He Who Has Ears to Hear


I am convinced after years of preaching and listening to preaching that the bulk of Scripture has become lost to our ears. We hear it, but fail to “hear” it. And I do not mean this merely in the moral sense (doubtless we fail to be “doers” of the word). Rather, I am aware of a kind of dullness, of seeing a very narrow set of things that become the lens through which we see and understand. We read amazing statements as though they were commonplace, and we make commonplace that which should be utterly astounding.

Much of my conviction on this matter has come in the last 10 years or more and my immersion into the services of the Orthodox Church. These services, long and with ample “hymnography” that is but a poetic commentary on the Scriptures and doctrines that surround any particular feast, are probably the richest surviving engagement with the Word of God to be found in a 21st century Church. Here no Reformation has occurred and reduced all Scripture to a “riff” on Justification by Faith, or a subset of Calvin’s paradigms. Here no Enlightenment has shown with its darkness of doubt and obfuscation.

Instead, there is a constant wonderment at the Scriptures themselves, as if the hymnographer were discovering something for the first time or had found a rare gem to share to any willing to listen – and all in the form of praise and thanksgiving to God.

It is true to say that in Orthodoxy, “Theology sings.” It is possible to be lulled into a near trance as the choir or chanter utters mysteries to God and to miss treasures that should truly astound. But careful attention is always rewarded with something you never considered.

I am further convinced that our modern complacencies have made us deaf to the form and shape of Scripture so that we listen like sceptics and frown like Pharisees. In our modern context most people have either been shaped by fundamentalist literalism; by modernist historical criticism; or by nearly nothing at all. In each case the Scriptures will not sing – they will not yield up their treasures.

I was struck by a particular case this past weekend – the weekend of Palm Sunday. The gospel account in question was the Matthean version of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem:

And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.

Modern historical criticism hears in this only the “foolishness” of Matthew. Matthew has cited the prophecy in Zechariah that “your king is coming to you…mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass,” and has crafted his story in precisely that manner, placing Jesus astride two animals. The same critics will note that in other gospel accounts Christ is only on a “foal of an ass,” i.e., one animal. Historical Critics have a field day with such problems (I was first confronted with this “discrepancy” in my sophomore year of college – it was presented as if the professor had noticed something no one had ever seen before). Modern fundamentalists will rush to defend the integrity of the gospel accounts, “Two different eye-witnesses reported on the same thing and one emphasized one thing and the other emphasized another.”

Both explanations lack imagination and are precisely the sort of blindness that afflicts so much modern reading of Scripture. Listening to the hymnody for the Vigil of Palm Sunday, the hymnographer, without apology for the discrepancy, races to it and declares:

O gracious Lord, who ridest upon the cherubim, who art praised by the seraphim, now Thou dost ride like David on the foal of an ass, The children sing hymns worthy of God, while the priests and scribes blaspheme against Thee. By riding an untamed colt, Thou hast prefigured the salvation of the Gentiles, those wild beasts, who will be brought from unbelief to faith! Glory to Thee, O merciful Christ. Our King and the Lover of man!

Here (the reading had been from Matthew) the second beast is handled under the mystery of the faith. Christ, Lord of Israel, the ass who has been tamed, and Lord of the Gentiles, the untamed foal, is the Lord of both! Modern critics might race to cry “foul” (no pun intended), but the ancient hymnographer has come closer to the heart of Scripture than either the modern sceptic or the modern literalist will ever know.

The inspired (I know no other word) imagination of the early Church that took the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” as St. Irenaeus would call it, and fashioned the framework on which the Old Testament would be read, is the same early Church that gave us the Gospels (inspired indeed) and the other writings of Scripture. Their treatment of prophecy is not obvious. Where is the three day resurrection prophesied (only in Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the whale – now that is inspired interpretation)? The writers of the New Testament believed that everything in the Old, when read rightly would yield insight into the Messiah and the mystery of our salvation. But their creative insight (again, I believe it is inspired) is far removed from the flat-footed nonsense that we hear out of modern fundamentalist “prophetic” scholars, whose reading of the Old Testament is almost as poorly constructed as the 19th century false prophecies of the book of Mormon! Neither bear any resemblance to the treatment of prophecy found in the New Testament.

And thus I return to my original point. We have become deaf. We listen with ears either hardened by modernist scepticism, or by a false literalism that has substituted Darbyite nonsense for the Apostolic faith, or reduced Scripture to delicate harmonizations. None of them have the boldness and audacity of the patristic hymnographers who stood in the proper line of succession, proclaiming the faith as it had been taught and received and continuing to expound its mysteries. Thank God that somewhere in this modern world, you can still stand and listen to the wonders of our salvation, sung and unraveled before the unbelieving heart of man. Glory to God who has so loved mankind!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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22 responses to “He Who Has Ears to Hear”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for posting these thoughts!

