Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost — Dr. David Walbert

Matthew 21:33–46
Isaiah 5:1–7
See also Mk. 12:1-12, Lk. 20:9-19

One afternoon last week I spent a little time at the Durham Arts Council, walking through the galleries, looking at the exhibitions of work by local artists. The great thing about the Arts Council galleries is that I never know what I’m going to get. It’s completely unpredictable. It could be photography or landscape painting, but it could be abstract sculpture or “fiber architecture” or (as it once was) hats. And it’s all completely new. There’s nothing familiar about any of it — no artist whose biography I recall from some class I took back in the late twentieth century, no named period whose history I can mentally outline. I don’t have any easy context for the art, no prefab intellectual framework into which I can place it. I’m always surprised. And so I just have to stand there awhile and… look at it.

Unless… I make the mistake of reading the artists’ statements. For those of you who don’t frequent art galleries, an artist’s statement is what an artist writes to explain and to justify his or her work, generally as a requirement for getting a grant or arranging a show. They have a reputation for being pretentious, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Ideally they function as a kind of introduction to the art, making it more easily accessible — but in a way, that might be worse. Because if you read it, then suddenly, without any effort at all, you know what the art is supposed to be about. You’re absolved of the necessity of looking at the art, and this fascinating mystery the artist has created for you has been turned instead into a mere puzzle — to which you, now, have the solution!

And for me… The entire experience of looking at the art has been spoiled.

It isn’t that I don’t care what the artist had in mind… It’s rather that I’m inclined to think that whatever I gain from simply being with the art, from truly looking for a little while, even if I walk away with no understanding I could articulate to anyone, outweighs any answers I might be given for free, and that the possibility of that experience vanishes the moment I turn the mystery of a work of art into a puzzle and start looking for solutions.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking this opportunity to confess my antipathy toward artists’ statements, bear with me.

You see, I find myself drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “Listen to another parable.” That’s all. It doesn’t seem like much. But as far as I can tell, nobody in the story actually does listen — either in Matthew’s story or in the parable itself! In the parable, of course, the landowner sends servants to collect fruit from his tenants, and then he sends his own son, and every time the tenants pretty much literally shoot the messenger. (Or, well, stone him, anyway.) Not much listening going on there. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, meanwhile, seem intent mainly on figuring out who he’s pointing his finger at. When they “perceive that he was speaking about them,” as Matthew says, they decide to have him arrested — though not immediately, because the crowd, having just seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is too busy shouting Hosanna and proclaiming him king to listen long enough to know just what sort of king they’re welcoming. Nobody’s just listening. Everybody, on both levels of the story, is trying to figure out what this guy’s angle is. What are you up to? What do you want from me? or— What’s in it for me?

And I think it would be awfully easy for us here, now, to do exactly the same thing—to look for the angles, to turn this story into a puzzle. The parable is clearly allegorical, so we could sit around talking about who plays who—the landowner is God, of course. The servants are the prophets. The tenants — well, here they’re the religious leaders of Israel, the priests and the scribes, Matthew tells us that, the Pharisees figured it out for themselves — although in Isaiah’s original version of this parable, the version on which Jesus was riffing, the tenants represented all of Israel, isn’t that interesting? Isaiah didn’t mention the landowner’s son, but clearly the landowner’s son was Jesus, God’s son, right? except that some scholars think actually he was talking about John the Baptist, which I admit I don’t really get, and we could argue about this, people do… and we might feel pretty good about ourselves, having all the answers. We’re smarter than those Pharisees, right? We know how this story’s going to turn out, we know they’re going to kill Jesus, we know he’s going to rise from the dead, we know the Pharisees are going to get theirs in the end, about forty years later, when the Romans sack Jerusalem after a failed uprising. We know who the cornerstone was, too, right? the one the builders rejected that you better not mess with? It’s Jesus! — Yeah, we get it. We’ve got it all figured out.

And we wouldn’t be listening either.

Just like the Pharisees.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus says, in effect, “listen up”? How many times he warns people to listen who are already ostensibly listening to him? “You who have ears, listen” — he says that fourteen times in the Bible, if you count Revelation. Four in the Gospel of Matthew alone. And that’s not counting all the other ways he phrases it. Sometimes he tells people to listen when he says something obviously important. Other times when he says something that’s really hard, or even seems impossible, like “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”— — or something that does not, on the face of it, make sense, at least not in the convenient way we’d like it to. Stuff like, “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”

I wonder sometimes whether the admonition to listen isn’t more important than whatever specific meaning Jesus had in mind. I wonder sometimes whether he had any specific meaning in mind. I wonder whether maybe the amount of time we have to spend sitting uncomfortably with a difficult and complicated story that doesn’t seem to make any sense at all isn’t more valuable than a detailed accounting of… well, than an artist’s statement.

