I was on campus recently and I saw a groundhog sitting next to a busy walkway, munching on some grass and just relaxing. A young woman was standing maybe five feet away just watching him. Of course, I had to stop because, groundhogs are great. Anyway, the young woman said to me, “About 30 people have walked right by him and didn’t even notice him because they’re all so absorbed with their phones.”
Which leads me to the point I want to make: I think as a society we have a hearing problem. All the people that walked by that day had earbuds in and were in their own worlds, listening to their own private soundtracks. Maybe this isn’t the best analogy; it’s not like the groundhog was making any sound for them to hear anyway. But there’s so much noise in our world that we have in a sense become deaf to the one Voice we really need to hear – the voice of God himself.
What are the sources of this worldly noise? It’s not just the earbuds: they’re not all bad; it is great to be able to listen to such an incredible variety of music as we now have access to, not to mention all the great podcasts out there and so on. But, like everything else, what really matters is balance. And it can be really easy to lose that balance, and to feel the need to fill every silence with music, information, entertainment, news, etc. The danger is that it can become noise. Too much of it and we can’t even hear our own thoughts. And we do need to pay attention to our thoughts from time to time, to reflect on everything that is going on around us, to reflect on where we are in life, what we’re doing, what we’re aiming for, even to ask ourselves on occasion some of the big questions: what am I here for? Does life have a purpose? If so, what is that purpose? Is there such a thing as good and evil, and how do I know the difference? If we are always distracted by noise, how can we ever be able to reflect on these questions?
And these big questions are what the study of philosophy is all about. I don’t think many people study philosophy anymore which is too bad. Like any other subject, it does depend somewhat on the teacher: if you have a bad philosophy professor, the class can be excruciating. I only remember taking one philosophy class in college which quite frankly barely registered with me at the time. However, I consider it a blessing to have had to study it for two years in seminary (even though at the time it seemed more like a curse).
And one of the things I learned about in philosophy – studying Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and so on – was the concept of telos, a Greek word meaning the end or purpose of something. So, for example, the telos of an acorn is to turn into a tree. Simple enough. And everything about our bodies has some kind of end or purpose. The telos of an eye is to see. The telos of a nose is to smell. And the telos of an ear of course is to hear.
So, we heard in our Gospel reading today that Jesus encountered a man who could not hear and who could not speak. Certainly he must have had some rudimentary form of communication with others. But there were no special schools for people who were deaf and mute back then. Essentially this man was trapped inside himself, unable to communicate with others beyond the most basic level, unable to hear them or express himself to them. The ears that he had been given and the mouth that he had been given – or more accurately the vocal cords he had been given – were not fulfilling their telos, the purpose for which they were made. But when this man encountered Jesus, the Lord healed him, performing this rather elaborate ritual unlike any other of his healings. Jesus restored the telos of the man’s ears and his voice – he could now hear and speak. He was no longer trapped within himself.
In the same way, Jesus can open our own ears to hear the voice of the Lord. He can open our lips so that we might praise Him. And in doing so, he fulfills the ultimate telos of our ears and our voices. That is ultimately what they are for. And the Lord – and only the Lord – is able to fulfill our ultimate telos or end or purpose. Which is what? To be with him for eternity, to behold him with our eyes, to praise him with our tongues, to listen to the words of love he speaks to us.
Without Jesus, we are all like that poor man in today’s Gospel – unable to hear the Lord, trapped within ourselves, cut off from God and from others. Unable to find fulfillment or contentment or peace. That is what sin does to us. It’s not just the constant distractions of music and entertainment and social media. Like I said, those things are not bad in and of themselves, but can become harmful when we lose balance. But sin prevents us from hearing the voice of God. Sinful patterns and behaviors in our lives can make us deaf to the words of love that the Lord wants us to hear. We can become so oblivious to God’s voice that we may not even realize that we’re doing anything wrong.
And there are other voices that prevent us from hearing the Lord. These voices have different messages that compete for our attention. Some of these messages are things like: this is what you need to be happy – a degree, a good job, lots of money. This is what your purpose in life is, this is what will give you fulfillment. You need to achieve all these things, otherwise you’re not going to be happy and you will be worthless. Another message is: you have to be this or that kind of person, you have to be physically attractive, you have to be thin and in shape no matter what, you have to be the kind of person everybody wants to be friends with and wants to talk to, you have to be admired by everyone…for you to have any value. Those things are lies. Those voices can be very loud and very persistent and can make us deaf to the voice of God which tells us: you have value, infinite value, because I created you and I love you. And your purpose – the purpose for which I made you – is to be happy with me forever.
Let us ask the Lord to open our ears so that we might always hear him, and open our lips so that we might always praise Him.