In the gospels, we read that, at of the moment of the Lord’s arrest, one of His disciples drew a sword and sliced off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Though the details differ, all four of the gospel writers include this incident in their narratives. John tells us the names both of the disciple (Peter) and of the servant (Malchus), two pieces of info which the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) leave out. Whenever a teaching or a bit of action is included by all four gospel authors, it is fair to say that the item in question has been high-lighted by the Spirit of God. Thus, the severed-ear event is a significant piece of the story, not one to be left out in any telling of the Lord’s passion. But none of the evangelists tells us why it was the ear that received the blow.
Some readers of Scripture will, no doubt, be content simply to say that that was what happened, and so the gospel writers just faithfully recorded it. Okay, sure. But why did it happen like that? I, for one, am convinced that God is in control of all things and that He is particularly interested in packing meaning into the details of the story of His Son’s passion. Thus, I wonder: Why the ear? What is the Lord telling us with this bit about the ear?
Here we find one of the many, many places where the Scripture teases questions out of us yet provides no direct or definite answer to those questions. I generally take such biblical phenomena as the Holy Spirit’s invitation for us to contemplate—and even to speculate—about what He might be showing us. As long as we are careful to acknowledge to ourselves and one another that that’s what we are doing—namely, making an interpretive best guess—I think we are on safe ground. More than that, we are actually accepting our Lord’s invitation actively to ponder over His secrets. (If you wonder what I mean by this, try sometime just reading and praying over the following Scriptures in a single sitting: Deuteronomy 29:29; Isaiah 55:8-9; Acts 1:7; Psalm 25:14; Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11; John 15:15.)
So, again, I ask: Why the ear?
What follows is my answer. As always, I invite anyone’s critique.
Numerous times throughout the narratives of the synoptic gospels, the Lord says “He who has ears, let him hear” and other similar phrases. In many of these moments, an explicit connection is made to the words of YHWH in Isaiah 6:9-10,
“Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive;
Keep on looking, but do not understand.’
Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
Their ears dull,
And their eyes dim,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.”
Sometimes, when the Lord gives His invitation to eared people, He does so in the context of His teaching about the four kinds of soil or other parables of the kingdom (Mt. 13:9,43; Mk. 4:9,23; Lk. 8:8). In one case, He says it right after speaking about the significance of John the Baptist (Mt.11:15). If Mark 7:16 is considered genuine (this verse is not in the oldest manuscripts of Mark), there the Lord uses the expression in the context of explaining proper and improper attitudes toward religious tradition.
It is the use of the phrase at Luke 14:35, however, which really grabs my attention. It comes at the end of a section (vv.25-35) in which Jesus is being brutally honest about the cost of discipleship. To start off the passage, Luke tells us that “large crowds were going along with Him.” Then the Lord begins to tell them that they must hate their closest family members and even their own lives. He tells them they must carry their won crosses and follow Him. Using images drawn from construction and international conflict, He warns them that they must learn to count the cost of committing to follow Him. And then to make things clear, He explicitly says they must give up all their possessions to be His disciples.
He finishes with these words: “Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (vv.34-35). The Lord is calling those who would be His disciples to walk the hard road that He will walk before them. If they will not, they really cannot be called His disciples. But if they will follow, they will become beacons of a new reality for all the world to see. Or, to stick with the salt metaphor, they will bring the flavor of the kingdom of God for the world to taste. This is a tremendous message! Yet it is so hard for us to hear (meaning: listen to, understand, believe, and obey). You have to have the ears for it.
Fast-forward almost to the end of Luke’s gospel, where the risen Lord has a conversation with a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus. These two have heard the news that the women claim to have seen the Lord alive; but, incredulous, they have left Jerusalem with downcast hearts anyway. Jesus says to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (24:25-26)
So sound the echoes, once again, of the bitter irony of YHWH in Isaiah 6. We are people who “Keep on listening, but do not perceive,” who “keep on looking, but do not understand.” It seems that we, who are supposed to be following our Lord in His life and death (so that we may share in His resurrection), are so slow to get it. Slow… but, by the grace of God, not doomed to utter failure.
