Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Deeper listening

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the July 29, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Can you imagine the number of conversations we have with people during the course of any given day! The words must fly from our lips by the thousands. Some have an impact; others, not. The well-known phrase “through one ear and out the other” often could characterize not only the frustration of many a parent in disciplining their children, but also our own attempts to communicate. It truly is difficult to develop those kinds of listening skills which connect us with others in an authentic way.

If we were to really listen, we would discover that the words people use sometimes say more about a person’s state of being than what we hear. For example, were someone to ask, “Why do you hate me?” we may be tempted to merely answer, “But I don’t hate you!” All we have may have heard is a request for an explanation of our presumed hatred. If we were to listen more attentively, however, we may hear something entirely different. Hidden painfully behind the accuser’s words may be a cry for respect and love. When listened to more carefully, “Why do you hate me?” may well be the more direct statement “Nobody loves me anymore!” What originally seemed to be an angry confrontation is, in reality, a heart-felt cry for love.

Jesus was a master at listening behind words. Case in point: the scene in a recent Sunday Gospel reading in which a scholar of the Jewish Torah, the Law, asks of Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man’s question is an earnest one, even if on the surface it seems to be a litmus test of Jesus’ orthodoxy.

The question the scholar raises lies at the core of every human heart; it is just phrased differently in different times and in different cultures. Nowadays, we may ask, “What must I do to get to heaven?” or “How do I get to know God?” Phrase it as we wish, the words pose the same fundamental question: Where do I find ultimate happiness? Where do I satisfy the restlessness of my heart? Where and how do I find God?

This search is particularly passionate in the man who confronts Jesus. The questioner seems to be at that stage of life where the search for the way of God remains clouded with egoism, academic self-sufficiency, and the myriad of spiritual ruts which deaden the quest or, worse, communicate the false sense that one has solved all the mysteries of life.

It is beneficial to our spiritual growth to observe the way in which Jesus engages this man, because the Lord is, in fact, conversing with us.

Jesus responds to the man’s honest question with a reference to the demands of the Covenant. “You know the Law found in the Torah; how do you read it?”

The man responds with the essence of the relationship: “Thou shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole mind, with all your strength – and your neighbor as yourself.” Having heard this phrase weekly, if not daily, in the synagogue, it was etched in his mind and served well as a catechetical truism memorized since childhood.

Jesus listens carefully behind the words. He hears what the man is really saying in his glib question, “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?” Jesus hears the voice of a sincere conscience – one that recognizes what is good. With sincere enthusiasm he knows the right thing, but will he actually do it? Will his love translate into practical, open-hearted, non-limited (prejudiced) action? He does seem locked in his head when he seeks to justify himself by wanting to know who his neighbor is (and, by implication, who is not).

Jesus responds to the self-justifying query with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. He moves the man’s quest from a litmus test for catechetical orthodoxy to one of genuine, practiced faith.

In the story, the priest and Levite stay clear of the naked, bloodied man in the ditch because they are preoccupied with the liturgical obligations of temple worship. Touching such a bloodied man, or being stained by any of his body fluids, would have rendered them culticly impure and disqualified to offer sacrifice in the temple (that is, to get right with God). Interestingly, the Samaritan observed the same basic rules of ritual purity as a layman, yet his preoccupation with fulfilling not just the letter but the spirit of the Torah led him to act in neighborly fashion to someone in need (and to act lavishly, at that).

Jesus, in effect, turns the noun in the man’s self-righteous query (“Who is my neighbor?”) into a dynamic adverb: Who acted in a neighborly manner? The priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan? One need not have an academic degree to make the decision: it obviously was the Good Samaritan.

Then comes the punch line uttered so lovingly, yet piercingly, by Jesus. Answering the man’s original question (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”), Jesus simply says, “Then go and do likewise.” Jesus hears something significant behind the man’s words. Why does he speak of “inheriting” God’s Kingdom? Does he think the Kingdom of God is his right? Is it something owed to him? Is it something that he will experience just by being doctrinally accurate? Does he think that it can be gained by merely completing the paperwork, as it were, completing some special task that seals the victory?

Not just speaking the right thing, or knowing the right thing, but doing what is demanded by the covenant relationship, is what exposes the believer to the grace of God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not inherited; it is received as gift. It is a blessing of grace known to those who die to self and live for others. The man in the Gospel – and we ourselves, hopefully – know the fundamental demands of our relationship with God. We are “scholars” of the law. There is something about us that wants to know the exact parameters of its demand (“And who is my neighbor?”). Jesus confronts us, too, with the Good Samaritan story. The litmus test of our belief is not made not so much in our heads, but in hearts which manifest a faith in action which knows no prejudice or limitation.

(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)

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