George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
The Responsibility of Hearing
Take heed what ye hear--Mar 4:24
Frequent Emphasis on the Responsibility of Speaking
On the responsibility attached to our speaking our Lord was never weary of insisting. He has given a significance to human words which has altered their character forever. These syllables, invisible as air, are indestructible as adamant. They are the opposite of the snowflake on the river, which is "a moment white, then gone forever." According to the consistent teaching of our Lord, our words are shaping our eternal destiny, and by them, as by the flower of the life, we shall be judged.
Of Equal Importance the Responsibility of Hearing
But if our Lord insists, as He does constantly, upon the responsibilities of speaking, we must never forget that with an equal emphasis He insists on the responsibilities of hearing. Often when He was beginning a discourse, and sometimes when He was concluding a discourse, He would pause a moment, and look round the company, and say, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." It was a solemn summons to reflection, flung out upon a crowd who were all listening; a sharp and swift reminder to His audience of the responsibility attached to all hearing. There was a sense in which all heard alike, for when Jesus spake, He lifted up His voice. Some carry the cross of ineffectual voices; but I do not imagine it was so with Him. But there was another sense in which every man who listened heard something a little different from his neighbor, and Christ was intensely aware of that divergence. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. "All were listening, yet not all were hearing. Christ knew it intuitively and sympathetically. He read it in the look upon their faces. And so do we learn that He who felt intensely the responsibility which clings to speaking, felt, and often gave expression to, the responsibility which is attached to hearing.
Careful How We Hear and What We Hear
In the parallel passage of St. Luke our text assumes a slightly different form. It is softened and toned down a little, and becomes, Take heed how ye hear. Such an injunction as that is not arresting; it would not touch nor startle anybody. Every Galilean schoolboy knows that if he was half asleep in school, he would be punished. What Jesus actually said was far more penetrative, and would send men home to ponder and reflect; not take heed how ye hear, but take heed what ye hear. It is commonly held, and I think rightly held, that Peter dictated these logia to Mark. And I can fancy Mark suggesting a mistake here, for Mark was young enough to be omniscient. And then I can picture the veteran apostle, who had done forever with betraying Christ, bidding his amanuensis hold his tongue and write exactly as he bade him do. Christ was fond of saying startling things, and this is one of His most startling things. Take heed how ye hear is commonplace; take heed what ye hear is revelation. For it tells us that in the kind of things we hear there is more than the impact of the wave of air. There is our love and hate. There is our ruling passion. There is character and destiny.
We Cannot Choose All That We Hear but Our Soul Can Pass Verdict on All
Of course there is a large and literal sense in which hearing is independent of the will. And of course our Savior knew that perfectly, for He was always in living touch with fact. No man can choose entirely what he hears, anymore than he can choose entirely what he sees. There is an element of necessity in life. It is the ground on which our liberty is built. Everyday there are ten thousand sounds travelling towards us in unseen vibration, and just because God has made the ear to hear, we hear them whether we will or no. He whose lot is cast in the great city cannot be deaf to the uproar of the street. He whose home is on the verge of ocean cannot escape the music of the sea. In the physical impact of all sound there is a region where the will is powerless, and Jesus was perfectly aware of that. The point is that when Jesus spoke of hearing, it was not of the physical impact that He thought. For Him no sound had traveled all its course till it had reached from the ear into the soul. And it is when the soul, in its inherent liberty, passes its inevitable verdict, that the thing we hear becomes a moral thing, carrying an infinite significance. "Two men looked out of the prison bars. The one saw mud, the other stars." It was the same prospect that they looked upon, and yet to hope and to despair--how different! And so to different ears come the same words, identical in cadence and in syllable, and yet how diverse their interpretation in the selective power of the soul. It is not really by the eye we see. It is really by the soul we see. And it is not by the ear we hear. It is indeed by the character we hear. By all we love, by all we have made ourselves, by all we have striven for or lusted after, do we take the words which fall on every ear and color them with heaven or with hell. Take heed what you hear. It is a revelation of your personality. It is in the verdicts which you are always passing that your responsibility begins. Every sermon that is worth a scrap is a revelation of the preacher; but remember that in the thought of Christ it is also a revelation of the hearer.
What We Hear Betrays Our Personality
"Father, glorify thy name," said Jesus, and then there came an answering voice from heaven. And Jesus and the disciples heard it, and all the company who were standing round; and when they heard it, some said it thundered, and others that an angel spoke to Him. Think of it, it was the voice of God: the audible utterance of the Creator. And it fell alike on every listening ear of the men and women who were gathered there. And yet for some of them there was no more in that than the distant roll of thunder in the hills; and for others there was the music of the angels. Each caught the selfsame utterance of heaven. Each heard what he had trained himself to hear. It was the same accent upon every ear, but a different accent within every soul. And that is what Jesus means when He enjoins us to take heed what we hear, for what we hear betrays the personality.
