Several times throughout the Gospels we see Jesus saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” We find this in Matthew 11:15, Mark 4:9 (parallel verse in Luke 8:8), again in Mark 4:23, and Luke 14:35. This phrase “ears to hear” is also used many times in the Old Testament, as well. (Deut 29:4; Jeremiah 25:4; Ezekiel 3:10, 12:2, 40:4, 44:5)
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
At first, this seems like a simple statement about listening. Jesus is talking, so it would make sense for those around him to listen. I say something similar to my kids all the time.
Me: What are those things on the side of your head?
One of my kids: Ears
Me: And what do you do with ears?
One of my kids: Listen
And Jesus is basically saying the same thing here, “I gave you ears to hear, so listen to my words”. But the English translation is lacking in both detail and context. It’s not wrong, it’s just incomplete, in my opinion.
What Does It Mean to Hear?
I hate to get all “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” on you, but words mean something. We need to remember that the Bible was written in two different languages: Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT).
So while the English translation of the New Testament we read today was written in Greek, it was spoken in Hebrew. And words, like hear, can mean something different in all three languages. Remember, Jesus was speaking in Aramaic (in the family of Hebrew) So, understanding the meaning of a word we read English, that was spoken in Aramaic but written down in Greek is critical to discerning the larger context and meaning of Jesus’ words.
Lost yet? Bear with me.
“He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear.”
The writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all used the greek word Akouo for hear (see verse above). This word in Greek simply means “to hear, to be endowed with the ability to hear, or to hear something”. Simple, right? Jesus says hear, so the Greek equivalent of Akouo is the perfect fit. Ehhh, not so much.
Obviously, Jesus didn’t use the English or Greek word “hear” in 1st century Israel. Again, he was Jewish and, speaking Aramaic, he would have used the word Shama. Now, the Shama is also the name of a Jewish prayer found in Deuteronomy 6. This first part of this prayer starts like this:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Shama, in Hebrew and Aramaic, means to hear, listen to, obey. Did you catch that? Shama, the word Jesus would have most certainly used, means to hear, listen, AND obey. Unlike the Greek and English word for hear, in Hebrew the three “meanings” are intrinsically connected. Obedience is intertwined with hearing.
Reading that verse again…
“Hear and obey [Shama], O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Naturally, this is what I meant to say to my kids. “Use your ears to hear, listen, AND obey.” But that is not the definition of the word “hear” in English. All that word means to us is to be “informed of or to be made aware”. No expectation of obedience in our modern use of the word “hear” (though it’s likely implied).
But Shama provides a whole new meaning. The expectation now is clearly to hear and obey at the same time. Now Jesus’ words make more sense but they also comes with more weight.
Let’s now use the meaning of Shama in Mark 4:21-25.
And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.
If anyone has ears to hear and obey [Shama], let him hear and obey [Shama]”
And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear and obey [Shama]: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Again in Matthew 11:11-15. Jesus speaking to the crowds about John the Baptist and his message to repent for the kingdom of heaven is near:
This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
He who has ears to hear and obey [Shama], let him hear and obey [Shama]”
Luke 8, after Jesus explains the parable of the sower:
And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out,
“He who has ears to hear and obey [Shama], let him hear and obey [Shama]”
And finally, Luke 14:34-35. Jesus has used three different parables and now uses salt as a way to explain how it [salt] is worthless if it “loses its taste”.
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away.
He who has ears to hear and obey [Shama], let him hear and obey [Shama]”.
Parables were not just a way for Jesus to explain the more difficult concepts of the Kingdom of God to simple minded people. He used them to drive home a crucial point. It’s not just good enough to hear the word, but we must also obey it. .
I believe this meaning places a greater weight on James 1:19-25.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
Hearing is passive (meaning we can’t help but do it) but obedience is active (It takes effort on our part). And Jesus clearly lays down the expectation that those who hear his words will also obey them, and if they don’t, they are like salt that loses its taste.
But we are not salt that loses its taste. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. A city on a hill that cannot be hidden. So let us hear the word, do the word, and let our light “shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
[Here's a quick link to a video further explaining the Shama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KQLOuIKaRA]