    For the past (almost) two years of attendance in the Orthodox worship my heart has been reminded that God is Love in a way that I hadn’t felt since childhood. What a blessing! I believe that through His Church God is reaching out to His children and helping us to each one lay hold of that which Christ has laid hold of for us. There is such love and consideration woven into the very fabric of the liturgy.I echo your closing remark,
    “Thank God that somewhere in this modern world, you can still stand and listen to the wonders of our salvation, sung and unraveled before the unbelieving heart of man. Glory to God who has so loved mankind!”

  2. Alyssa Avatar

    I have found this to be true, too, in the extremely little time I’ve been in the church. Now only if I could understand what the choir was singing…whether it be in English or Slavonic! 🙂

  3. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    Last night, this passage and its typology struck me:

    “The serpent found a second Eve in the Egyptian woman
    And plotted the fall of Joseph through words of flattery.
    But, leaving behind his garment, Joseph fled from sin.
    He was naked but unashamed, like Adam before the fall.
    Through his prayers, O Christ, have mercy on us!”

  4. mrh Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen.

    I am also quite often deaf myself. But you have expressed in words something I have tried unsuccessfully to explain to others about why the Orthodox approach to scripture feels “right”. It seems so obvious now: the church reads the scriptures the way the gospel writers read the scriptures. Who else can say that? So easy to say, and so hard to do. How can I understand, unless someone interprets for me??,b>

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I saw that one last night, too. It was as though it was all alone. I thought to myself, “What’s Joseph doing here suddenly?” But for all that it made me hear it all the more. What a wonderful use of the imagery as well. The richness of the Church’s liturgical use of Scripture makes the poverty of other approaches all the more poignant.

  6. Ron Drummond Avatar
    Ron Drummond

    Father, Bless.

    Your use of the term “deaf” to describe our inability to hear Scripture in all its richness calls to mind a fairly recent book by Christopher Hall called “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers.” Hall writes that the Fathers “hear music in the Scriptures where we are tone-deaf.” His treatment of the Fathers and their reading of the Bible is well done from a scholarly perspective, though probably not completely acceptable from an Orthodox perspective (Hall is an evangelical Protestant theologian). It is encouraging, though, to see parts of the Protestant world awaken to the realization of exactly what you stated in your post.

    Glory to God, indeed!

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’ll look for Hall’s work. I think that even the Orthodox, at least in a scholarly manner, have been somewhat deaf from time to time. The siren song of modernity sounds everywhere – but I think there are new tunes that are making a lot of people – more than the Orthodox – look back and think that maybe we missed something, or weren’t listening. The same hunger that I felt from both literalism and modernism is not unique to me. I am genuinely encouraged by some of the present work being done and excited about things that lie ahead.

  8. Clark Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Perhaps it would help if our seminaries taught students to
    read the Scriptures as the fathers did instead of teaching higher
    criticism… Just a thought 😉

  9. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    At the November 2005 Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Valley Forge, Christopher Hall delivered the following paper:


    Christopher Hall

    To display the article on one page (instead of clicking through 14 pages), click on the “PRINT” option.

  10. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    Christopher Hall’s message at the November 2005 ETS meeting in Valley Forge on what Evangelicals and Liberals can learn from the Church Fathers:


    View it in the PRINT mode to see it all on one page.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the article Hall quotes St. Irenaeus on allowing what is clear in Holy Scripture to illucidate the foggy. Harder to do than it sounds when we are trained and encouraged to have curious minds that look for the new and different. It is so easy to ignore the plain and obvious because it is plain and obvious. The best hiding place is frequently in plain sight.

    I came from a background that promoted and practiced an esoteric interpretation of Scipture. It was a great relief to me during my catechumenate that Scriptural exegesis did not have to be totureous. I still delight in the simple direct proclamations of Scripture that many aovid:

    “Unless you eat of my body and drink of my blood, you have no life in you”

    “All generations shall call me blessed”

    “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me”

    The list goes on and on. Despite there simple clarity it is the temptation of the fallen mind and darkened heart to try to find some other explanation that does not require a clear, direct response–A temptation into which I fall on regular basis. May the Lord’s grace enlarge our hearts that we might hear and be converted.

  12. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    At my blog (http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com) I was asked yesterday if Genesis, the foundation to all the Bible, is taught in the seminaries. My experience is that most seminaries are so busy teaching political correctness and modernism that they fail to teach the Bible. These training grounds for pastors and priests do more harm than good. This is probably not the case with Orthodox seminaries, but it is true for Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian seminaries.

