By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“There’s a difference between hearing and listening.” That philosophical statement comes not from Jesus, nor Confucius, nor Will Rogers, nor Mark Twain; it comes from the early-90s movie, White Men Can’t Jump.
The movie itself is about a Black man, Sidney, and a white man, Billy, who hustle street basketball games: taking advantage of the stereotype that white people aren’t as good at basketball to lull opponents into betting too much money on them to lose, not realizing that Billy is actually a former college basketball star. As the two begin their partnership, they are navigating their own racial stereotypes and assumptions about each other, and that quickly leads them to music.
Billy, the white man, puts on a recording of Jimi Hendrix, the groundbreaking rock guitarist from the late 1960s who was Black. “Hey, what is this?” Sidney asks theatrically. “Jimi Hendrix,” Billy responds, a little surprised. “No, I know who it is, but why are you playing Jimi?” Sidney presses.
“Well, because I like to listen to him,” Billy responds defiantly. “Oh, you like to listen,” Sidney pounces; “see, that’s what the problem is: y’all ‘listen’…you’re supposed to hear it.” Billy starts getting defensive: “I just said I like to listen to him.” Sidney scowls and replies, “no, no, no, there’s a difference between hearing and listening. Y’all can’t hear Jimi; you’re…you’re…you’re listening,” he concludes with a derisive sneer.
Annoyed, Billy swaps out the music and begins playing a new song, a mournful, classic country music ballad by George Jones. Sidney throws up his hands at the sound of it and asks, “Who is this?” “This? This is the greatest troubadour of all time,” Billy declares. “Troubadour? Man, take this out,” Sidney pleads. “See, you’re listening, you’re not hearing him!” Billy crows, delighting in the opportunity to turn the tables.
In the movie, it plays out as mostly just another version of the old comedic trope about the differences between white people and Black people. But ironically, it’s actually tapping into multiple deeper themes of significance.
First, Jimi Hendrix exploded into rock music as an innovative master of psychedelic music, a genre overwhelmingly associated with white people, and he did so in part by fusing together psychedelic style and technique with the deep traditions of American blues music created by Black people.
So for Sidney to identify Hendrix as someone that only Black people could understand is actually to miss the most important and unusual complexities of Hendrix as an artist; he himself fails to truly hear the depth and breadth of Hendrix’s music in terms of race and culture.
Second, country music, which is often seen as exclusively appealing to white people in our culture, is deeply indebted to and rooted in the traditions of American blues music, from the basic styles and chord progressions of the music itself, to the emphasis on lament and loss in the lyrics, to one of the signature instruments, the banjo, being brought to the United States by West African people when they were enslaved here.
So neither Billy nor Sidney are truly hearing the music in the country song that Billy plays second. And tellingly, the scene concludes with neither realizing any of this or learning anything from it; there’s a difference between hearing and listening, and neither understanding that they are listening to, not hearing, both songs.
Even though he was ironically doing more listening than hearing, Sidney was right: there really is a difference between hearing and listening. To listen to something simply means to engage in the act of listening; to hear something means that you not only listened, you received and accurately comprehended what was being communicated. That difference is particularly obvious and important in music, because it not uncommon for many people to enjoy listening to a song while simultaneously failing to comprehend its true meaning.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is often taken to be a rousing patriotic anthem, but if you actually hear the lyrics, you quickly realize it’s a prophetic lament about the fate of young men who were sent to fight in Vietnam, both those who died and those who came back.
“Every Breath You Take” by the Police was often assumed to be a romantic love song when it came out, when in reality it is the inner monologue of someone who is obsessed to the point of stalker behavior (hopefully, if someone sends you a note that says, “every breath you take, every move you make…every step you take, I’ll be watching you,” you’ll realize that’s not a good thing!).
Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” sounds like an upbeat pop song in terms of its music, but it has very dark lyrics that are rather obviously about a drug-addicted woman in a homeless shelter at which he volunteered, yet people simply hummed along with the melody when it was a huge hit in 2012 because they didn’t even listen, much less hear, what the song was about.
Jesus clearly understands the difference between hearing and listening, and how important it is. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” he declares, because listening is where one begins. Listening, in other words, is the first part of paying attention.
When I was in elementary school and got those early report card evaluations, I always did well on things like “plays well with others” and “uses time wisely.” Where I got less than satisfactory marks was on things like “follows directions” or “listens carefully.” I always considered directions to be more like guidelines, and never did understand why it was a problem if I got the right results by following a different (and, to my mind, more effective) process.
And yes, I did not always listen carefully, because I was either off in my own thoughts and didn’t even notice that the teacher was talking, or because I heard the first part and assumed I knew the rest that was coming.
