Itching Ears (Dr. Ron Smith)

Itching Ears

By Ron Smith

2 Timothy 4:1-5  (NRSV)
1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.  5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
How do you distinguish between true prophets and false prophets?  In the Old Testament, the true prophets had the commitment and the courage to say what they believed God intended the people to hear, whether they wanted to hear it or not.  The false prophets were essentially of two types: either they were serving a false God, or they were serving the true God falsely by speaking not what the people needed to hear but what they wanted to hear.  The writer of the Timothy passage is admonishing the reader not to be a false prophet – not to gain applause by “tickling the ears” of those who need a word from God even when they would prefer not to hear one.

Tempted to Tickle?

I suspect that most of us who are given opportunities to speak in churches have at one time or another been tempted to tickle the ears of those who have gathered to hear us.  That temptation tends to arise for one of two reasons.  The first is that we enjoy the affirming response of an audience pleased with what we have to say.  The second is fear.  We worry about how our messages will be received and whether we will end up “in trouble” with someone or some group not pleased with what we have had to say.

Does this mean that we are to mount an assault on a congregation, that we are to go into attack mode and let the chips fall where they may?  Not at all; our text calls upon us to use “utmost patience in teaching.”  This means that we need to discover where the people are and assist them to move, step by step, to where God wants them to be.  To do so requires us to be both perceptive and skillful. We begin by asking ourselves not only what is God’s dream for this people, but also what is the next step they can take to move in the desired direction.  Rarely, if ever, will they be able to make the leap envisioned for them in a single step, after a single sermon, or sometimes after a year of sermons.  We need to learn how to confront without being confrontational  —“Utmost patience.”

Here is another challenge.  What about the political implications of our speech and the political expectations of groups identifying themselves as Christian?  On occasion we may find ourselves invited to sign on to various religious and political agendas, sometimes one presenting itself in the guise of the other.  We may even be told that to do so is a necessary expression of the Christian faith and that our willingness to be identified with a particular agenda will define the extent to which we are faithful Christians, perhaps whether we are Christians at all.  The truth is that one of the most compelling, and yet subversive, of the temptations presented to persons in ministry today is the temptation to confuse loyalty to an ideology or to an organization with loyalty to God and to incorporate into our speech terms and phrases designed to gain their approval.

We have seen in recent years the rise of the “religious right” and the attempt by some to identify evangelical Christianity with the Republican party.  Some of us can recall the decade of the 60’s when there was the “religious left” which sought to identify Christianity with the liberal wing of the Democratic party.  Well, the conservatives are right when they say that if our primary loyalty is to the liberal agenda, we are serving a false god. That is, indeed, true.  However, it is also true that if our primary loyalty is to the conservative agenda we are serving a false god.  Our primary loyalty is to be to the God revealed in Jesus Christ and not to anybody’s agenda.

We are responsible as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be loyal to him, and I believe that if we are genuinely loyal to him, sometimes we will say and do things that will gladden the hearts of the conservatives, and sometimes we will say and do things that will gladden the hearts of the liberals.  My suspicion is that if we are consistently conservative or consistently liberal, we probably are not consistently Christian. We must speak and act in such a way as to be approved by God, to be judged worthy by him.  As ministers of Jesus Christ we are not to sacrifice the truth of the gospel – including its application to the most crucial issues of the day – on the altar of popularity or political expediency or financial gain, whether for ourselves or for our churches.  To do so is to surrender to itching ears.

Our Own Itching

Perhaps there is another dimension of this issue equally relevant but easily missed.  I want now to shift our focus from their itching ears to our itching ears.  Let us ask about our own itching ears, our own tendency to listen only to what fits our preconceived notions?  Is it possible that we cut ourselves off from important insights, perhaps even from the message of God, by giving in to this tendency to be selective listeners? 