    My 25+ years of research on Genesis have taught me that there is always more that God wants me to hear through the reading of HIS written word. Every detail of Scripture is important and nothing is extraneous to the revealing of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Incarnate Word.

  13. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Well said. Some things should be obvious (but in my experience I miss the obvious sometimes – and in some exegetical traditions, the obvious is made difficult for all the wrong reasons). But there’s enough clear and obvious to keep me repenting for a lifetime, if only my heart would cooperate.

  14. […] FR. STEPHEN– “He Who Has Ears to Hear”; Reaching Holy Week … […]

  15. Ron Drummond Avatar
    Ron Drummond


    I’m an Episcopal priest (God help me!) who just graduated from a good, conservative seminary about 3 years ago. Genesis was taught, but only through the lens of the outdated Wellhausen documentary hypothesis. Hands have changed in the OT department since I left, so hopefully the new guy is teaching Genesis itself, and not just outmoded German theories about the Pentateuch.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not to upset any applecarts – but I think it’s worth knowing the historical critical stuff – if you can know it and it not get in your way. But there is very little work going on today that is worthwhile.

    I recall Stanley Hauerwas, when I was studying under him at Duke, saying in a lecture to the Biblical faculty at Princeton: “I believe it’s my job to put you ‘Bible-boys’ out of business.” He meant by that – that Biblical scholars tended to hide behind notions of the “science” of historical critical studies, instead of admitting that what they were doing was actually theology (and lousy theology at that). I agree that the interesting work is in a “doctrinally ruled” reading of Scripture, to quote one Dominican scholar. This is what the Tradition has always done, and, I think that a great deal of modern literary critical work has been moving in a direction that would support that approach. Of course, this drives liberals crazy, because the post-modern literary people are supposed to be “liberals” like themselves, and not siding with a Traditioned approach.

  17. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    There is value to the critical method, for sure. I recommend that you look at my research on Genesis, Ron. It is largely unknown to OT seminary professors, but it has been well received by people who know the disciplines upon which I draw to uncover the earliest cultural context of our Abrahamic faith.

  18. Ron Drummond Avatar
    Ron Drummond

    Oops! I didn’t mean to come across as being against critical study of Scripture, for I am certainly not. However, much too often the critical approach is applied to Scripture outside of its proper context within the believing, worshipping, and praying community of the Church. And my comment about Wellhausen’s theory was directed toward the theory itself…not critical study per se. I don’t think it can be argued that Wellhausen’s hypothesis holds near as much water in the academic community as it did several decades ago. Much quality critical work has been done in the Evangelical and “post-liberal” traditions of scholarship that has offered alternative approaches going against the “canonized” hypothesis of Wellhausen. Alice, I will indeed look into your work on Genesis. Sounds like you have poured much love and labor into that book over the years. To all: sorry if I sounded anti-critical scholarship. I truly am not. But I will say that during seminary my study of Genesis strictly focused through the form-critical method, while not threatening my faith, did nothing to bring me into a living encounter with the God whose Word the Scriptures reveal.

  19. Ron Drummond Avatar
    Ron Drummond

    Father Stephen,

    Would you send me an e-mail at email hidden; JavaScript is required ? I’d like to correspond with you one on one about some things. Thanks!


  20. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    Actually, Ron, I agree with you that form criticism, the Wellhausen theory and most of what Von Rad and Speiser wrote on Genesis do little to acquaint us with the God of Abraham.

  21. Jeremiah Avatar

    Bless, Father.

    I have a question that I was hoping you could help me with.

    Looking at the hymnography, I am confused:

    “O gracious Lord, who ridest upon the cherubim, who art praised by the seraphim, now Thou dost ride like David on the foal of an ass, The children sing hymns worthy of God, while the priests and scribes blaspheme against Thee. By riding an untamed colt, Thou hast prefigured the salvation of the Gentiles, those wild beasts, who will be brought from unbelief to faith! Glory to Thee, O merciful Christ. Our King and the Lover of man!”

    The hymn mentions (1) the foal of an ass and (2) a colt (untamed, albeit). But isn’t “the foal of an ass” = “a colt”? (as the Prophet Zechariah suggests).

    It seems to me that the hymnography is talking about one and the same animal.

    It could be that my English is poor, or that I am thick… but am trying to understand how the hymnography is talking about two different animals i.e. (1) an ass and (2) the foal of an ass (i.e. a colt).

    Thank you, Father.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In St. Matthew’s gospel, Christ is described as riding on two animals (an ass, and a colt – the foal of an ass). Luke’s gospel has only one animal. It is, apparently, St. Matthew’s misunderstanding of the Zechariah prophecy that drives his imagery (when Zachariah seems to only be using poetic parallelism). But, it still provides a rich image for the hymnography of the Church.

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