One might illustrate that in many ways. We might think, for instance, of the home. We might think of those childish stammerings of speech that succeed the "only language" of a cry. Those broken syllables--those childish lispings--those faint irrecognisable resemblances--how little these convey of any value to the indifferent or uninterested heart. But to the mother they are full of meaning, and she is never weary listening to them: to her they are the sweetest music in the world. She does not hear them with a fleshly ear. She hears them with a mother's heart. She brings that gift of heaven, a mother's love, to the interpreting of every syllable. And so by what she hears she trains her child; yet in so doing she reveals herself, and stands before us self-confessed in motherhood. Love a person, and his speech is sweet. Hate him, and his every word is barbed. It is by love and hate and jealousy and envy that we record and register the utterance. And thus is it always vital to self-knowledge not only to take heed to what we say, but also to take heed to what we hear.
That strange divergence of the recording faculty has in our modern life one notable expression. It is the bane, perhaps it is the necessity, of the development of party-politics. With party-politics as party-politics the Christian minister has no concern. But with the temper fostered by such politics the Christian minister has every concern. And there is certainly no sphere in modern life which more powerfully or constantly exemplifies that there is no such thing in the affairs of men as what may be called neutrality of hearing. Some great statesman makes a speech, and the news of it is flashed along the wires. And on the morrow in a hundred newspapers it stands precisely as it was delivered. And to one man it is the voice of angels and thrilling as with the music of a trumpet; and to another, hearing the selfsame words, it is sound and fury signifying nothing. Nothing is registered on a clean slate. There is no such thing in life as a clean slate. Nothing falls upon a virgin ear. There is no such gateway to the soul. Men hear by every ideal that they cherish--by every battle they have lost or won--by every ancient privilege they guard--by every dream that they have ever dreamed. All our hope is in our hearing, and all our selfishness is in our hearing; all the right that we have ever sought, and all the wrong that we have ever done. That is the response of human character to everything that falls upon the ear, and our response is our responsibility.
The same thing is always happening in the hearing of the Gospel message. A hearer's judgment of a Gospel sermon is really the judgment of himself. With patient and with prayerful diligence a minister prepares his message. He has his ideals of what preaching is, and from those ideals nothing will make him swerve. And then, often in fear and trembling, and sometimes with a joyous sense of liberty, he gives his message to his beloved people. It is the same message which falls on every ear, and yet how varying is the reception! All that is living in the hearer's breast rises up to meet a living message, and rises in welcome or defiance. Men hear with all that they have made themselves. They hear with every sin that they are clinging to. Every ambition, every joy or sorrow, comes to the hearing of a Gospel sermon. And that is why to one it shall be weariness, and to another a thing to be disproved, and to a third, in hungriness of heart, the message shall be the very bread of angels. It is a great responsibility to preach. It is a great responsibility to hear. I know no teacher except Jesus Christ who has laid such tremendous emphasis on hearing. For Him there is nothing mechanical in hearing. It is the response of what a man has made himself. It is the swift reaction of the character, and character is destiny.
In closing I point to another familiar fact which helps to illustrate our text. It is the fact that in the company of certain people there are things that we should never dream of saying. There are people in whose presence the most indecent tongue never feels one vestige of restraint. There are other people in whose hearing one would not venture on an unseemly word. And all that, to the observant mind, indicates that the kind of thing we hear depends in no small measure on the character. If one were to tell me an objectionable story I should certainly be very much ashamed. But not of the narrator only should I be ashamed: I should be ashamed also of myself. I should be ashamed that he had such thoughts of me, and of the kind of thing I loved to hear, that he would venture on such garbage to amuse me. There are thousands of men in a city such as this, whose lips are far from being what they ought to be. Yet moving among them every day are citizens who are never visited by their indecency. If their life and character were different, it would all be poured into their ear; but being what they are, they never hear it. To a large extent in our daily life we are responsible for what we hear. There are numerous occasions every day when a man is largely to blame for what is told him. He has invited it by his own habits: by all the impress he has made on others. Had he been living a more worthy life his character would have commanded silence. My brother and sister, take heed what you hear. It is often a revelation of yourself. Count it a thing much to be desired that men should honor you with worthy speech. And when they do the opposite, look inward, and find what must be amiss in you, when men whose words are dishonoring to God venture to trade upon a fellow-feeling. There is no refuge in silence for a Christian. Silence may only indicate consent. There is no refuge from the strife of tongues save in the fellowship of Jesus Christ. For in His presence all that is evil dies, and gossip and indecency are silent, and something stirs men to say out their worthiest, as conscious of a heart that understands.
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