings of the later Christian Church. It is fairly obvious from the differences between the Gospels that their writers added interpretations and explanations to the  teaching they recorded, in order to make it understood by their readers.

Scholars also use various ‘tests’ to make their judgements, such as distinctiveness, teaching that goes against the current religious and social practice, and the use of humour and paradox to try to sift what Jesus said from the common wisdom of the time which was included in the gospels. Using such tests, people like the Jesus Seminar – a group of over 70 New Testament Scholars in America – come out with a much slimmer body of words of Jesus than we get in our four Gospels.

But even if you were to accept all the teaching attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels as genuine, we still have the problem of the editorial bias of the four Gospel writers. Each of them had a subtly different picture of Jesus to convey when they selected and arranged their material, so each only gives a partial picture of his teaching. Mark presents a Jesus who is a suffering saviour and a miracle worker, with very little teaching material apart from a few parables. Mark is also, according to Michael Goulder, a follower of Paul, so he presents a Jesus who sits light to the Jewish Law.

Matthew on the other hand, presents a Jesus who is a teacher, and a faithful son of the Law. He, according to Goulder, was a follower of the Jewish Christian Church led by Peter and James, so he places much more emphasis on Jesus’ teaching, and on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and on the times that Jesus kept the Jewish Law. Luke’s Jesus is a man of prayer, a friend of women, and an advocate of the poor. So, he chooses to record those parables and those parts of Jesus’ teaching that emphasise these aspects.

The Jesus that the Gospel of John presents is radically different from the other three Gospels. His Jesus is the risen, glorified second person of the Trinity.He tells no parables and does not teach about the Kingdom of Heaven at all. He speaks mainly about himself, in long discourses which use symbols such as light, water and shepherd to convey his message. Almost all of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel is likely to be the words of the writer, not of the historical Jesus.

Most of us are likely to be more attracted to one of these presentations of Jesus than the others, and we will tend to ‘listen’ to the Jesus in our favourite Gospels more readily than to the Jesus of the other three. This is fine, so long as we realise that we are getting only a partial picture of what Jesus is saying to us through the Bible. We need to be aware of all four to get a more rounded picture. We also need to remember that, through his Spirit, Jesus also speaks to us through the rest of the New Testament, through the book of  Acts, and the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John, and through the writings called Hebrews and Revelation. All of those present to us the  message of  God which came through the Incarnation, filtered through the minds of other people, but Jesus speaking to us just the same.

Some people, of course, will not hear the voice of Jesus chiefly through the written word. They encounter God as the Spirit speaks to them through art, or music, through their encounters with other people, through solitude and contemplation, or through the glories of nature. For them, the Bible will simply provide a canon – a measure against which to judge the authenticity of their experience of Jesus speaking to them.

We can none of us escape the human bias of the writers who conveyed Jesus’ words to us – nor our own characters and inclinations which provide the filter through which we ‘hear’ God. But if we are truly open to the Spirit, truthful about our own prejudices, humble about our own capabilities and tolerant of the views of others who hear different things – then we are more likely to be able to respond to God’s command to ‘listen to him’.

And how will we know if we are succeeding. Well, surely, the mark of the authentic listener to the Son, is that, like Moses, our faces, indeed our whole lives, will shine with the reflected glory of God.


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