Understand & Listen (Genesis 18: Luke 10: 38-42)

by | Jul 27, 2022 | Formation, Reflections | 2 comments

Recently I came across an intriguing quote from the 18th century author, Henri David Thoreau, which touched on a theme prominent in the scriptures. “Could a greater miracle take place than for us, for an instant, to look through each other’s eyes.” Thoreau was getting at the difference between seeing and understanding, between looking at the face of another and understanding something of the thoughts and feelings going on behind that face.

The metaphor can be switched from eyes to ears; that is, hearing through another’s ears.  Here we come up against another difference, that between hearing and listening. Hearing simply registers the sounds coming from another’s mouth; listening tries to take in that person’s understanding of those words.

An example of these contrasts appears in the Book of Genesis where we read of Abraham’s gracious treatment of the stranger coming in off the desert. In the hospitable moves he makes — feeding, sheltering, making a fuss — Abraham is putting himself in the traveller’s place, responding to the world as it’s seen through this visitor’s eyes. The Patriarch is listening and not just hearing, understanding and not just seeing.

The story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel is another instance of this difference. Jesus praises how attentively Mary listens to Him as opposed to the busy Martha’s simply hearing. Mary is tuning into Jesus inner life, trying to listen to what Jesus is listening to. Moving more to the inside of Jesus’ thoughts and feelings, she has immersed herself in Jesus’ very presence.

At least two lessons emerge here, the first how attentive we are to those around us. In his sensitivity, Abraham reads the needs of his guest. He worked at seeing the world through the stranger’s eyes. Mary too paid deeper attention as she listened more than just heard. Both she and Abraham are taking in more than the exteriors of these people they encounter. Through their engaged listening, they enter more fully into the inner world of this visiting stranger and this proclaiming Jesus.

The second takeaway involves prayer. When coming before the Lord Jesus, how much “listening” am I doing? Can I be a bit more receptive to His ever present Spirit moving within me? Can I immerse myself deeper in Jesus’ person so as to hear something of what He’s hearing. In a conference on humility, Vincent echoes just this, “So then, speak to us, Lord, speak to us Yourself; we’re here as so many servants who are listening.” (Vol: 12, p. 166, April 18, 1659).

Can we imagine ourselves taking in the world through The Lord’s eyes so as to hear and see more of what He does — the glory of His Father as it shines through all creation.


  1. Ross

    Thanks, Tom. Your reflection makes me wonder if I can put myself in the place of those who make up the caravans of migrants who, at great cost and risk, travel to our southern border in search of a better life. I wonder, too, if others can even remember their forebears who did, more less, what today’s migrants are doing.

    • Tom M

      Ross, You made me think of my own immigrant lineage. Thanks for that…..

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