Dull Hearts

By James Cornwell

Reading from Acts, 28:23-31

23 After they had fixed a day to meet him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. 24Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,

26 ‘Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
   and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
   and their ears are hard of hearing,
     and they have shut their eyes;
     so that they might not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
   and I would heal them.’

28 Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

30 He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.


Today’s reading describes St. Paul’s preaching to the Jewish people of his day and their mixed reaction to the gospel. In his frustration at the people’s recalcitrance, Paul calls up the words of Isaiah, who writes that in spite of hearing and seeing the truth, people still fail to perceive. The reason, argues Isaiah, is the state of their hearts.

The RSV and ESV say that “the people’s heart has grown dull.” But the KJV says the people’s heart “waxed gross.” Some might think that a dull heart only comes from lack of use. We might call a person “heartless” for acting in a sinful way, or recall Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, whose heart was “two sizes too small.” In contrast, “waxed gross” calls up images not of a shriveled, desiccated, and useless organ, but of a bloated, gluttonous, oleaginous lump that fails to beat, not for lack of strength, but because there is no more room for anything but its own swollen girth.

This image says that we close our ears to the gospel not because we have failed to love, but because our loves and appetites are unhealthy. We’ve been too long seduced by love of gain, comfort, power, and pleasure, that the calls of the gospel — to meekness, poverty, mercy, and chastity — fall on dull ears, and the beautiful life lived by these rules goes unseen by “unperceiving” eyes.

How can we free our hearts from these burdens? Although next year’s Lent is eight months away, the three spiritual heart-trimming practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving may provide a roadmap to a heart more fit to receive the gospel of our Lord.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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