Ordinary 24 (B)
September 13, 2015
William G. Carter
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
The Christian faith is a talking faith. Jesus taught by speaking. He preached the grace and truth of God from the center of his heart. When the angel announces Easter, he says, “Go and tell.”
Yet here, Brother James adds an additional word: “Watch what you say.”
In a loose collection of teachings in chapter 3, James speaks about words. “Anybody who speaks will make mistakes,” he says. Just listen to what is said when somebody doesn’t know the microphone is on. James says, “A little tongue will boast of great things.” It might inflate the resume or make promises that will not be kept. “A mouth can set a forest on fire;” if you don’t believe that is true, make up a salacious story about the person who is sitting next to you and whisper it to someone else. James knows the possibilities and perils of speaking. He says, “From the same mouth, we can bless God and curse the neighbor.”
Now, there is nothing new or unusual about this lesson. James is a Wisdom book of the Bible, much like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. These are observations on life by somebody who has gone around the track a number of times. The wise sage observes what is generally true about human life. Few of these observations are specifically Christian at all.
In fact, the book of James hardly mentions Jesus at all. There is one mention when the writer signs the letter in the beginning, and a second time in chapter two, when he declares how wrong it is to discriminate among the people God has made. We might think this book assumes Jesus… but a closer look reveals that James has paraphrased some of what Jesus has said. The warning about words is among them.
Here is how Jesus puts it: “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). It matters eternally what we say.
So let’s spend a few minutes talking about words, because James is all about words. We can re-read this whole letter and see it as a commentary on how we use our words.
I think of chapter four. James says, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.” Why does he say that? Because James has summarized the law of God as this: “You shall love the neighbor as yourself” (2:8). So James declares, “Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; and if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law… so who are you to judge your neighbor?” (4:11-12). Who, indeed.
Maybe we have all heard people speak with imperial clarity, as if they alone are the ones who can perfectly size up another person. From their high perch, they declare who is wrong and who is falling short. How do they do this? With their words.
Like the Peanuts strip where Lucy says, “I have a knack for pointing out other people’s faults.” Her brother Linus says, “What about your faults?” Lucy says, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”
When we judge somebody, that judgment comes with an artificial superiority, as if that person thinks they are better, so then they could look down on you. It is nonsense, of course, for as James says, “For all of us make many mistakes” (2:2). I looked it up in the original Greek language, and he does say, “all of us.” So we have to watch out if we are feeling high and mighty, because that is precisely the moment when we can fall down.
Or I think of chapter two. We don’t know much about the congregation where Brother James was connected, but it seems there was some bad ushering going on. It was divisive. It caused a great deal of pain. And James says in chapter two, “A person comes into the worship service with gold rings and fine clothing, and you bow down and say, ‘Oh, let me take you to a wonderful seat.’ And when you get there to see a person in rags in that seat, you say, ‘Get out of here, move over there!’”
People in the church were sorted by how they looked or what they wore. It reminds me of the Presbyterian Church in a high-priced town in California. For a while, they had deacons outside telling the people where to park their cars. The Rolls-Royces went in front, then the Bentleys, and then a line for the Mercedes. A mere Lexus had to go down the block, and the dinged-up Fords were at the wrong church. True story!
James says, “If you speak to people with favoritism, do you really believe in Jesus?” Jesus has come for everybody.
Or what about chapter five? (I really hope you read the letter of James this week. It’s not long - the whole letter will take about fifteen minutes to read.) In chapter five, James quotes Jesus again. There was a passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Do not swear!” (Matt. 5:33-37). Oh, I know. You are thinking of words, filthy words, dirty and profane words. But no, that’s not what neither Jesus nor James were talking about.
They were talking about making an oath: “I swear on a stack of Bibles that I will stop at the store to pick up bread and milk.” Ever hear somebody talk like that? An oath is calling in some other authority, in case your word cannot be trusted. So, are you going to stop and get the bread and milk, or not? And what does a stack of Bibles have to do about it? James quotes Jesus, and says, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, let your ‘no’ be no.” (James 5:12). If you have no intention of picking up the bread and milk, then a stack of Bibles isn’t going to help.
We are talking about words. Words, words, words. Words are expressions of our souls. Puffs of air are shaped into syllables. Whatever is inside of us is expressed in our words. And this is why we get into so much trouble: by what we say. Our ability to speak is what makes us different from every other one of God’s critters. And Brother James takes a cynical view of human nature. “No one can tame the tongue,” he says. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” And yet our words don’t have to be destructive.
A number of years ago, writer Kathleen Norris moved from New York City to the small town of Lemmon, South Dakota. She had inherited her grandmother’s house, and without much going in her favor in New York, she said her husband, “Let’s go.” After a few years of that, she wrote an essay, and she said,
Allowing yourself to be a subject of gossip is one of the sacrifices you make, living in a small town. And the pain caused by the loose talk of ignorant people is undeniable. One couple I know, having lost their only child to virulent pneumonia had to endure rumors that he had died of suicide, AIDS, and even anthrax. But it's also true that the gossips don't know all that they think they know, and often misread things in a comical way. My husband was once told that he was having an affair with a woman he hadn't met, and I still treasure the day I was encountered by three people who said, "Have you sold your house yet?" "When's the baby due?" and, "I'm sorry to hear your mother died."
I could trace the sources of the first two rumors: we'd helped a friend move into a rented house, and I'd bought baby clothes downtown when I learned that I would soon become an aunt. The third rumor was easy enough to check; I called my mother on the phone.
Kathleen knows what all of us know: words have great potential for harm or for health. Our words are spoken from either the poverty of the heart or the surplus of the soul. When the truth is told, relationships can be built. When love and concern are expressed, they spread enormous good will. From this summer, for instance, I keep a stack of sympathy cards that I received from so many of you after my father’s death. That stack is eleven inches thick, and each card spoke words of consolation. It will be a long time before I toss them away.
So James goes on to say in the rest of chapter three, there is a wisdom from heaven which "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." The promise of the gospel is that there is "a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." And all of this is provided as we pay attention to every syllable that comes out of our mouths. Because it matters what we say. It always matters.
May I suggest we spend a moment in silence? . . .
The next words out of our mouths will either build up the kingdom of God or destroy it into rubble. Which will it be for you?
Be careful what you say, for God is listening.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Kathleen Norris, “The Holy Use of Gossip,” Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), 74-75.