Take heed how/what you hear (Mk. 4:24; Lk. 8:18).
In both Mark and Luke’s Gospel, after the parable of the sower and the seeds, Jesus says to his disciples, “take heed how/what you hear” (‘what’ in Mark; ‘how’ in Luke). St. Luke records it this way:
No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lamp stand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, or anything hidden that will not be known and come to light. Therefore, take heed how you hear.”
We must be careful how we hear because nothing hidden will remain hidden. What is hidden in our heart determines how we hear. Ungracious, arrogant and unrepentant attitudes in our hearts and minds keep us from hearing well. Some of these bad attitudes may be hidden not only from others but also from ourselves, but how we hear (or don’t hear) the words of Jesus can reveal to us our weakness.
I have always read these verses as a warning to listen to the Gospel with an attitude of obedience. That is, I have understood them to mean that when I listen to or read the Gospels, my “hearing” should be with a predisposition to obedience. I have understood it this way because the Greek word for obey is based on the word for hear. Hear is akouo and obey is hupakouo (to ‘hear under’ someone is to obey them). In Hebrew there is just one word that means both hear and obey—to hear is to obey, not to obey is not to have heard.
St. Luke emphasizes this connection between hearing and obeying by moving the incident of Jesus’ Mother and brothers coming to see Him from before the parable of the sower (where it is found in Matthew and Mark) to immediately after the warning about hearing. Who are Jesus’ Mother and brothers? “Those who hear the Word of God and do it”. To hear is to do; not to do is not to have heard.
St. Mark emphasizes the judgement that comes about because of what or how we hear. St. Mark says,
“Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be me measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
Hearing is a measure. If we do not listen to the Gospel with an open heart and an attentive mind (or at least with as much openness and attention as we can muster), then the measure by which God measures out (grace? understanding? blessing? the fruit of the Spirit?—the text does not say exactly what) will be limited in the same way. On one level, this makes practical sense: how can you understand anything unless you pay attention? The less you pay attention, the less you understand. However, the judgement is not merely a matter of “getting out of it what you put into it.” Rather, Jesus tells us that what we hear also determines whether or not we can keep what we have already received.
St. Luke gives us a hint as to why this judgement of hearing is so important. Both Mark and Luke record Jesus saying, “Nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to the light,” but St. Luke repeats this phrase several chapters later in a contexts that enlightens this one:
“Take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed nor hidden that will not be known” (Lk. 12:1, 2).
When we hear without openness and attention, it is possible merely to garner information to be used hypothetically, and thus hypocritically—for there is nothing hypothetical about the Gospel. When we hear only for someone else (“old Mrs. So and So sure needs to hear this) or as though the words did not apply to me (“that’s a good word if someone has that problem), then I end up storing information to be used according to my own agenda, to support my opinions, and not to produce obedience and repentance. God’s words are dangerous. “Sharper than a two edged sword,” St. Paul says somewhere. Not to hear carefully brings about judgement; it may even lead to hypocrisy and the loss of what little genuine spiritual life one has. This is a serious matter. That’s why Jesus said, “Take heed.”
And I suspect that it is not only in hearing the Gospel that we should take heed. God has been known to speak through donkeys. It was the children, not the learned, who recognized the Messiah on Palm Sunday. How we listen, or better, how we are when we listen to anyone determines to a large extent what we hear. If we take heed, the voice of God calling us to repentance can be heard in the voice of a child, a loved one, a teacher, or even (or perhaps especially) in an enemy.
Hearing well is not a matter of intellectual ability or even attention span or ability to focus. Hearing well is a matter of a broken and contrite heart, a heart ready to repent, a heart turned toward God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. We hear well when we are humble, when we know that we do not know, when we know that there are many ways we sin that God has yet to reveal to us (plus the many sins we do see but can’t seem to escape). Hearing with this attitude brings the Gospel to life and opens one’s ears to hear in a way that brings more: more of all that God has for us.