Dr Maria Pina Scanu
Professor of biblical studies at Sant’ Anselmo
Listening to the Messiah
in the New Testament
The friend of the spouse exults and rejoices in the voice of the spouse (John 3.29)
Dr Maria Pina Scanu teaches scripture at Sant’ Anselmo. At the Symposium of the CIB she presented a paper on listening with the heart in both Old and New Testaments. We give here only the second part, on the New Testament. It stresses the need for careful attention in listening in order truly to receive the Word in its different forms.
(Once upon a time) Rabbi Jehoshua ben Levi met (the prophet) Elijah, who was coming down from heaven as a precursor of the Messiah, […]. He asked Elijah: ‘When will Messiah come?’
He answered him: ‘Go and ask him yourself!’ Rabbi Jehoshua said: ‘But where is he?’ Elijah answered: ‘At the gates of Rome’. ‘And how will I recognize him?’ ‘He is sitting among the poor who are suffering from diseases, and all of them take the bandages off all their wounds at the same time and put new ones on; but each time he takes off just one bandage and puts a new one on (each in turn), for he says to himself: “It may be that (unexpectedly) someone will have need of me, and so there must be no delay.’ [ He thinks that God can call him at any moment to redemption, and he is always ready.] Then Rabbi Jehoshua ben Levi went to the Messiah and greeted him with the words: ‘Peace to you, my Lord and Master!’ He answered: ‘Peace to you, son of Levi!’ He asked him: ‘When will my Lord come?’ The Messiah answered: ‘Today!’ Then Rabbi Jehoshua ben Levi returned to Elijah, who asked him: ‘What did Messiah tell you?’ He said: ‘Peace to you, son of Levi!’ And Elijah asked again: ‘Did he promise you and your father the life of the world to come?’ Then Rabbi Jehoshua ben Levi said angrily: ‘He lied to me; for he said: “Today I will come, and still he has not come!”’
Then Elijah said to him: ‘You did not understand. What he meant was: Today, if you listen to his [i.e. God’s] voice (Psalm 95:7)’. [TB Sanhedrin 98a]
In this ancient midrash there are two significant points. The first concerns the presentation of the Messiah as a friend of the sick and poor. By sharing their life he prepares his own messianic arrival. This shows that the arrival of the kingdom of God and of his Messiah is no spectacular phenomenon; rather, the Messiah is the one who set free the poor, whose sufferings and needs he knows. The second point concerns the disappointment expressed by Rabbi Jehoshua ben Levi (3rd century AD) in saying, ‘He lied to me in saying that he would come today, when he has not yet come’. The disappointment is the result of a misunderstanding: some people thought that in order to share in redemption it was necessary to know when it would occur. The answer of the prophet Elijah explains that the Messiah is referring to the exhortation of the Psalm ‘If you listen to his voice today’ (Psalm 95.7). The question of the coming of the Messiah is not a matter of timing, but depends on the readiness to accept the voice and the manifestation of God at any moment. This feature of the Messiah and of his messianic redemption, demanding an open ear as a fundamental condition, has important links to the gospel message, stating the necessary dispositions.
I will now take four examples in the New Testament of listening as the basic attitude of recognising the immediacy of the messianic redemption, of thereby becoming disciples and members of the community of the Risen Lord and of bearing fruit in the kingdom of God. This is how the faith at the heart of the life of the Church can catch fire and grow. This New Testament teaching can lead those who receive it to live a life of praise and joy in listening to the Messiah who has come to inaugurate in human history a new world where life is wholly directed towards God.
1. ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen!’
The opposition between expectation of the Messiah and the actual activity of Jesus raises questions in John the Baptist (Luke 7.18-30//Matthew 11.2-15). While he had announced the coming of one stronger than himself (Luke 3.16), who was going to put into action with great power the judgment of God and the liberation of Israel, he discovers that Jesus does not seem to correspond to this expectation. That is why John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ (Luke 7.20). Jesus’ answer consists above all in the cures, after which he sends word to John precisely that the authentic revelation of the Messiah is shown in these cures. This corresponds to the great promise of the messianic redemption: the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the lame will walk, the dumb will speak, the dead will be raised to life, the prisoners will be set free (Isaiah 29.18-19; 35.5-6; 26.19). This is the good news to the poor (Isaiah 61.1). The saving power of the Messiah is for them, freeing them from evil, oppression, alienation, to make them the favoured participants in the new world brought by the kingdom of God.
