October 16th, 2022, Proper 24 : Year C
Timothy 2nd 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
In his Second Letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4: 1 to 4: 5), the Apostle Paul tells him: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myth. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.”
Itching ears. Now there is an interesting phrase! What exactly does it mean?
In the original Greek, the phrase is knethomeinoi ten akoen, and the last word, akoen, means “the act of hearing,” which corresponds to listening in the sense that the perceiver chooses to hear, listens, rather than simply hearing as one might hear a clap of thunder, an explosion or a dog barking. “I really don’t listen to what they say in the mass media,” a person might say. “It’s full of fake news.” It’s just blah-blah-blah-blah-blah!
Fundamentally, “itching ears” are ears that hear what a person wants to hear. Or, having ears that are especially receptive to what you want to hear: just as your taste buds might not especially want to taste spinach or carrots, and are itching to have Haagen Das ice cream or French pastries, and not just a little but a lot of them! Your ears want to hear stuff that resonates with some kind of inner need. But practically everyone’s ears don’t want to hear hard truths.
“Itching ears” want to be scratched, or tickled, but only in a certain way. They listen to things they want to hear, and if they perceive something they don’t want to hear, they have a master switch to mute the unwelcome audio just like the one on a computer. This has become a serious issue in the United States with its extreme political polarization. American politics, in fact, is full of itching ears. Tell one person your opinion on abortion or same sex marriage, and he or she will happily agree and see you as a friend; tell another, and he or she will shut down, like a clam closing its shell. He or she will be your enemy.
All our sense data – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – seem attuned in an important way to our wants. Back in 1976, people detected what they saw was a sculptured “face” on the surface of Mars. Further investigation showed that it was just a natural formation, but some observers tended to rearrange it into the contours of a human (or alien) face. Perhaps those people who originally saw the face had some unspoken longing to discover an alien civilization on Mars, just as others who see U.F.O.s yearn to see evidence of intelligent life from other planets rather than weather balloons or shooting stars. Recently, some U.F.O. theorists have speculated that aliens are zipping around in their spaceships, keeping an eye on us, ready to intervene to stop World War III before it happens. The notion of aliens are guardian angels who want to save humanity from its own follies is extremely reassuring – but it isn’t likely to be true.
The problem of “itching ears” is ubiquitous. In Japan and South Korea, new religions like Aum Shinrikyo and the Unification Church “speak” in ways that many people are yearning to hear. Their itching ears stop their brains from functioning. In an often cold and impersonal society, the missionaries of these false gods speak long-desired words of kindness, inclusiveness and personal concern. They promise being part of a community – something we all long for. That the foundations of new religions (including Scientology in the United States) are heretical or ridiculous doesn’t matter. If I say nobody with any intelligence could believe that Sun Myung Moon was commanded by Jesus Christ to finish the work He began – I might be very mistaken about the human trait of gullibility. After all, some of the followers of Shoko Asahara were graduates of the scientific faculties of some of Japan’s best universities. No matter what their educational background or intelligence, those people who really, genuinely need friendship, love or meaning in life will eagerly snatch up the soothing words with alacrity, no matter how absurd they are. Their itching ears will betray them.
Even what is labelled as “Christianity” can scratch itching ears: the Prosperity Gospel, which flourishes in the United States, is based on the idea that Christians are entitled to well-being – an upper or upper-middle class lifestyle – if they are empowered by true faith. The Bible is essentially a contract between the faithful and God: be faithful, and all sorts of good things will happen to you. Similar ideas were preached by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote a bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking, in 1952. A critic claimed that “with saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil.” Both the Prosperity Gospel and Peale can be seen as preaching the principle of Do ut des (Latin: “I give, that therefore Thou may give”), which was the foundation of Roman pagan religion: sacrifice a chicken to the gods, and get a small, good thing; sacrifice an ox to the gods, and get something really nice, like election to the Roman Senate.
The idea that Christian faith can lead to wealth and other good things is a heresy, but it scratches the itching ears of rich people who see themselves as God’s Chosen, or poor people who above all want to become rich.
Words of resentment or victimization also seem to be received eagerly by itching ears, especially in the world of politics and international relations. To resent means not just to want good things for oneself (a high standard of living, high status, luxury items like fast sportscars) but also to deprive others from having them: the dog in a manger psychology. Ethnic or racial majorities often resent minorities who “undeservedly” get things like admission to college, or civil service jobs. Former President Trump’s political career was fuelled by resentment, the way a car is fuelled with gasoline.
To see oneself as a victim of oppression or unfairness really scratches those itching ears! Being a victim is often very comfortable: it is a way of concealing from oneself and others that one also is a victimizer. One example that has continually impressed (or depressed) me is the willingness of Japanese people to see themselves primarily as victims during World War II, rather than as victimizers. And in America, everyone remembers that 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, and commemorates them in monuments such as the famous Wall in Washington, but forgets that some two million or more Vietnamese and other Indochinese people died between 1960 and 1975.
In other words, a hard truth might be: there is no such thing as an innocent victim. At least not in the world of international politics and war.
Paul indicates that the finger of blame needs to be pointed at the ubiquity of itching ears rather than the false messiah, such as Sun-Myung Moon or Asahara Shoko. Spiritual con-men will always be with us, but people with itching ears cannot endure sound doctrine. However, I would also ask the question – which may not have occurred to Paul – of whether society as a whole is not significantly responsible for itching ears? A society that is devoted to materialism and technological progress may leave many individuals feeling empty and lonely – causing their ears to “itch.” I wonder if the Japanese government’s campaign to digitalize society will make people happier, or wiser? I doubt it.
The Greek philosopher Plato liked to use images of seeing to explain his ideas about rationality and truth. Those who are deluded are compared to people who live perpetually in a cave. They cannot see the sun shining outside. Paul’s image of ears is equally compelling. As mentioned above, we want to perceive what we want to perceive, not the things we do not want to perceive even if it would be better for us to acknowledge their existence.
A second vivid image Paul uses in his letter to Timothy is to “wander into myth.” Wandering means going to and fro without any sort of plan or clear-cut destination. Often, we wander off, and find ourselves in a place where we shouldn’t, or wouldn’t be. Our mind also wanders, and when our itching ears perceive something attractive, it can be trapped. By “myth,” Paul means a story that is not true rather than simply a narrative, like the plot of a novel or a play. In the King James Version of the Bible, the word used in this passage is not myth, but fable.
Truth is often, if not usually, uncongenial to itching ears, which yearn for comfortable untruths.