We can begin by asking the question: “What do we want to hear? “  The answer is: We want to hear what we have always heard.  We are all infected to one degree or another with a common ailment known as ethnocentrism, the tendency to value the familiar and to devalue the foreign, to see familiar ideas and practices as good and right and blessed by God, and to view ideas and practices that are foreign to us, or strange to us, or presented to us in new ways, as bad and wrong and condemned by God.

So what do we want to hear?  We want to hear that we are right and everyone else is wrong.  We want to hear that our understanding of the faith and the church and the world and the gospel is correct whether it is or not.  The last thing we want to hear is something that challenges our preconceptions, or raises disturbing questions, or suggests that some of our familiar and cherished notions may deserve re-examination.  Our inclination, then, is to tune out, ignore, or at the very least, refuse to take seriously, some of the information and ideas presented to us from sources we are predisposed to see as suspect – principally because those sources represent an unfamiliar perspective on the matters in question.

Surely, we would all agree that it is wise for us not to be gullible, not to accept uncritically new ideas that may be ill conceived and perhaps riddled with flaws. It is wise for us not to reject uncritically new ideas which upon examination may prove to be helpful and to enhance our ability to understand and communicate the gospel.  How will we know which is which if we refuse to listen, if we tune out the unfamiliar, if we allow our inquiry to be limited by our itching ears?

I hope we have all discovered that we can learn from unexpected sources, that people with whom we may strongly disagree about one thing or another often possess remarkable insight into other things.  The Muslims and the Buddhists are not wrong about everything.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard students I had assigned to read a Catholic theologian declare their amazed appreciation for insights gained from a work they would never have chosen to read on their own.

Sometimes we do not even want to hear some of the things we have always heard when those things are applied to situations we did not anticipate.  I hope you believe as I do that every man, every woman, every child, is a man or woman or child God loves and for whom Christ died.  That affirmation sounds pretty good to most American, conservative, evangelical Christians – until we begin to deal with particulars by noting just who all that includes.  Because, you see, that statement is true whether someone is rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, sober or drunk, American or Iraqi.   Let us not forget that “. . . God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16)

The Challenge

The biblical text with which I began concludes with the admonition: “. . . carry out your ministry fully.”  In order to do that, we are going to have to deal forthrightly and faithfully with the challenge of itching ears.  We can begin by opening our own ears to the truths of the gospel, even those truths which may seem to threaten some of what we have always thought.  As heirs of the reformation, we should know that in the game of church, scripture trumps tradition, even honored tradition, and it does it every time.

This means that you and I are obliged to use all of the resources at our disposal in seeking to discover what the scriptures have to say to us and to our world. We cannot simply assume that we already know. It is a serious mistake, and perhaps an indication of arrogance, to assume that our present understanding cannot be enhanced and expanded through further study and prayer and reflection.  Hopefully you have already learned that it is through the discipline of prayerful study that God often reaches out to us, not only illuminating our minds but touching our souls.  If we are to rightly explain the word of truth, we had better give serious attention to gaining a better understanding of it ourselves.  We had better avoid the temptation simply to ignore the parts we do not like or which call into question a favored theological position.  Explaining it rightly means, among other things, proclaiming the whole gospel.

Second, we must be willing, as our text says, to “proclaim the message . . . whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” This means being continually aware that what a particular church expects us to do and say at a given time may or may not be what Christ expects us to do and say. True loyalty to the church, that is loyalty to what God intends for the church, may require something else.  As worthy ministers of Christ we are called and expected to speak a prophetic word to the church, even though prophetic words are seldom, if ever, politically–or ecclesiastically–correct.

We must fix in our minds that success in ministry has nothing to do with one’s approval or disapproval by those perceived as important and powerful, whether in the church or in the world at large. Rather, success has to do with an unwavering loyalty to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a loyalty evidenced by faithfulness, courage and integrity – in our study, in our devotion and in our proclamation.  Success in ministry calls us to:

2. . . proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.  5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

This is the word of the Lord.  May the Holy Spirit of God guide and empower us as we carry out our ministries in its light.


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Manuscripts from the 2011 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
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Manuscripts from the 2010 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
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