“Anyone who has ears had better listen!” The word “listen” is akouō (#191 ἀκούω, pronounced “ah-koo-oh”), and it can mean “hear” (the opposite of deaf; i.e., hearing the sounds or words), or it can refer to listening and understanding what you hear (the English word “hear” is used the same way). In this verse it is third person, present tense, active voice, imperative mood, and is thus a command, not a suggestion.
The NET translation is quite literal and very good: “The one who has ears had better listen!” The NET translators explain their translation with the following note: “The translation, ‘had better listen!’ captures the force of the third person imperative [which is the conjugation of the Greek text] more effectively than the traditional, ‘let him hear,’ which sounds more like a permissive than an imperative to the modern English reader.” A. Nyland (The Source NT) is a little more casual, but catches the sense very well: “If you have ears, you had better listen!” Stern (Complete Jewish Bible) translates: “If you have ears, then hear!” Phillips translates: “The man who has ears to hear must use them!” (NT in Modern English).
The Interpreter’s Bible correctly notes that the way Jesus spoke the phrase was “urgent” and “sharp kindness.” Jesus sharply but kindly reminded his audience that God created them to hear and obey, and they better get about doing it. Lenski adds: “In ‘he that has ears’ lies the implication of willful guilt when those ears that were made to hear (and understand) are not used for this purpose.”
Some Greek manuscripts have “the one who has ears to hear,” instead of “the one who has ears.” However, the verb “to hear” was almost certainly added so that this verse matches other verses that do include it, such as Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35. If it were original, there seems to be no reason it would have been omitted from early and important texts (cp. Metzger, Textual Commentary).
This phrase, or a very similar one, occurs here and in Matthew 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35. It is important to ask, “Why is this phrase here” each time it occurs. In this case, Jesus was teaching about John the Baptist, and in Matt. 11:14 he made the point that John was Elijah. Malachi 4:5 made it clear that “Elijah” would come before the Messiah, and before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus (the Messiah) seemed to come before Elijah confused many, even the disciples (Matt. 17:10; Mark 9:11). In Matthew 11:14 Jesus points out that “Elijah” was John, which would have not only answered their questions, but would have awakened the people to the days in which they were living—the days of the Messiah. No wonder Jesus said, ““Anyone who has ears better listen!” [For more on John the Baptist being Elijah, see commentary on Matthew 17:10].