One night last winter — one very cold night last winter — I was in the parish hall when I met, in the kitchen, a man wearing a snowsuit who was clearly agitated about something. I asked how he was doing in what I admit was that fairly meaningless way in which most of us usually ask it (hey, howya doin?), which is to say without hope of or frankly desire for a response. A funny thing happened, though: He started answering me. Now, I think I started listening, but I was quickly distracted by what he was doing, which was trying to saw open a can of soup with a chef’s knife. (Some of you who are visiting today may not realize that this is not, in itself, an unusual sort of event around here.) Aha, I thought, that’s what he’s agitated about, I can help with that! and I set about opening drawers in search of a can opener. He told me there wasn’t one, he’d already looked, but I thought there must be, so I kept looking. Of course, he was right; there was no can opener. But by the time I figured that out for myself, he had quit answering my original question — how are you doing? And I couldn’t think of a good way to ask him to start again.

He’d also managed to open his can of soup.

Now, I think I meant well. I was trying to help, after all. But I was trying to help on my terms. I was so fixed on figuring out what his problem was, and then on solving it, that I didn’t actually listen to the guy. Maybe if I’d listened I’d have found out. Maybe he just needed to talk—and to be heard. In any case, I’ll never know.

The real danger in focusing on what problem a person has to be solved, is that we wind up turning that person into a problem to be solved—and not a person at all.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, has a section in his book Life Together about what he calls the ministry of listening. “The first service that one owes to others,” Bonhoeffer writes, “consists in listening to them.” But he cautions:

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.

Ouch.

I think the kind of half listening Bonhoeffer describes is really about trying to maintain control. Not control of the other person—not in the sense of trying to bend another person to our will — but control of the situation. Control of our own experience. Control of our own inner world.

On the face of it, maintaining that control seems perfectly reasonable.

But listening — listening in the way Bonhoeffer says we should be listening to one another, listening in the way Jesus meant the Pharisees, and the crowd… and us… to listen to his parable — means giving up precisely that control. And it’s hard.

It’s hard, but it’s necessary — for one thing, if we’re ever really going to learn.

Lloyd Steffen, a religious studies professor and chaplain at Lehigh University tells a story about an “experimental course” he once developed with a colleague. The course was called “The Listening Point,” and it was an introduction to philosophy in which there were no books. “The premise of the course,” Steffen explains, “is that the students would be the texts. They were required to engage one another in conversation, to develop listening skills, and to learn to think through their own and one another’s ideas” about big questions in epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. [Emphasis mine.] Students met in small groups outside class to discuss an issue, and then reported to the class on their discussion. They were called on to summarize one another’s remarks, to ask critical questions and seek clarification of ideas they did not understand. The final exam required them to participate in one more conversation, about an issue they’d discussed during the semester, and students were evaluated in part on how much they helped the other person clarify and articulate his or her positions. “That is,” Steffen explains, “they were finally evaluated on how well they helped another person listen to herself.”

The students might have thought they were in for an easy ride. A philosophy class with no reading! But “several students complained that they got headaches from having to pay attention for the two-hour Monday night class.” Others said they couldn’t relax after class but “kept conversations going into the wee hours.” Teaching this class, Steffen says, was “exhausting.”

But it was also, when it worked, “astonishing… even humbling.” Because some students found themselves challenged and changed in uncomfortable ways — ways they hadn’t expected. The professor observed three stages of listening: first, simply attending to the other person’s words; second, evaluating critically what they heard. The third “was where the speaker was listening to his or her own self, and offering that self to others in an invitation to experience a personal encounter not just with ideas, but with the person.”

I wish I’d taken that class twenty years ago. It might have saved me a lot of time.

Lloyd Steffen says that his course was not meant to replace traditional education but to make traditional education work — “to make it possible for students and teachers… to approach the strangeness of otherness, whether in a written text or in the presence of another person.”

If we listen in this way, if we stop controlling our own inner experience, if we open ourselves up to the “strangeness of otherness,” if we listen with what Bonhoeffer calls “the ears of God” — we may be changed by what we hear. That kind of listening is not only hard… it’s kind of scary.

And yet I think that’s precisely the sort of listening God is calling us to. God, after all, wants us to listen when he speaks — and be changed by what we here. And if we’re not listening to one another in that spirit of openness, neither are we listening to God. As Bonhoeffer says, “Our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God…. He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.”

If, like the tenants in the parable, we aren’t listening to God’s servants, we certainly won’t be listening when His son shows up. Clearly the Pharisees weren’t. But I’d take it a step further. If we aren’t in the habit of listening to one another, how would we even recognize God’s servant when he or she (or it) appears? How would we even know there was a message or a messenger to listen to… if we’re too busy patrolling the borders of our own selves?

And God still does speak. He still sends messages to his nitwit tenants… all of us. Some of us think we know what his messengers look like, and so we’ll be ready for them — we think we know who to listen to. Some of us look to nice respectable clean-cut priests, and some of us look to scruffy homeless guys like the dude in the picture up there [point to stained glass picture of Jesus].

We may think… again… we’ve figured it all out.

But I just don’t think God is quite that predictable. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that God deliberately sends us messages and messengers in the places and times and forms each of us would consider least likely… not to be perverse or obscure or to trip us up or weed us out or even because, as I might like to think, he has a sense of humor — but simply to keep us looking, and listening. Because listening is valuable not only because it makes us one with God, but because it makes us one with one another. Listening is an act of love — and that’s why we’re here.

Amen.


Sources

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), pp. 97–99.
  • Lloyd Steffen, “The Listening Point,” in Christian Century, November 21–28, 1990, pp. 1087–88.