To Really Listen

A little boy and his mother were in town for the day. They went into a restaurant for a snack. When the waiter came along the mother began to order but the waiter noticed that the little boy wanted to say something.

“Let the little man tell us himself what he wants,” said the waiter.
“I’ll have a ham-bur-ger,” said the little boy.
When the waiter went off to get the order the little boy said,
“you know, Mommy, that man thinks I’m real.”

There is nothing more affirming than being heard. It is what gives one reality, a sense of who one is. There is nothing more painful than not being heard, not being understood, especially when one is trying to express one’s deep feelings or hurts or needs. Just imagine saying to somebody, “I am going in now to get the results of my tests. The doctor thinks I may have cancer,” and that other person replies, “I hope the corner shop is open, I would like to buy cigarettes.”

The first time we hear of Jesus speaking we hear of his wisdom and of his listening ability. When Mary and Joseph found him in the temple he was “listening to them and asking them questions.” It was because he listened to them that the teachers heard him and were amazed by the wisdom of his answers.

Again and again in his ministry, we see Jesus listening to others and allowing, or even encouraging them to express their pain and their need. Perhaps the greatest example of ministry through listening that Jesus gives us is when he joins the disciples on the road to Emmaus after he has risen from the dead. The disciples were dejected, walking away from Jerusalem, the place of their failure and broken dreams. So depressed are they that they do not even recognize Jesus when he joins them. He asks them why they are sad. They answered, “are you the only one who does not know what happened?” “What happened?” he asks. Then they told him their story. After listening to them he points out to them what the Scriptures say about the Messiah and how he was destined to suffer. Thus, they begin to see that another conclusion may be drawn from the facts. This is as it should be. Christ has indeed risen. The story of dejection becomes a story of hope. It was only when he had listened to them that they could hear him speak.

The Emmaus story is a model for our life. It is a model of listening in which we have to be trained. We have to be able to listen to another without distraction, without judgment or condemnation, without worrying about what our response will be, without being defensive, without intrusion by our egos and our personal agendas, trusting that the Lord will give us the appropriate response when it is needed. And we also become more present to ourselves, to others and to God, and more available to be his instruments.