The “Itching Ears” Syndrome
by Pastor George Van Alstine

The Apostle Paul wrote to his younger assistant Timothy:

“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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

What Paul calls “sound doctrine” can sometimes feel too serious and demanding. Like children, we find ourselves looking for shortcuts. “Sound doctrine” can also seem a little boring:”I’ve heard all that before; tell me something new.”

The Itching Ears Syndrome is not unique to religion. Our modern life is full of media chatter, from radio and TV, as well as from the endless stream of voices we can hear through on-line websites and social networking. On any given subject, if you don’t like the opinion you hear, you’re sure to find one to your liking by a five-minute search. Modern life is a playground for “itching ears.”

Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid “News of the World” recently stepped over the line in its search for juicy tidbits by hacking the phones of people, ranging from young abuse victims to members of the royal family, but ironically the paper’s own demise has itself become the latest subject of gossip for “itching ears.” Many people’s lives have been dominated for weeks by the latest disclosures at the Casey Anthony trial, and now that it’s over, they’re anxiously waiting for jury members to spill some juicy tidbits.

Yet, it’s in the spiritual realm that the Itching Ears Syndrome can be the most destructive because the stakes are so much higher. Jesus seemed to be addressing this in a series of conversations, recorded in Matthew, chapter 11. He was traveling among the small cities of Galilee, “to teach and proclaim his message” (verse 1). John the Baptist heard about this from his prison cell, and he sent some of his followers to find out from Jesus whether he was indeed the Messiah. Jesus answered them by recounting the changed lives of people who had responded to his preaching (verse 5). Then Jesus launched a fascinating critique of the “itching ears” syndrome he had observed among the fickle crowd (verses 7-9):

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?”.

Some of the people went to listen to the desert preacher just so they could hear him stumble and make a fool of himself. Others expected him to appear in true royal dress, affirming that he himself was the one who would deliver Israel from Roman oppression:

“What did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those dressed in soft robes are in royal palaces.”

Others saw something prophetic in John’s demeanor:

“What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

But even most of those who saw him as a prophet missed his prophetic message, for it could only be perceived by true seekers:

“Let anyone with ears listen!” (verse 14)

Jesus was talking about ears that are spiritually open and attuned; “itching ears” could never hear his true message.

Then Jesus told a story (verses 16-19):

“To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”

They were like children arguing because they couldn’t agree on the rules of the games they wanted to play. Because they were judging both John and Jesus superficially, there was no way they could understand their message of accountability and deliverance:

“John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”

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Today, the majority of Americans who call themselves Christians suffer from Itching Ears Syndrome. There is an endless parade of professional itch-scratchers who boldly label themselves “Apostle,” or “Prophet,” or “Bishop” and manipulate those who will listen to their clever myths about Christianity, gladly giving financial support to their latest “ministry” with the promise that they themselves will profit materially. Sadly, these followers may never have their spiritual ears open to the true message of Jesus.