The saving acts of the Messiah Jesus show that the expected year of grace, the jubilee, the time when God puts an end to the suffering and misery of his people (Isaiah 61.1-2), has arrived in these actions, as Jesus explains in the synagogue at Nazareth as he inaugurates his mission, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen’ (Luke 4.16-21). Those who have the word of God in their ears, those who listen to the prophetic word, are receiving a God who speaks; they find in the works of Jesus the coming of God, not in a showy and triumphant way but in the powerful salvation which brings protection and relief for the poor and the humble (cf. Luke 1.47-55; 10.21).
The disciples of the Messiah Jesus are pronounced blessed and live in thanksgiving primarily because they see the day of redemption; they have the privilege of seeing and hearing the works of power of this arrival of the kingdom of God which many of the prophets, kings and the righteous hoped to see and did not see (Luke 10.23-24//Matthew 13.16-17). In addition, according to the story of the Transfiguration, which prepares for the passion and anticipates the experience of the Resurrection, the divine witness to the identity of Jesus and the exhortation to listen are reserved to the disciples. In Luke’s version of the narrative the exodus of Jesus which is to be fulfilled at Jerusalem and which inaugurates the messianic redemption in human history must be understood by the disciples as the manifestation of the divine sonship revealed by the Father. At the same time, the disciples are called to listen to the Messiah because his words are those of the Father: ‘This is my Son, the chosen one, listen to him’ (Luke 9.35//Mark 9.7//Matthew 17.5).
This dynamic is expressed in the same way by John, for whom only one who bases his very being in God can appreciate the identity of the Messiah and believe in him (John 6.45; 8.47); such a person listens to the words of God the Father and, as the prophets teach (Isaiah 54.13; Jeremiah 31.31-34), are taught by him. The words of Jesus Christ are the words of the Father who sent him (John 3.34; 12.49-50; 14.24). These words bring salvation and life, and are the words of eternal life (John 6.68; 12.50).
At this stage three considerations may be underlined:
1. The gospel message in the tradition of the synoptics and John stresses that to discern the presence of the Messiah and to enter into his company it is necessary to adopt the perspective of God and allow oneself to be formed by his teaching. Only in this way is it possible to recognise the work of messianic redemption in human affairs.
2. Through listening to God who speaks through the Messiah we learn to understand the connection between the action of God and that of the Messiah, or – in the theological language of John – between the work of the Father and that of the Son. According to John, Jesus the Messiah mediates the experience of the Father (John 12.45).
3. This communion in God by way of listening activates the capacity to see the realisation of God’s promises in the messianic redemption. In this way the events of human history can be understood in the light of the coming and the works of the Messiah.
2. A listening which makes the disciples friends and associates of the Messiah
1. Disciples of the Messiah
Discipleship of Jesus demands a listening to his words: ‘Whoever listens to my words and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life... has passed from death to life’ (John 5.24). What makes the difference today, in our present existence, between life and death is listening to the word of the Lord, or, still more exactly, the response given to the word which has been heard. A faith which gives entry into life consists in trust given to the word received. In this perspective listening is no longer a merely natural phenomenon, but is the relationship established or broken, here and now, with God. Acceptance of Jesus is decisive for life: Jesus opens us to a wisdom which allows us to understand this life as life from God and for God (cf. John 6.57). The motif of following Jesus is uniquely presented by John by means of the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10.1-18). The relationship of confidence between the shepherd and his flock is developed on the basis of the closeness of the shepherd to his sheep. He calls and knows each of them, and they recognise his voice as he leads them to a place of safety where he feeds them. Thus it is Jesus who offers us direct access to life in its fullness; he is the only shepherd and he gives his life for his sheep. Listening and following Jesus leads to a mutual knowledge, a communion of life and an adherence to Jesus, the trustworthy pastor, who cares for those who follow him. The same care must be found in those who guide communities, distinguishing them from false and mercenary shepherds.
