Listen with the Heart
31 January 2021
10:00 a.m. Live-Streamed Ante-Communion
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
I have to confess: I am a person of strong opinions, usually arrived at, I flatter myself in thinking, through a lot of research and reflection. Sometimes this gets in the way of me connecting with others, since I think that by walking them through how I arrived at an opinion, they might come to agree with my enlightened position. This is aggravated by my tendency—a tendency shared by many men—to take people’s words at their face value, and to try to “get under the hood” and fix things for others—usually by correcting what I consider their errors for them. I have learned over the decades that often all people want is a listening ear, not a fix-it-guy. In fact, playing Mr. Fix-it of Know-it-all drives people away. Listening, truly listening, is to pay attention to the feelings expressed as well as the words spoken, and it most often does not require words or advice from us. I heard last week of a young boy who told his mother he had gone next door for an hour or so to be with the elderly man living there whose wife had just died. “And what did you say to him?” asked the mother. “Nothing, really. I just sat there and helped him cry.”
In today’s epistle, the Corinthians are having a congregation-splitting argument over what the faithful should and shouldn’t eat. In the Greco-Roman world, most meat on sale at the market had been slaughtered originally in Temples of pagan gods like Zeus or Aphrodite. Some people felt it was wrong to buy or eat such meat, since they thought it was idolatrous, an act honoring those other gods. Other people felt eating such meat was O.K. since it was not an act of worship. And because they did not believe any such gods existed, they felt that worrying about such things was basically a silly superstition. Knowing that Paul is generally opposed to requiring observance of Jewish purity laws, and wanting him to endorse their liberal position, they write to him saying, “We know that no such gods exist, and that there is only one God,” so how can eating meat sacrificed to them by the ignorant possibly be wrong?
But Paul surprises them. He starts his reply by focusing on the words in the received letter, “we know.” He says this: “Knowing things puffs us up in pride. People who think they know something often don’t know what really matters. Knowledge puffs us up, but love builds up. … Loving God means that God knows you, so love brings knowledge not vice versa!”
He goes on to say that eating such meat is not O.K., even if you know that there are no such things as other gods, since it might cause someone whose knowledge is not as firm as yours to go against their heart-felt beliefs, their own conscience. This is how I translate what he says:
“Here is what I say about eating such meat: idols are false. They are nothing, really. … But not everyone knows this. Some people who used to worship false gods might feel uncomfortable when presented meat that has been placed before idols… when they eat it, they feel guilty. Food cannot make us closer to or farther from God. We are free to eat or not eat things… But be careful with your freedom. What you decide to do may hurt people worried about such things. … If someone who thinks eating such food is wrong sees you eating it, and then does it too, you have encouraged them to go against what’s in their hearts. And that’s just wrong. This weak sibling—someone Christ died for—might be lost because you insisted on rubbing their noses in your understanding, in your ‘knowledge.’ You are doing wrong against your siblings in Christ by such action. You hurt them by causing them to do things they feel are wrong. And you are also hurting Jesus.”
All this from a guy who says in Galatians that he “stood up to Peter face to face” and accused him of abandoning Christ by even slightly compromising with Jewish Christians still grossed out by the thought of going to Church or eating with uncircumcised gentile Christians. Paul here is saying love for others is more important that knowledge. He is saying concern for their well-being and good conscience is more important than making a point, even a true point. He is saying openness to God requires love before all else.
Love is an active disposition of the will; it is wanting to do well by the beloved, to do good for the beloved. Though we often use the word “love” to mean “affection bred by familiarity,” or “desire to possess or be possessed because of attraction and natural urges,” as Paul uses the word here it means “choosing to put that person’s interests before your own.” It implies an openness of heart and a willingness to act on it. Interestingly, instead of the old nostrum “to know him is to love him,” Paul says here, “to love him is to know him.” This centrality of love and openness is also found in today’s other scripture passages: the prophets are prophets because they are open to speaking God’s word, not their own. And Jesus astounds people around him because he actually helps people and then preaches what he knows from his own experience, not something he had studied and learned from others, like the scribes. The Psalm puts it this way, “awe in the presence of God” what I would call openness and wonder, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Don’t misunderstand me: knowledge is a good thing; seeking to understand things is a desire God has put in our hearts, not something of the devil. But a desire for the good of others, and empathy, and compassion for them—this is the center of growth in God. It is the way on which Jesus leads us. Remember that he said the most important part of all scripture was the command to love neighbor as well as the one to love God. Love can lead a radical like Paul to soften his stances out of consideration for others when needed. It is the beginning of wisdom. It is what makes some teaching authoritative and confident amid so much vapid and second-hand teaching. It is what can drive out the horrors and fears that control us so much that others think that we are possessed. This week, I invite all of us to act with love as Jesus did, and speak with authority as he did, telling our own stories and experience—things which no one can take exception to—and then listening to the stories of others.
In the name of God, Amen.