“Just listen”. These are words we hear said, they are words we do say, often when we are simply in disagreement with another person. And there is truth in them. Sometimes when we are sure our opinion is right, we simply cannot hear any other view point. When we know what we believe, we don’t bother to put ourselves in another’s position to hear how they see things or view things. When we are certain we are right, why would be take the time to try to understand an opposing view? Why would we even bother to listen? I know I am guilty of failing to listen or seriously consider a differing view point at times, even when I try to be open-minded. There are certain ideas that simply won’t get a hearing when run by me. We simply fail to listen at times.
In the children’s movie, “Brave” there is a wonderful scene about a mother and her teenage daughter. They have just had a terrible argument, and the scene moves back and forth between each of them as they discuss the argument, separately, each with someone else. It is a wonderful scene as each practices or envisions a conversation with the other. But what is most relevant to today is that each one is certain that the other is simply failing to listen. And as they practice what they will say to each other when they are next together, the scene moves back and forth between each saying repeatedly to the other, “if you would just listen!” “I think you would understand if you could just listen!”
This is a familiar conversation, I think, that parents and teens experience. Each has their own view point, and they either truly don’t listen to one another, or they are accused of not listening because they continue in their own opinions even when they do. But as with the movie, Brave, in which the entire plot is centered around both the mother and daughter’s failures to listen, to respect or to even try to understand the opposing views, similarly, when we fail to listen, fail to hear, we tear rips in our relationships with others, we block true intimacy by blocking our ability to truly understand one another. We can learn to disagree while still listening and helping others know that we hear and understand them, but this takes work, it takes effort. And most of the time I think we simply choose not to really listen.
So then when we look at the scriptures lessons for today, we can relate to the conversations that we hear, first between Moses and God, and second between Jesus and the Pharisees. In the Exodus passage, God promises Moses that he will go with him to help him lead the people. But Moses either doesn’t listen or doesn’t trust what God is saying. Because right after God has promised, “I’ll go myself and I’ll help you,” Moses jumps in with “If you won’t go ….” . And even after God promises to do exactly what Moses has asked again, Moses pushes, “Well, show me your presence.” He pushes and pushes, not hearing what God is agreeing to do, and failing to trust what God is saying.
Then we come to the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about taxes is one in a long line of questions that they have asked him with the purpose of entrapping Jesus. They know that if Jesus answers that they shouldn’t pay this tax, he will be accused of sedition. They also know that if he says that they should pay the taxes, he will enrage many of his followers on religious grounds because he will be going against the religious laws of the time. They ask him a question that they believe he can’t win as they try to undermine him in any way they can. They continually ask him questions, this one just being the last in a series, whose sole purpose is to discredit him with the people. But the point here is that they are so focused on trying to knock him down, that they, too, are unable to listen, unable to hear what he is telling them again and again, with every sentence, with every statement, with everything that he does. They have an agenda, and nothing will dissuade them from that. Their ears are simply closed to any new information, to any new vision, to anything that might challenge or change the mission they have set for themselves to discredit Jesus.
It would seem every effort God made to get Moses to listen was met with resistance. And it seems that nothing Jesus did could help the Pharisees to hear. What helps us to hear? When we are entrenched in our opinions and our beliefs to the point that we are unable to listen, to be open even to God’s movement or message among us, what moves us from that place to one of hearing?
Sometimes, someone says something that can catch us in a way that nothing else has. I’ve shared with you before about the movie, “The Color of Fear” which is a documentary about a weekend retreat for men on the subject of racism. I shared it in the context of opening our eyes, of seeing. Hearing is the same: it is hard, and we are called to do it, so I’m choosing to share the story again. Men of all backgrounds and ethnicities came to participate in this conversation about racial prejudice. They made a commitment to be open in their conversations, to trust one another, to explore the topic of racism. But there was one white man who quickly became the center of the conversation. He kept insisting that there was no longer any racism in this country and that the men who were sharing their experiences of racial prejudice, were in fact, just blaming others for their problems. Some of the men of color, having heard these accusations, left the conversation saying that it was not their job to change this man, that his ignorance made him not worth their time. But most of the men stayed with the white man, sharing stories, telling of their own experiences. They stayed steadfast in their commitment to justice, and their commitment to care for this one man, even in the face of his anger, his denial, his rudeness, his accusations and his blame. They calmly and consistently shared their stories with him while he continued to say that they were hurt, ignored, passed over, and much, much worse because of their flaws, not because of racism. But despite their care, despite their calm and simply presence, despite the stories they told again and again, this man simply could not hear them. And nothing they did was impacting that block to listening. Finally, towards the end of the weekend, the leader of the retreat turned to this white man and said, “What would it mean for you if the stories you are hearing are true? What would it mean for you if we really have experienced the racial prejudice, hatred and discrimination that we are sharing with you?”