It turns out that, in the wise plan of God, the very unsalty disciples who could not seem to understand the true nature of their Lord’s mission, would end up being the most savory seasoning the world has ever seen. They will not be counted as useless; they will not be thrown out. And those of us down through the centuries, who have believed their message, are the ones who are now called to bring that message to the world.
But will the world have ears to hear us? Not usually. Those in the world typically must taste before they can hear. The hearing of a great many people improves with the taste of salt. (I am not making a medical or physiological claim, just a Lukan theological one.)
The great temptation for Christians is to fall into this world’s way of seeing, hearing, and tasting. If our sense of taste is no different from the world’s, how will we be its seasoning? If we see no better than those in the world, how will be bring them the vision of our Lord? If we hear no better than they do, how can we hope they will hear His voice?
Perhaps now we can see what the ear-chopping is about. Just when the Lord Jesus Christ is about to show the world the true way of God, His disciples show, through their panic, that even they are not ready to see, hear, taste what it is that He has for them. He is about to reveal the power of God through weakness. He is about to show triumph by laying down His arms and letting them be pinned to wood. And just at this crucial moment, His disciple does something very worldly and unsalty. In his panic, he tries to be brave and attacks one who would be his Lord’s enemy.
Sadly, this is what we followers of Jesus tend to do. Just when the opportunity arises for us to follow our Lord to his cross, we strike out at our enemies. Our Lord hopes to win these enemies by displaying His power through our weakness. But in our panic, we think more like them than we do like Him. And so there is no flavor of salt. It is no surprise to the world that we would fight back; after all, that’s probably what they would do.
Oh sure, there is the world’s idea of bravery. Those in the world will probably tip their hat to us if we stand and fight against overwhelming odds. That is, no doubt, what was being done by the disciple in Gethsemane. It is possible that some of those who had come to arrest the Lord may have seen the hostile action of the disciple and thought it brave. But they would not have seen it as a holy bravery, a bravery of an other-wordly quality. In other words, there was no salt in that assault. 😉
Whatever the attacking disciple meant to accomplish, the outcome shows us that it was effectively an attack on the man’s hearing. And that, I think, is the answer to the question: Why the ear?
At certain points in our stories, there are scenes and moments when it is clear that we are about to be presented with the chance to follow our Lord to the cross. When we panic and strike out at the enemies who are bringing the cross our way, we invariably hit them in the hearing. Why should they listen to people who claim to have faith in one who is the Lord of both life and death but who panic just like them at the threat of pain and trouble? Any chance of displaying our Lord’s truth and power in that scene has been lost. Quite contrary to winning a hearing for the gospel, we have cut off hearing.
In Luke’s telling, the one disciple who actually swung the sword was only doing what they were all getting ready to do. “When those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear” (22:49-50). So let us understand this as the attack of the disciples (plural) on their Lord’s enemies. And what were the results of their attack? First they received the rebuke of the Lord. Then their fight mode turned to flight mode, and these brave little men deserted their Master. Resort to violence does not strengthen faith. It weakens it.
It is fascinating that Luke is the only gospel writer who tells us that Jesus performed a miracle right there for the injured man: “And he touched his ear and healed him” (v.51). Praise Him, our Lord can work to restore the damage we cause! He can give renewed opportunities to hear! It is Luke who goes on to write the story of how Spirit of God will empower these disciples to speak about their Lord to the world, to the Jewish and Roman powers. They will go on to live out His power in weakness.
We who now belong to Christ Jesus by faith through the preaching of their word are no less called to carry our own crosses and follow Him. We too are called to change the way we think about family and even what we consider living. We too are called to count the cost. We too are called to forsake possession. We too are called to be good salt.
The question is: Do we have ears to hear?