Another significant episode in discipleship of Jesus is that of the hospitality which Jesus receives in the house of Martha and Mary (Luke 10.38-42). It is a sort of counterpoint to the immediately preceding incident, that of the teacher of the Law, who puts Jesus to the test with the question, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10.25). Jesus replies by referring this expert in the Law to scripture and its interpretation: ‘What is written in the Law? What do you read there?’ The teacher replies by quoting the essence and synthesis of the divine commandment of love of God (Deuteronomy 6.5) and the commandment of love of neighbour (Leviticus 19.18). Jesus agrees, ‘You have answered well; do this and you will live’. Following the procedure of rabbinic discussion the teacher then puts another question, in this case aiming to establish who is the neighbour. Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30-35), in which, right from the beginning he breaks away from the normal interpretation according to which the concept of ‘neighbour’ is reserved to someone who belongs the same religious group; he ends by returning to the initial question, ‘Which of these, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands’ hands?’ The question is no longer ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but ‘Who makes himself the neighbour of someone else?’. By responding to the other’s need, beyond religious, cultural or social boundaries, the teacher accepts this new definition of a neighbour, one who has compassion, and Jesus invites him to pass on to action, ‘Go and do the same yourself’.
After this comes the episode of the welcome to Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary. A difference arises between the two sisters: Mary, seated at the feet of the Lord, is listening to his word, while Martha, occupied by the duties of hospitality, complains to Jesus, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Tell her to help me’ (Luke 10.40). The couple Martha-Mary is often interpreted symbolically, but the story concentrates on the questioning and perhaps on differences between members of the earliest community. A question within the earliest Christian community on the relationship between or perhaps the alternatives between listening to the Word and service is expressed in the attitude of the two sisters immediately after the question about eternal life put to Jesus by the teacher of the Law. By Martha and Mary two simultaneous expressions of hospitality are represented, although in other passages the two questions follow one another. This is the case, for example, in the story of the welcome of three visitors to Abraham and Sara; the hosts are first occupied in serving their guests, and only afterwards listen to the word of the divine promise (Genesis 18.2-15). Jesus’ comment, requested by Martha, shows that he appreciates her service, and yet, without opposing her, he teaches her what is the priority: ‘Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part’. Acting for life itself – and that is the question of the teacher of the Law – can be effective and find its purpose in the one thing which counts, a personal relationship with the Lord. It is a matter of joining action with listening, without opposing the fundamental attitude of the disciple, which is to serve. Listening is a necessary condition of human action blossoming into service. The attitude of Mary, who stays with the Lord to hear his word, is therefore presented as a model of the teaching of love of God and the neighbour. The action of Mary in listening to the Lord puts into action the commandment of love and at the same time includes an assertion of the primacy of God, ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 6.5), a quotation to which the teacher of the Law alludes by referring to the ‘Hear, O Israel!’
In addition, it is significant that Luke takes the question as a whole, without making a rigid distinction between masculine and feminine. He teaches the Christian community that to sit as the feet of the master as a disciple, whether man or woman, is essential. Mary is the perfect example, but a little further on the generous service of hospitality is paid by Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10).
2. Friends of the Messiah
In his relationship with the disciples another important passage is the one in which they are called ‘friends’ by Jesus. According to the teaching recorded in the Gospel of John, if the disciples accept and practice the commandment to love one another in the love of Jesus, for whom he gave his life, they truly become his friends: ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you’ (John 15.12-14).
This gift of love and friendship of Jesus and of calling, if accepted by the disciples, causes a change; it allows them, in fact, open access to revelation: ‘I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15.15). So Jesus reveals in a transparent manner the Father to his disciples, his ‘friends’, communicating and letting them know what he has heard from the Father. In this way, they can also place their lives in the perspective of the gift of communion, of the power and action of love, in the same relationship as that between the Father and the Son (John 15.9-11).
3. The family of the Messiah
Listening marks out not only those who become disciples and friends, but also those who are the family of the Messiah. In the Gospel of Luke there is the account of the woman in the crowd, who is moved by the teaching of Jesus, and praises his mother (Luke 11.27). Jesus responds by shifting attention rather onto those who hear and keep the word of God, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11.28). In fact Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears, first of all, as an icon of reflective listening to the works and words of God. Ever since the birth of the child, before the visit of the shepherds, who establish and spread the news of the advent of the Saviour, Mary is portrayed as one ‘who keeps all these things and ponders them in her heart’ (Luke 2.20) in reflection and in anticipation of their unfolding.
