A Pepper Grinder Post

Be Careful How You Listen

This article started out with my wife asking about a passage in Luke. The verses she had read sounded a little odd to her, and also to me. One minute, Jesus is talking about putting a lamp on a lampstand; the next minute, he’s telling his disciples to be careful how they listen. What’s the connection there? And what does he mean by the line about listening, anyway?

Let’s start with my translation of Luke 8:16-18:

No one lights a lamp and puts it under a pot or a bed. Instead, he puts it on a lampstand, so people coming into the room will see the light. For there is nothing hidden that won’t be revealed, or secret that won’t certainly become known and brought into the open. For this reason, be careful how you listen. Whoever has something, will be given more; whoever has nothing will lose even what he seems to have.

There is one thing in the above translation that dissatisfied me a little. The Greek doesn’t say that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a pot. The word I translated as pot probably means an earthenware jar. Some translations translate this as vessel, but all that makes me think of is a ship. Some more modern translations go with jar, but this only makes me think of a Yankee Candle, which completely fails to convey the idea of a candle that isn't doing the thing it was created to do. One translation I read translated this as container. That is probably the best, but sounds kind of blah and generic. I wanted something that was a common household item that would render a candle invisible if placed over it. Hence the pot.

candleNow, the first two sentences of our passage seem fairly obvious. Especially in a culture where you relied on dim olive oil lamps for lighting when the sun was down, where you placed those lamps was very important. Putting a lamp somewhere where its light wouldn’t be seen was stupid and wasteful.

I suspect many of us have heard this passage quoted to show how we should be out witnessing to our friends and passing out tracts. The thing that struck me, though, was that Jesus was not asking an olive oil lamp to be the halogen lamp illuminating a baseball field. He was only asking it not to hide itself. I believe the message of this parable is not that we need to be someone we aren’t, but rather that we should be honest and transparent about who we are. If we are someone who has been saved by God’s grace, but not yet fully perfected, we shouldn’t act like our life has not been changed, but neither should we act as if our life has been perfect since we got saved. Many non-Christians have the sad stereotype that Christians are phonies. Be real AND be a friend of Jesus and surprise them.

If you think about it, this interpretation fits pretty well with the next sentence. If Jesus has just told us to be honest and open, it makes all the sense in the world to point out that EVERYTHING will be brought to light. If the book of our life is eventually going to be thrown wide open for everyone to see, why try to hide things now?

And then we get to the statement that confused my wife and me: “For this reason, be careful how you listen.” If he had just said, “Be careful how you listen,” we could guess that this was a change of subject, but Jesus threw in that little Greek word often translated “therefore,” thus clearly linking it to what was said before. But what does careful listening have to do with the parable of the sower (which came just before our passage), or Christ’s message that we should be open about what he has done and is doing in us?

One thing we should point out is that this is not an isolated incident. Jesus frequently said something which can be translated, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This isn’t just the same as what we have in our passage, but I think it’s safe to say that our passage is part of a frequently stated warning about hearing.

One of the passages that most helped me understand these warnings about hearing was James 1:22-25 (here quoted in the NIV):

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.

I do not believe that Jesus is talking about clearing the wax out of your ears or turning up your hearing aid. Nor do I think he is giving us the message of that old Sunday school song, “Be careful, little ears, what you hear.” I believe that Jesus, like James, is acknowledging that there are different ways to hear something. You can just let the words roll right through your brain without even really thinking about them. Or you can consider the words intellectually, and perhaps even agree with them, but not do anything as a result. The final possibility is that you can not only think about them, but let them sink down into you and change your life.

Sarah ConnorI believe Jesus is telling his disciples and us that we must allow his words to transform us. We should act as though we REALLY believe them.

It makes me think of a scene from Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor is threatening the life of a doctor in the psychiatric ward where she is being held. She points out that she will not hesitate to kill him if she doesn’t get what she wants, because she really believes that computers will take over the world and try to kill all humans. True belief is a powerful force.

I actually think it makes sense for Jesus to put this comment where he puts it in the verse. He has just been telling his disciples they shouldn't hide who they are, because everything that has been hidden will become known. Now he is saying they need to hear the right way. If all we need is to be surface followers of Christ's teaching, we would only need to listen enough to get the trappings. But since everything that is hidden will be known, we need to let those teachings go down into our very souls and change us radically. Any "listening" less than this will produce a surface Christianity that will be revealed as the sham it is when all secrets are revealed.

But now Jesus makes things even more confusing! He throws in the line, “Whoever has something, will be given more; whoever has nothing will lose even what he seems to have.” How in the world does this tie in? Also, this is disturbing, because it sounds so incredibly unfair.

Here again, what sounds like an unrelated statement being thrown into the mix is actually following the same flow. If we only listen to Jesus on a surface level, we will seem to have something, but when all secrets are revealed, it will be shown that we have nothing at all. If we allow the teachings of Jesus to transform us at the deepest level, we will end up gaining eternal life in addition to what we already have. Seen in this way, this is not some capricious act of favoritism by the Almighty. It is Jesus, warning his followers about the perils of having a faith which looks good on the surface, but has no substance.

flowerSo far, I feel as though I’ve been looking at the passage piece by piece. Let’s see if we can put it all together. Here is what I think Jesus is saying:

Be open and honest about yourself and your life with me. It’s all going to come out into the open in the end. Make sure that you aren’t just listening to what I say, but are putting it into practice. If you truly listen in this way, you will gain eternal life. If you only listen on the surface, you will end up losing everything, along with your shallow "faith."

As Christians, we can choose to make decisions as though this present existence is all that matters. We may believe we will go to heaven when we die, but if our decision-making is only informed by what happens here and now, our lives will be very similar to those of some decent people who live without God. If we truly live as though what Jesus taught was true, our lives will be different, and we will be a light in a dark place.


*Photo credits: candle photo by , Sarah Connor from