I’ve heard the phrase, “itching ears” lately. It has caused me to think how this phrase has been commonly used. I’ve put some thought to how this phrase has been used in some diverse contexts while paddling on my Stand Up Paddleboard this week. Here are some of those thoughts.
This saying is found in 2 Timothy 4:3, a Pauline text. Therefore, those who frequently teach/preach from Paul’s portion of the Scripture text use this phrase as a common metaphor for those whom they feel teach wrong doctrine.
The typical formula that I’ve heard it used in my own interaction with other is this:
– People do not like to hear “hard, conviction-filled, difficult truth.”
– Therefore, people gravitate towards those who “relax” on speaking such hard truths. Their ears “itch” for this easier teaching where conviction is relaxed so acceptance can be honored.
In sum, “Itching ears applies to those who don’t take the Bible as seriously as we do because we say the hard stuff and they don’t. Those with itching ears want to believe whatever they want and will gravitate towards those whom already match their perspective.”
This is certainly a part of the conversation of “itching ears.” However, the Pauline text is generic, it doesn’t provide the “shade” of teaching. It simply states that people will gravitate towards the message that they already want to hear, “away from the truth” and towards “myths.”
The prophet Amos (an OT voice) used an interesting rhetorical device to communicate the word of the Lord. Chapters 1-2 show Amos announcing God’s judgment on the already-established-enemies-of-Israel. You can imagine that Amos’ “church” was packed and rowdy in the room. Israel wanted their enemies to come to ruin, their ears “itched” for these words to be true.
Just as the crowd was drawn in to Amos’ words, the preacher springs his trap in 2:6-16, “For the three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent…” Yikes! “God has plans to bring ruin to our enemies and to us.” But, it gets even more difficult at the end of Amos in one of the most scandalous texts in the OT.
Amos 9:7 alludes to a great, wide mercy of God towards those outside of Israel, “‘Are not the Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?’ Declares the LORD. ‘Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?'”
Wait a minute! You mean the pivotal event of Israel’s history, the Exodus, is just one of many exoduses? Did God also help the Cushites, Philistines, and Arameans?
I wonder how that atom bomb felt for Israel. Their itching ears wanted to hear radical exclusion, not inclusion.
How about the famous parable of The Man with Two Sons. (Luke 15) You and I can imagine that the older brother was itching to hear his father humiliate the younger brother for even daring to come back home after spending all of his inheritance in “loose living.” Instead, he heard the sound of “music and dancing” and saw the posture of mercy and acceptance for his younger-wayward-mistake-ridden brother. He refused to join the party because his itching ears wanted to hear judgment, exclusion, removal.
Or the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20). After the day was over and the workers were receiving their “negotiated wages,” the workers who had been working all day were indignant to hear that the workers whom only worked a couple of hours received the same pay as they did. Their ears were itching to receive more because they had worked longer than the others. The owner of the vineyard responded to the complaints of the workers by saying, “are you envious because I am generous?” Wait, you mean generosity provoked the workers to be angry and envious towards the vineyard owner?
In the parable of The Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Jesus is asked by an expert in the law what he must do to inherit eternal life. In a brief interchange the expert and Jesus agree that loving God and neighbor would be a good path to follow. The expert then asks “who is my neighbor?” His question is compelling, “Who is it that I need to love?” Embedded in that question is the unspoken, “and who doesn’t apply as my neighbor; who do I have no responsibility to love?”
Jesus’ parable is one that is well-known, but it also had explosive power in the moment. Jesus could’ve used any character to illustrate proper neighboring. Jesus chose a Samaritan to illustrate his point. The Jews had a particular distaste for Samaritans. Jesus’ suggestion of the Samaritans obedience to the law over and against the other characters in the parable would have been a stinging rebuke against someone like the expert of the law, who was busy sanctioning off those who were in and those who were out. It also suggested a rather benevolent posture towards a group of people that Jesus’ peers despised.
In sum, the “itching ears” metaphor is not as easy as it sounds. Those who can hear “hard truth” can also have itching ears. What makes their ears itch may not be easier teaching (whatever that may be). What makes their ears itch is exclusion, profiling, or dare we say it… hate. We’ve all probably experienced the operative power of a community of people with a common enemy. We’ve all heard the outlandish things that people commit to while in a state of anger. “Conviction,” at times, can function as toxic beliefs dressed in religious commitment’s clothing.
Let’s be careful not to confuse a commitment to “hard teaching” with being a jerk.
Because it looks like Jesus’ radical acceptance of the other can provoke people to abandon God-belief as much as his “hard teachings.”