Elsewhere, in the episode in which Jesus comments on the presence of his mother and relatives who tried to see him but could not because of the crowd, he said, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice’ (Luke 8.19-21//Matthew 12.46-50//Mark 3.31-35). His reply surely does not intend to belittle human family relationships, but rather opens them to the realization of a familiarity on a more profound and wider level in the logic of the kingdom of God. Indeed, the acceptance and practice of the word of God are acts that unite and make family members with Jesus the Lord, and at the same time provoke new relationships and bonds of familiarity among believers centred on the person of Jesus, precisely because he speaks the authoritative word of God.
Another significant aspect is the fact that those who let the word of Jesus transform their life are also those who produce fruit. The parable of the Sower, reported by the synoptics (Mark 4.1-20//Matthew 13.3-23//Luke 8.4-15), is the first parable in the Gospel of Mark, almost implying that it is the key to all others. It is a strong metaphor for the event of the kingdom of God at work in the ministry of Jesus. The parable focuses on what happens to the seed, according to the soil that receives it. Three soils are unsuitable: the paths in which the seed is destroyed, the stony ground in which the bud dries up, and the thorns in which the growing plant is stifled. Contrasted with these unsuccessful soils is the extraordinary fertility of the good soil. Despite the risk of failure or of lack of success, it is guaranteed a good outcome.
After exploring the parable and before offering an explanation, a conversation is reported between Jesus and the disciples on the relationship between the announcement of God’s plan and parables. The proclamation of the kingdom of God in parables intends to subvert any false understanding, misunderstanding or human refusal. According to the words of Jesus, God communicates to his disciples the mystery of the kingdom, that is, the divine plan of salvation, which is what Jesus himself says and does. The divine gift, however, demands and requires a decision and a willingness to recognize in Jesus the active presence of the kingdom of God. Parables are models of the word and teaching of Jesus given openly and directly to anyone who listens; but at the same time they require an explanation. Indeed, given the radical newness of the message that he communicates, and which is identified with the reality and the person who gives it, only those who really are in tune with Jesus can understand the meaning of the parable and his words.
After telling the parable itself, following to the custom of prophetic circles and the teaching of the masters of Judaism, Jesus reserves for his disciples an explanation and application of the parable of the Sower. He explains that the seed is the word of God, the good news of the Gospel. The three main impediments to receiving it are:
1. Distraction: the word does not have time to touch the heart because it is immediately distracted (Mark 4.15//Matthew 13.19//Luke 812).
2. Inconstancy: this is a welcome which is enthusiastic, but is rootless and unable to overcome inevitable difficulties (Mark 4.16-17//Matthew 13.20-21//Luke 8.13).
3. Preoccupation: the fact that the word has no place to settle down, while other passions and interests, such as the desire to get rich, end up by suffocating it (Mark 4.18-19//Matthew 13.22//Luke 8.14).
The positive situation is represented by a fourth group of people: still others are the ones sown on good soil: they are those who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit: some thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold (Mark 4.20). The seed sown on good ground is the one who hears the word and understands it; these bear fruit and yield a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matthew 13.23). The ones on the good soil are those who, after having heard the word with a perfect and good heart, yield fruit with perseverance (Luke 8.15). The variations between the different versions of the synoptics emphasize that listening to the word must be accompanied by an interior acceptance, an understanding as the complete acceptance of life, especially its practical implementation, faithfully guarding the word so that it can penetrate into the depths, and form a new centre in the life of the human person. Then finally it can bear fruit in abundance.
The kingdom of God was inaugurated in history and is now present in the words and deeds of Jesus, who has all the potential of life and salvation; its saving power is unstoppable despite the current obstacles and refusal it meets. The parable contains a pressing invitation to live the faith consciously and firmly. This begins with a listening to the word of God; it calls for a faithful commitment in the listener’s response. In fact, next to the action of the Lord, who gives his word and knowledge, it emphasizes the need for human action. Everything hinges on the relationship between the person and the word of the kingdom. The effectiveness of the word is conditioned by the kind of reception with which listeners receive it. In the situations of the seed described in the parable, one may see the four situations within the community of believers which recur in every generation. The intention is an exhortation to believers who hear the word of God, to refuse to accept false guarantees or initial enthusiasm or belonging to the community only formally, but to face bravely the difficulties and risks that the Christian experiences. For every believer it is essential to translate into a practical and operational dimension the reception of the kingdom, through a constant and firm commitment to collaborate in spreading the current manifestation of salvation and liberation in the events of human history.
