“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,” James writes, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” To this, the biblical scholar Sandra Hack Polaski comments, “The preacher encountering this text might be forgiven for the sudden urge to suggest, in lieu of the sermon, that the congregation engage in a time of silent prayer.”
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Preaching is a task that should never be lightly undertaken. I mean, in our context I’m basically presuming to monopolize the next twelve or fifteen minutes of your time, and if there are roughly 200 of you here, that means a cumulative total of 3000 minutes or 50 hours; how could I dare to waste such time? And then add these words from James, warning that those who presume to teach the faith will be “judged with greater strictness,” and the invocation with which I generally begin my sermons is given added force. “May only truth be spoken,” I pray, “and only truth received,” and I’m aware of the two-fold force of these words. Lord, may it be truth that I speak, and then acknowledging with James that “all of us make many mistakes,” in whatever I say, Lord, will you please let it be truth that is heard. While it may be a part of my routine to pray this invocation, I don’t say these words simply out of habit or by rote. I say them because I need to mean them.
What James is driving at here in this section of his epistle is that words have power. He begins with this focus on the teacher, but then moves to his series of images of the power of the tongue. It is like a bit in the mouth of a horse; like rudder on a ship; like a forest set ablaze by just a single flame. While humans might be able to tame birds and animals, the tongue is a different matter. To really push home his point, he calls it “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Not exactly understated here, are you James?
He is not the first writer to offer such reflections. In many respects the Epistle of James is cut from the same cloth that produced the Jewish wisdom tradition, and so in the book of Proverbs we read that “To watch over mouth and tongue / is to keep out of trouble, “ (21.23) and that just as “The north wind produces rain / a backbiting tongue [produces] angry looks.” (25.23) Or this, from the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (1.11):
Beware then of useless grumbling,
and keep your tongue from slander;
because no secret word is without result,
and a lying mouth destroys the soul.
Grumbling, slander, secret words—by which he means gossip—“A lying mouth destroys the soul.” As is true of James, this Jewish wisdom writer is convinced that the old playground saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is actually dead wrong. Just ask the school kid who has been bullied on Facebook; ask anyone who has been the subject of vicious gossip; ask the person who has effectively been presumed guilty in some story covered in the media. What is really soul-destroying are the rumours, the ugly words, the names, the accusations and allegations. As James offers that image of the great forest being set ablaze by a small flame, he’s picking up on the reality that once it really gets started it is all but impossible to stop. And tragically, sometimes it is at its very worst in church circles.
In tonight gospel reading, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” In short, what’s the word on the street? It turns out there are a number of rumours floating about: “And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” And so Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” to which Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Now I want you to note that this is the first time in Mark’s account that Peter or any of the others has dared to utter that word “messiah”; literally the “christos” or “anointed one.” Yet rather than giving Peter a gold star and telling him to move to the head of the class, Jesus tells them all to basically keep their mouths shut—“And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
But isn’t Peter’s use of the word “messiah” right and good? I mean if we accept that words do have power, when Peter finally gets it right shouldn’t his words—his naming Jesus as the Christ—be unleashed on the world? The thing is, he’s only got it party right, because he’s still working with his own very particular version of what “messiah” means. As soon as Jesus begins to speak of his messiah-ship in terms of suffering, rejection, and death, Peter more or less short-circuits. It doesn’t appear that he even heard Jesus say after three days he would rise again, because his response was to take Jesus off to the side to “rebuke him” and to correct his theology. Peter hasn’t so much named Jesus as messiah as he’s named him “my messiah,” which comes with a very particular trajectory of triumph and victory… and Peter’s version certainly doesn’t have room for suffering, rejection, and death.
Particularly in Mark’s telling of things, Jesus is intent on controlling the rumour mill regarding his identity. He doesn’t want the wild fire of publicity to rage around the whole of the territory, naming him as Peter’s kind of heroic messiah, and so again and again he tells those who come close to him to tell no one of what they’ve seen or experienced. Not only does he want only truth to be spoken, he wants to see that only truth is received.
Back for few minutes to the concerns of James. In spite of his very strong warnings about the destructive power of the tongue, he is also convinced that words can also work great things. “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father,” though he then adds that, “with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” I don’t think that this reference to other people as being “made in the likeness of God” is incidental. The fact that others—including those you’re not particularly fond of, and of whom you might be tempted to speak poorly—are made in the image of God is a good reason to treat them with dignity, but there is more here too. In the first creation narrative from Genesis, all things are spoken into being: “and God said, “Let there be… and so it was.” When God then creates humans “in our image, according to our likeness,” there is surely something about the capacity to speak—and with words to create—that is named here. Human speech is meant to be life-giving and creative—remember, in the creation narrative from Genesis 2, it is the job of the first human to give names to the animals—not death-dealing and soul-destroying. And so James writes, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” Just as a fig tree shouldn’t produce olives or a grapevine yield figs, so our mouths should not produce anything other than what they were meant to produce, namely words which build up, offer life, convey truth.
James, you see, knows that this is how it should be, but he also knows that in the church community to which he writes it is often simply not the case, which is why he presses them so hard. Presses us so hard… presses me so hard. What I say when I stand here on a Sunday night, and what we say to one another—maybe particularly about one another—can never be spoken lightly or without regard to the confusion, the hurt, and the damage our words can do. But there is the other side, too, when with our words we build relationships, create trust, envision new possibilities, and offer forgiveness one to another. It is for such that we have been fashioned in the image of God.