Image: Richardson Mountains on the Aklavik Ice Road
“Yahti” is the first word I learned in the language of the North Slavey Dene when I visited the Sahtu region of our diocese. It means “priest”, and in the complicated language it stood out for me as a word that was easy to say and easy to recognize in what was otherwise babble to my ears. The problem was I would begin to hear it all the time. Sitting in a room full of people I would imagine that I heard the word spoken as eyes turned my way and I would wonder what was being said about me or if I was being talked about at all. Like hearing your name whispered from across the room in a din filled hall, our brains are wired to pick out words that have meaning for us while at the same time filtering out all other information as noise.
This reality of our human psychology was something that Jesus was faced with as he shared his message and it is something that we must also expect to encounter as we engage in sharing the Good News
People hear what they are expecting to hear. As Jesus traveled from town to town his reputation always preceded him. The question Jesus asked his followers, “who do people say that I am”, had real implications for his message. If people thought he was a teacher or a prophet or a healer they would have pre-conceived ideas of what they were going to hear come out of Jesus’ mouth based on previous personal experience.
People hear what they want to hear. When politicians are seeking election they will often tune their words to the frequency of the people they are speaking to in order to court their vote. However it often doesn’t matter what you say, people will hear the message that they are hoping for. and if the message strays far from the hope it creates confusion and even anger, as in the following exchange from the Gospel.
If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them, “I told you and you do not believe.
Many people were hoping that Jesus was the one who was going to liberate them from the Roman occupation of their land and this was the message that they wanted to hear. It didn’t matter that what Jesus was saying to them was Good News of a different nature because they were not yet ready to hear it.
But thankfully there is a third phenomenon which I believe is not necessarily a psychological one but rather a gift of the Holy Spirit. We hear what we need to hear. In the first reading from Acts the Church is beginning to grow and we hear that as the Apostles preached ,
The hand of the Lord was with them
and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
Often it is not the actual words of the message that make a difference in what people hear but instead how their heart interprets them with the help of the Spirit. How many times have I had people come up after a service and tell me how moved they were when they heard me say words that I can guarantee I never spoke.
As a preacher I can relate to the problems Jesus had with communication. It is always hard to choose the right words in order to get the message of the Good News across in a plain and helpful manner. I am grateful that it does not fall entirely on my shoulders and that the Spirit is intervening and making God’s word heard and understood.