In this morning’s New Testament lesson (2 Timothy 4:1-8), Paul uses one of my favorite images to characterize those who turn away from the truth: “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.” I think Paul’s critique was genuine and serious, but I still sense a playful tone in his description. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about the etymology of the phrase “itching ears” and so can’t say whether it was a common label or whether it was used harshly or in jest. To me, though, it says a lot about human nature and the role of prophetic preaching in the world.
This is one of those verses of scripture that I think might be quoted at me by someone who was making a passionate argument about the future of the church. I can almost hear someone using strained tones, voice close to quivering, as he says, “The church is in crisis. St. Paul was right. The time is coming and now is here when people will have itching ears…” And he might be right, but I don’t think that’s anything new.
When was the last time someone was excited about hiring a prophet? When was the last time a church accumulated for itself teachers that didn’t suit their own likings? I think we can handle the prophet’s message but only in passing. Prophets don’t usually have a well-established life in a particular place. Instead, prophets are mobile. They move from place to place seeking a community that will hear their message for a time before shooing them (sometimes quietly, sometimes violently) down the road to their next pulpit. Prophets, by nature, are difficult to hear—no matter how conservative or liberal they or you might be. That’s because a prophet is articulating a message that a community couldn’t attain on its own.
We need prophets to point out the things we don’t want to see about ourselves. We need them to bring the sharpness of God’s word to our place of comfort. All of us need to be shaken from our complacency because all of us prefer to surround ourselves with teachers who suit our own likings. Think about the ministers you’ve known and loved throughout your life. In my experience, the men and women whose ministry a community relishes are those who challenge and stretch but love and support the church at the same time. Their success is a combination of comfort with the familiar and appropriately aimed challenges. Likewise, those clergypersons that haven’t been so loved and respected have often had a message or theme that was out of step with the community they were serving—too liberal, too conservative, too angry, too demanding.
We can’t handle prolonged contact with a prophet’s sword. Instead, we need isolated but genuine moments of contact with the deepest challenges that God’s word can bring. Part of our human nature is to prefer gentle prompting over prophetic bludgeoning. And it’s ok that we usually seek teachers and preachers who suit our own liking. But since we do—since all of us do—we all need to remember to find ways to enter the company of a prophet’s whose message we don’t want to hear but need to hear. My ears itch. Don’t yours?