I do think that I was hardly unique in that. If people gave report cards in relationships, a whole lot of people would mark their partner down as less than satisfactory when it comes to “listens carefully!” That’s actually why it’s important to recognize that as a skill and push children to develop it, because if we haven’t figured it out by adulthood, it is going to cause us a lot of problems.
But so many, many of our conversations with partners and friends and colleagues and family members are not really conversations at all, in which one party talks and the other listens and then you switch roles. They are more like alternating monologues, in which one person talks while the other formulates what they themselves are going to say.
But you can’t listen when that’s what you’re doing, which is probably what leads to frustrated comments at some point like, “would you just listen for a minute?” But to listen means you direct your attention to what the person whom you are in conversation with has to say. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen,” Jesus says, because the capacity for hearing isn’t enough; you have to listen, you have to pay attention by listening so that you can hear.
And then Jesus says something a little more puzzling. “Pay attention to what you hear,” he continues. What does that mean? “Pay attention to what you listen to” would make more sense; that’s how you avoid the kind of misintepretations in songs that I mentioned earlier.
But if you already pay paid attention by listening, why would you need to pay attention to what you hear? If hearing means understanding what you’ve listened to, isn’t that already paying attention? No; it’s not. We fail to pay attention to things that we don’t simply listen to, but actually hear, all the time.
All of us have heard, have well understood, that physical health requires consistency in eating a well-balanced diet and getting exercise, especially aerobic exercise, on a regular basis. And yet millions of people in the United States who have the time and the resources to eat well and exercise still do not do so. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons why.
We often enjoy eating food that isn’t good for us, in portions that are too big for us. We often don’t enjoy exercising, particularly when we haven’t been exercising for a while, and we enjoy dedicating our limited personal time and energy to it even less. But the problem isn’t that we haven’t listened to the advice and warnings; the problem isn’t that we haven’t heard the meaning and significance of them. The problem is that we haven’t paid attention to what we’ve heard; we haven’t changed our perspective or behavior to account for what we’ve heard.
That’s the attention deficit that Jesus is truly concerned about. Spiritual practices often stress the importance of paying attention; of truly attending to what’s going on in our interior and exterior worlds, of recognizing and understanding their glorious beauty and mystery which is often so easy to miss entirely when we’re not paying attention. And that is good and right and has an important place in spiritual practice.
But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about the importance of listening to and hearing the gospel itself and paying attention to what we hear. Jesus knows how easy it is for us to assume we know what it’s about and therefore not really listen to it or hear it. He runs into that all the time with his crowds who assume that he’s telling them about how God loves them more than other people and will use him get rid of all those other people who are getting in the way with their diseases and demons and poverty, or who are occupying their land with military force at the order of a foreign emperor.
That’s the gospel, the good news, that so many people in Jesus’ day want to hear, and so they don’t pay enough attention to realize that he’s saying something much different, much more important and challenging and powerful than that, because they’re not listening, nor hearing, nor paying attention to what they hear.
But that problem is hardly unique to Jesus’ day. All of us, all of us, sometimes fail to pay attention to the full truth and beauty and challenge and power of the gospel of Christ. We don’t listen well; or we don’t actually hear what we’re listening to; or most commonly, we don’t pay attention to what we hear. “Sure, Jesus said ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,’ but he didn’t really mean such things…”
The ease with which we do not pay attention to what we hear from Jesus is exactly why he warned us that we need to do so, because neither listening nor listening and hearing is enough; to pay attention also requires that we respond intentionally and faithfully to what we have heard.
And finally, paying attention builds upon itself. The more we listen to the gospel, the more we understand it; and the more we respond to what we hear and understand, the clearer it is whether we have heard and understood well and faithfully. If what we hear in the gospel is that we are better than everyone else because we claim to be Jesus’ followers, and then act accordingly by maligning and oppressing and denigrating others who are different from us, it becomes clear to everyone else, even if not to us, that we have heard and understood very little of who Jesus is and even less of who he wants us to be.
And such understanding will be taken away from us, sooner or later, in the way that all delusions dissipate. But if what we hear in the gospel is that God loves us, each and all of us, so much that God was willing to be incarnated in Jesus to teach and heal people as signs of God’s will for all the world, to suffer and die and be resurrected to life to conquer the power of death once and for all, and that we as followers of Christ should respond by imitating his ministry of radical compassion and welcome and healing and peace in our own lives of love, then even more understanding will be given to us, more compassion and welcome and healing and peace be bestowed upon us and entrusted to us to share, so that the measure we get and the measure we give can be as filled to overflowing as God’s love for this world.
That is the good news that we are called and enabled to listen to, and hear, to understand and share, if we are paying attention.