Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

If I put my mind to it, I suppose I could think of dozens of times when someone with more wisdom than I told me something I wasn’t willing to hear.  Had I been open to those messages, things would have turned out differently – better, maybe – than they did.  How often have we been unwilling to listen to parents, teachers, or others in authority?  How often have we refused to listen to them because we were sure of our own wisdom?  This is not the model God has for our lives.  This is the real reason, I think, for the fourth commandment: honor your father and your mother.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, “The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal. It likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.

“This commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons.” (CCC, 2199)  The fourth commandment recognizes that God speaks to us through others, and we have a duty to listen to that voice.  St. Paul reminds us that this commandment carries with it a promise of blessing: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16)

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

In today’s first reading, Moses promises that God would send a prophet like himself and the people would listen to that prophet.  We know that God raised up prophets all through the history of the people of Israel.  The Old Testament gives us the words of some of those prophets, and each of them spoke not on their own authority, but spoke the words of God himself.  They would begin their prophesies with the words “Thus says the Lord…”

But we know that in the fullness of time, God raised up Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to every longing of the human heart.  The words Jesus spoke were words of authority.  He didn’t need to say “thus says the Lord…”  Instead Jesus would say, “I say to you…”

Today’s Gospel shows us a little vignette about the teachings of Jesus.  He is teaching in the synagogue and people are impressed with what he says.  But to underscore it all perhaps, Jesus performs and exorcism.  Interestingly enough, the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is – it says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  I think it’s intensely interesting that the unclean spirits recognize Jesus right away. That’s not always true of the people in Jesus’ time, particularly not true of the religious leaders of the day.  And, honestly, it’s not always true of us, is it?  How slow we can be to recognize and hear what Jesus is saying to us.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

These words that I have been quoting from today’s Psalm response are loaded with meaning.  I want to look at it in two parts.  First, “If today you hear his voice…”  Now, if we’re not really careful, we could come away from that thinking that God doesn’t speak to us very often.  It’s almost as if we have to be constantly on the lookout for some word of God that may come once in a blue moon.  But that’s not it at all.  I am totally convinced that God is speaking to us all the time.  I often use the example of a radio program.  The radio station is broadcasting 24/7, but if we don’t have a radio turned on, we don’t hear it.  But just because we don’t hear it doesn’t mean there’s no broadcast, right?  We’re just not tuned in.  I think that God speaks to us all the time, and the “if” part of the Psalmist’s words refers to the fickleness of the human heart, not the fickleness of God’s revelation to us.  We have to tune in if we are to hear the word of God today.

And why would we choose not to tune in?  Maybe it’s because we’re tired and cannot hear just one more piece of advice.  Or perhaps we are busy and don’t have time to make to hear God’s word and act on it.  Or, we may even be so convinced of our own wisdom, that in our pride we block out the voice of God however it may come to us.  The fathers and mothers of the church have long written that this is the greatest sin that one could ever commit.  We might think of lots of things that seem worse, but in the big picture, they don’t even come close not hearing the word of God.  When we think that we can handle everything on our own, when we become God for ourselves, we put ourselves beyond the reach of God’s mercy in ways that we might never be able to heal.  God forbid that we would choose not to hear his voice.

The second part of the Psalmist’s prayer is “harden not your hearts.”  Hearing the word of God obviously requires a response.  I suppose that upon hearing God’s word, one could simply ignore it and keep on living their lives the way they’re doing it and have been doing it all along.  Lots of people do that, in fact.  But even this “non-response” is a response to God’s word – in fact it’s a rejection of it.  It’s the sin of pride that says we’re too busy to hear God’s word, too exhausted to consider it, or too sure of our own wisdom to need it.  This is what it means to harden our hearts; this is the sinful response I spoke of earlier.

But for the disciple, the believer, this non-response is not an option.  Hearing the word of God changes us, it brings us along the path of our spiritual life, closer to God.  Maybe God’s word will require a big change in our lives, something like a career change, or taking on our true vocation, or committing to a new ministry at church.  God does call us in those ways at times.  But sometimes God’s word is less momentous, more of a correction or a gentle nudge in a different direction.  Maybe it’s the moment that helps us to realize we’ve sinned.  Or perhaps an inspiration to offer a kindness to another person, or pick up the Scriptures and read them, or even just that moment that we think of someone in our lives and feel like they need our prayers right now.  All of these are changes for us, and help bring us closer to Jesus.

And the truth is, day in and day out, we’re going to take a couple steps forward, and then maybe a step back.  Sin is the obstacle to truly hearing the voice of God and not hardening our hearts.  But it’s grace that keeps us on the path, encourages us to keep those radios tuned in, listening for the word of God and accepting that word with softened hearts and willing spirits.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

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