For 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
--2 Timothy 4:3 NRSV
My oldest son just turned 18 and although we are having a family party for him this weekend, on his actual birthday we told him we would go out to eat wherever he wanted. He chose IHOP, because he wanted some kind of pancake concoction. I was disappointed. I’m not a big IHOP fan. Waffle House you betcha! But IHOP, no. But it was his birthday, so we went to IHOP.
In these COVID times, we sat socially distanced from other patrons, but I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation from another table. Like a submarine sonar array my minister ears picked up on someone quoting scripture and talking about God. My ears tend to do that. I couldn’t get the gist of what was said, but I heard quite clearly one person say, “It’s like the Bible says, people will have itchy ears and be led astray.” “Itchy ears?” I thought. “Does it say that in the Bible?” Oh, I can’t wait to look that up!
Ministers get excited about weird things.
It turns out the phrase “itching ears” occurs in 2 Timothy chapter 4 where the author says, “For 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.” “Aha!” I thought. “This is a warning against false teaching with the whole itching ears thing as a pretty hilarious metaphor for people being led astray.” No wonder, this wasn’t a part of my spiritual vocabulary. I try not to be a self-appointed guardian of what is true and false doctrine. I’ve tried out that role and I’m really bad at it.
This verse is a part of a much broader discussion of what it means to be a Christian today and throughout Christian history. Is there a set group of beliefs a Christian must hold to in order to be truly Christian? If so, who decides what’s on that list and what is not? How do you guard against Christianity being an abusive power structure on the one hand and a relativistic free for all on the other? Religious wars have been fought between countries and at family dinner tables over such questions.
Even Bible scholars fight over these issues. Conservative scholars assert 2 Timothy was written by the Apostle Paul near his death bed warning the Christians coming after him to adhere to the teaching of the apostles. Scholars of other varieties assert 2 Timothy was not written by Paul but by people a generation or two after him who wanted to control the young religion and clamp down on its burgeoning pluralism. Depending on one’s point of view, this verse is an example of defending the faith from heresy or of ruining the faith by the exercise of abusive power.
A quick google search shows this verse is used by Christians concerned with purity of belief and virtually ignored by Christians who are open to mystery and more porous spiritual boundaries. I tend to fall in the latter group. The weakness of all assertions of what constitutes “true” Christianity comes down to the trustworthiness of the person making the claim. With so many different Christians claiming their particular take is the only real truth, how is one to know?
I’m pretty sure most Christians who quote this verse regularly would accuse me of having “itching ears,” because I wouldn’t be comfortable with their particular brand of Christianity. I guess I’m guilty as charged. My ears do seem to itch when I hear most Christians talk.
My ears itch when I hear someone using Jesus as a prop to justify their particular brand of politics which happens to hurt the sort of people Jesus chose to hang around.
My ears itch when I hear the Bible used as a weapon to hurt children and teenagers who are transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual.
My ears itch when I hear Bible verses quoted to declare women are inferior to men.
My ears itch when I hear God used in some wack-o conspiracy theory.
My ears itch when churchgoing Christians say and act in ways less loving than people of other faiths and no faith in similar situations.
My ears itch when Christianity is equated with patriotism.
My ears itch when being a good Christian is described as being healthy and wealthy and those less privileged are disparages as lacking in faith.
My ears itch when Christians claim to “believe” sound doctrine but demonstrate nothing of Jesus’ love in their actions.
My ears itch when I hear Christians of conservative, liberal or whatever variety speak without humility and without at least admitting the possibility they might be wrong.
But what if my ears aren’t itching in the way 2 Timothy 4:3 describes? What if my ears are responding to Jesus who said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them listen?”
I hope so, but maybe I’m just a heretic.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.