“39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39-40 NIV
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Matthew 23:23
“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Paul Simon
Dear Church Family,
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were the poet laureates of their generation. Anybody alive back then knows at least some of the words to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” The words above are from, “The Boxer.” Simon said in an interview that some of those lyrics were influenced by the Bible, which he was reading at that time. I wonder: when he was reading the Bible, did he only hear what he wanted to hear while disregarding the rest?
The idea that people—even his own people—ignore God’s word when it is inconvenient seems to me to be a common theme in scripture. Perhaps nobody in history had a more thorough knowledge of the words of scripture than the scribes and pharisees. Jesus’ accusation in John 5, however, is clear: they may know the words of scripture, but the real meaning of those words has eluded them. His point is this: knowing words doesn’t give eternal life; knowing me does.
Matthew 23:23 is also pointed. The hypocrisy of the religious leaders was precisely that they heard in scripture what they wanted to hear and disregarded the “more important” (literally, “weightier”) matters. Jesus’ point can be expressed this way: no amount of scrupulous observance of the details of the law—even observances that require sacrifice, like tithing even on spices—can substitute for loving your neighbor as yourself (see Micah 6:8). By focusing on legalistic observance while neglecting “justice, mercy and faithfulness,” Jesus says in the next verse, they have strained out a gnat while swallowing a camel.
In 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Paul is also dealing with the phenomenon of selective hearing, but the context is very different. In short, Paul sees a time when people will simply and overtly replace God’s word with “myths.” I truly believe we have arrived at a post-Christian America. It’s not just that biblical teachings are ignored; they are ridiculed (sometimes by people calling themselves Christians). As Paul said, “they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” The challenge for us today is not simply to go around quoting scripture, but to live out our obedience to God in a way that presents a clear choice—in a way that makes it difficult for people to hear only what they want to hear.