Jesus would sometimes interject his teaching with, “if anyone has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:23 NIV). In saying this, he acknowledged that some of his followers would perhaps listen without really hearing. There is often a vast chasm between a person's capacity to hear and understand and their actual willingness to hear and understand. In John 9, Jesus rebuked a group of Pharisees who, despite their functioning eyes and keen minds, refused to see what was vividly clear to even a recently-blind man. When an “expert in the law” asked him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, true to form, responded with a question: “What is written in the law?” But it's Jesus' followup question, “how do you read it?” that I find most intriguing (Luke 10:25-26 NIV). The world's greatest communicator was not only interested in what was said but also what this man heard. Are we prone to hear what the Word of God is saying, I wonder, or do we like many of Jesus' 1st Century friends and foes merely listen for what we wanted him to say?
Jesus knows all too well how our selective listening works—our human propensity toward confirmation bias. And there's times where he's almost purposely elusive when responding to a disingenuous question. He seemed to even let some folks walk away with the wrong idea, if that's what they had already set out to do from the beginning. Despite what he actually said, for example, some of his listeners heard the familiar voice of a nationalist messiah who promised to lead Zion's armies to victory over her Roman oppressors. Others, who were listening without the rich Jewish history of the long-promised coming of God's kingdom rooted in their hopes and dreams, might have heard a Gnostic who was always advocating for some ethereal life in the glorious hereafter. Even today, many hear in Jesus' teachings a justification for—or at least a compatibility with—moralism, Marxism, white nationalism/nativism, consumerism/economic greed (what we often rebrand as “prosperity” or “trickle-down economics”), or militarism, as well as a myriad of other “isms” that are clearly at odds (clearly to anyone who is actually listening, that is) with the historical Jesus of Nazareth's teachings.
It's not that Jesus wants to be misunderstood or that he's just careless in how he conveys his ideas. But maybe he can't, or won't, force people to understand against their hardened will (not at this particular juncture anyway). Perhaps this is one of many dignities God bestows on his image bearers: the ability to stop up our ears, close our minds, and shut our eyes to our Creator if we so choose (the ability to “resist” the whispers of his Spirit). Naturally, God will not bypass human volition as he carries out his sweeping project to restore our desire and ability to willingly submit to our Creator via the person and work of the new man, Jesus the Christ. Since Eden, the ability to choose has always been a noticeable facet of his plan for humanity. Many of the stories Jesus told about God's kingdom were crafted in such a way as to leave the hearer with a choice—a choice to believe or to doubt, to comprehend or to confuse, to seek Truth or to run from him. I maintain that Jesus' parables are most often simple and direct. However, the parable format allows lazy or intellectually dishonest hearers to impose their alternate meanings. I want to be clear that it's ultimately not Jesus' ambiguity but our own pride, preferences, preconceptions, and sin-stricken hearts that lead us astray.
As a confirmed skeptic (who has now been won over by Jesus and his good news), I've often wondered why God didn't eliminate any opportunity for doubt or confusion. Sure we have the Scriptures, numerous miracles, compelling prophecies, and Jesus' own resurrection, but the skeptic in me always wants more. How have so many of his misguided followers managed to become crusaders, inquisitors, slave holders, advocates for apartheid, and purveyors of the alt-right? How could they possibly hear approval in the words of Christ and veer so far off course? Why have others heard nothing at all? How is it that so many of his friends and foes alike mishear or misrepresent him? Why couldn't God shout even louder, so to speak, so that everyone, even those with the hardest hearts, couldn't help but hear him? Well, one day he will. Jesus promises “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17 NIV). “Every knee” will eventually bow to him (Phil 2:10). But he wants us to be “hungry” and “thirsty” for him now, and we can't claim to be listening, as an act of our own volition, when at his return we have no choice but to hear. Paul explained to the Athenians how God had orchestrated human history “so that [we] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27 NIV). Maybe he presently speaks in a “gentle whisper” so that we will have to stop and truly listen in order to hear him (1 Kings 19:12 NIV). I like how the New Living Translation renders Luke 8:18: “...pay attention to how you hear,” says Jesus. “To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.”