This explanation of the parable, which insists on a persevering and collaborative welcome for the word of God, is expanded in the versions of Mark and Luke (Mark 4.21-25; Luke 8.16-18). The first is the lamp which by its nature has to be placed on the lamp-stand: it is the nature of God’s kingdom to be visible and to spread. Another comparison is given by the image of the measure: the listener understands, is open to the message in the sapiential tradition of knowledge (cf. Proverbs 9.9).
The attitude of listening is accentuated with the strong appeal, ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!’ or again, ‘Pay attention to what you hear’ (Mark 4.23-24), or again, ‘Pay attention to how you listen’ (Luke 8.18). The quality and extent of attention and commitment determines the efficacy of the word that announces the kingdom. The two images reaffirm the essential active involvement of the listener in manifesting the teaching of the Messiah. There is a direct responsibility of believers to making known the coming of the kingdom of God.
3. Faith comes from ecclesial listening
The awareness which characterizes a Christian community is represented by the New Testament faith in the Messiah which comes by hearing the word of the Gospel. In particular, the assertion of Paul, that faith comes from hearing and hearing comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10.17), occurs within the discussion of the refusal by a large part of Israel to recognize Jesus as Lord, despite having had the opportunity of listening to the prophets and the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. Romans 9.30-10.21).
In the Acts of the Apostles Peter, in the assembly of Jerusalem, opened his speech by saying, ‘Brethren, you know that long ago God made his choice among you: the pagans were to learn the word of the Gospel and come to the faith through me’ (Acts 15.7). Peter recalls his mission to the Gentiles with reference to the encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10), where he learned that God does not discriminate against people but accepts anyone who fears him and acts uprightly. Again, in his letter to the Colossians, the author exhorts the community of believers, having shared in the redemption through forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God through the work of the Messiah, to remain firmly rooted in the faith and hope of the Gospel which they have heard (Colossians 1.23).
These examples illustrate a practice that developed within the apostolic community in the transmission of messianic salvation through the testimony and preaching of the Gospel. We could add here that the same ‘school of the Lord’s service’ and lectio divina consist in tireless and creative proclamation of the word of the gospel, through listening to and being nourished by continual faith in the Messiah, as it was in the first disciples. In fact, the generations of witnesses continue to immerse themselves in faith and engage others to accept it as well, through listening to the wonderful events present in the Messiah, and by making room through their choices and actions for the blessings of his coming into human history.
4. Concluding Remarks
‘Let everyone be quick to listen and slow to speak’. So exhorts the Letter of James (1.19). It promises that the faithful listeners, who put this into practice, will be blessed in all their actions (1.21-25). Listening is as important as speaking; listening is important before one is able to speak. All learning comes from listening.
In the context of the coming of the Messiah, to listen is to respond. It is the human act of accepting revelation and messianic redemption. Listening to the word of God and the Messiah brings understanding of the unfolding of God’s plan, recognition of the features of the present salvation of the Messiah, discernment of the meaning of the kingdom of God in the course of human history. Listening to the word challenges and involves every person and enables the community of believers to be in communion, as revealed between the Father and the Son, as the concrete realization of the kingdom of God. Hearing the word gives depth and clarity to see existence and life before God as they truly are.
Listening is a dynamic process that involves change and transformation, in which the hearer of the word is open to the presence of God, the Lord, in a lively and personal dialogue. Emblematic in this sense is the experience of Mary Magdalene in the garden before the empty tomb. While she weeps for the absence of Jesus (John 20.11-18), Jesus appeared to her. She is unable to recognize him, and thinks that he is the gardener. Only when she hears him call her by name ‘Mary’, does she recognize, in the voice that she hears, the voice of Jesus and herself responds, ‘Rabbouni!’ Listening to this voice, she recognizes the living Jesus, she sees Jesus the Risen One. So she is no longer facing the grave and the past, but is now in the direction of life. She learns a whole new dimension in her relationship with the Teacher, the Lord. Listening to and dwelling on the word of the Gospel, each one of us hears Jesus pronounce our name. Turning in the direction of that voice, we can ‘see’ the Lord, the Living One, who leads us to life.