This question caught the man off guard. He became very quiet, for the first time all weekend as he reflected on these words. Finally, he said, very slowly, very quietly, “It would mean that the world is not as beautiful as I need to believe that it is.” He began to cry as he continued, “and it would mean that I was part of the problem.” For this man, a question helped him to listen. He was caught by a moment that surprised him.
But we know that it can take even more for people to learn how to listen. Sometimes it takes “hitting bottom” for us to be able to hear, to listen and to change. It takes experience to change. We know that this is true with people with addictions. Often people cannot make the choice to hear what others are telling him or her about having an addiction and needing to do something about it until they hit some kind of bottom – become so ill they have to change, or lose their jobs, or lose a relationship. The same is true for all of us who are stuck in a place where we are unwilling to listen, even when what we might learn could make our lives better, more full. In the movie, “Brave” which I shared about at the beginning, it took a trauma that threatened to destroy their family for both mother and daughter to finally listen and hear one another. It literally would have been the end of life for the mother if she had not listened, and the daughter would have lost her mom if she had not listened. While it is a story, a movie, it reflects the truth that listening is hard. And sometimes we just would rather not do it. For many people, prejudice of any kind – against people of different cultural backgrounds, races, ethnicities, LGBTQ folk, people of different religions – the prejudice is not overcome until we really know someone in the category of those we would dismiss: a son or a daughter or a family member is often the most able to help us change because they are people we love already. But we also know the experience of changing our opinions, of growing, is hard; and sometimes very painful.
A rabbi lived in a rural area with his son. As the boy grew, he began to take walks each day in the woods around their home. The rabbi thought it was good for him to explore on his own in order to build his self-confidence. He noticed, though, that the boy was gone longer and longer each day. The rabbi began to worry that his son was straying too far and might get lost or encounter danger. The next morning, he talked to him about his concern. "I've noticed how much time you are spending in the woods," the rabbi said. "What do you do there?"
"Oh," said the lad, "I go into the woods to listen for the voice of God."
"Ah," smiled the Rabbi, "that is a good thing, but don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"
The boy pondered a moment and then replied, "Yes, Father, but I am not the same everywhere."
There is life in the listening. There is healing in listening. Finding the best way for each of us to listen is vital. There is depth in being willing to strive for understanding of another view point. For Moses, listening to God would have created in him a sense of peace, comfort, dimmed the anxiety, given him a strength in continuing even when the people turned against him at times. Eventually Moses did listen, despite the challenges that posed for him, and so he was able to fulfill his call to the people, to do the work God gave him to do and to exit in peace. But it took time, time that could have brought him peace sooner. For the Pharisees, their failure to listen meant they missed out on God right there with them. The Pharisees were the legal faith authorities of the day, the legal leaders, the church authorities. And yet these men, these people who had dedicated their lives to God’s law missed out on God’s presence right there with them. I can’t think of a greater tragedy for these people than to miss out on the very thing they were striving to be part of their whole lives. We know that for some, even hitting bottom won’t be enough to help them to change, to grow, to move.
I also want to state the obvious here, that listening does not mean agreeing. We can listen and still come out with very different opinions and very different understandings. However, taking the time to listen, to say to someone, “This is what I am hearing you say…”, taking time to repeat in your own words what the other is saying and only then stating your own opinion – these are choices to listen, to be in relationship, to build bridges, and deepen communication. These are choices that state that the relationship is more important than the disagreements, and it can be a huge step towards reconciliation and healing.
Where, then is the Good News in that? We see in both of these Biblical stories that God continued to be loving and faithful, even when the people wouldn’t listen. God remained faithful to Moses, responded to Moses, gave Moses what he wanted, even when Moses was challenging God, even when Moses was unwilling to listen. God remained steadfast. The tender compassion that God has for God’s children continued no matter what. Jesus similarly does not refuse to talk to the Pharisees. He does not ignore their question even. He stays engaged with them, even in his anger, even as he realizes that he is being set up. He continues to be present and he continues to try to show them a better way. He speaks to them in a manner they don’t expect, turning the question around in a way that might, just might, jar them into actually hearing him. He says, give to God what is God and to Caesar what is Caesars. And he leaves it to them to figure out what that means. He tries to engage their higher thinking and their higher listening for a deeper answer. What does it mean? Caesar’s face is on the coin, but ultimately doesn’t everything, including Caesar, belong to God? Jesus throws it back as a question, as a challenge for the Pharisees. What really belongs to God? What really belongs to Caesar? Who is ultimately the one in charge of everything?
This passage is not meant to answer the question of taxes for us. Instead, it is a story about Jesus, and therefore about God. It tells us that even in those hard questions, those things we struggle to understand, God chooses to be present with us. It tells us that we are called to think through things by listening with open ears. It calls us to be present and to engage further with our questions, our thoughts, our hopes, our doubts, and ultimately all that we are. To listen. And when we can’t listen, to rest in the love of a very patient and very present God who will wait for us to be able to listen, and will still be talking when we are able to open our ears.