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2000 Words About the Tongue

September 18, 2012

“2000 Words About the Tongue” James 3:1-12 © 9.16.12 Ordinary 24B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Think for a moment about all the sayings, proverbs, and/or warnings you know about speech and the tongue. The first one that comes to mind for me was ingrained in childhood: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Utter nonsense, of course, since words hurt children, youth, and adults all the time, sometimes severely and with lasting effect. But it’s a defense we all learn.

Or here’s another: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” In the same vein, the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu observed: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”

Something my granddaddy Cheatham often said to me as a kid assumes that silence means something is wrong or that you’re being anti-social: “Whassa matter, boy, cat got your tongue?” Parents and other adults might also advise sassy, subordinate kids to “mind their tongues” and give them a “tongue lashing” if they don’t behave. Or like a scene from that hilarious movie A Christmas Story, back in the day they might threaten to wash out a cursing mouth with soap. A scandalized young person may say to a friend these days: “You kiss yo mama with that mouth?”

The ancient world had its own common sayings and conventional wisdom about speech, words, and the tongue. In fact, proper speech, especially in the presence of superiors, was a major concern of philosophers and sages. The book of Proverbs tells the young men instructed by it: “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked what is perverse” (10:31,32). Especially when promising to pay a neighbor’s debts should he default, Proverbs warns: “you are snared by the utterance of your lips, caught by the words of your mouth” (6:2). Or simply this: “To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble” (21:23). A little closer to James’s time, the Jewish sage Sirach wrote: “Stand firm for what you know, and let your speech be consistent. Be quick to hear, but deliberate in answering. If you know what to say, answer your neighbor; but if not, put your hand over your mouth. Honor and dishonor come from speaking, and the tongue of mortals may be their downfall. Do not be called double-tongued and do not lay traps with your tongue; for shame comes to the thief, and severe condemnation to the double-tongued” (5:10-14).

James knew of and agreed with these ancient wise teachers. He also uses in his essay the common examples of the Greek and Roman moralists, who compared the tongue to the bit that controls a horse or the rudder that steers a ship. So far, he hasn’t moved beyond the realm of conventional thought, what everybody knows and would agree is just common sense. Words spoken by the tongue are powerful and potentially dangerous, like a ship off course or a horse running wild or a fire that starts with a tiny spark. As I said last week, we shouldn’t be surprised by James’s use of ideas and examples that come from somewhere else. That’s the way of the wise, to draw on truth and good ideas wherever they may be found.

But James isn’t just writing an advice column, as we would call it today. He’s not commenting on etiquette and manners. He’s part of a community of believers, of Christians, and it’s because of his audience and their commitments that James goes beyond the concerns of other moralists and sages.

In the first place, James is addressing those in his church that aspire to be teachers and leaders. These people are held to a higher standard than others in the community of faith. Such is the power of words, tradition, and example. Being listened to and followed is a privilege that requires discipline and humility. If we claim to be speaking and interpreting the very word of God, we had better be sure we’ve got it right. And not just the words. The spirit of it. The way our lives reflect its truth.

It’s not just from James that we get our Presbyterian insistence on training for ministers and elders, but our approach is certainly consistent with the text. The vows teaching and ruling elders take do indeed hold us to a higher standard than the rest of the church. We’ve got a responsibility to model in our lives faith, hope, and love, imagination, intelligence, and energy. Teaching and interpreting standards, whether the Bible or the constitution of the church, is not just heaping up words, lecturing, standing behind a pulpit or a lectern. It’s doing the words. It’s making sure our approach doesn’t deaden the lively and life-giving gospel. If we inflame passion, it needs to be zeal for justice and righteousness that comes from the Spirit, not the burning hatred and lust for power that comes from our base desires. If we teach doctrine, we have to subordinate our system to the one Word of God, who is Jesus Christ, and not deaden his presence among us by believing he works only in the box of our traditions. If we boast, we tout not our accomplishments, degrees, and delivery, but the greatness, goodness, and providence of God.

Of course, James isn’t really letting anyone off the hook, is he? We are all of us in some sense teachers. When we collaborate on a project with someone or a team. When we comment on what a friend has said, maybe offering a different perspective. When we answer any question beginning with who, what, when, where or why. When we behave in a particular way in a certain situation. We teach, whether we know it or not. There is someone listening, someone watching, someone influenced by what we say and do. So James says to us all: watch yourselves. Be disciplined. Mind how you speak and what you say, for you have a high calling.

James, then, is asking would-be and wanna-be teachers and leaders to be aware of what they’re getting into. But, second, he grounds his observations not only in experience, but theology. Really, those two are not opposed to each other. Reflection on the world around us, what we see in nature or how people treat each other, is already engagement with the way of God. What James does that the philosophers of his day did not do, though, is ground his comments in a faith tradition. He goes back to the sixth century BC and the great project of the priests exiled in Babylon. He reminds us, from the first chapter of Genesis, that all humankind is made in the likeness of God. Cursing our neighbors who bear God’s image is an affront to their Creator and ours. Doesn’t matter their faith, their station in life, their gender, their sexual orientation, their age, their education. Every human being is made in God’s image and deserves to be treated with respect and care, not subjected to verbal abuse, maligned and bullied. The same mouth that praises God on Sundays cannot call a neighbor a name on Monday. Failing to be consistent in our speech is simply another example of inauthentic religion. Our tongues need to be single, not double. Let our talk be for building up, for proclaiming the word, for blessing God and his creation.

James’s theology also acknowledges the human responsibility of stewardship over and in creation given in Genesis 2. In the back of the author’s mind is the story of Adam naming the animals. The larger meaning of the tale is how we use language to understand, categorize, and even control the world around us. Taming and molding animals is a complex task, but it at least includes speech, tone, and consistent commands. So the text calls us to reflect on the place and power of language in our relationship with creation, represented by the animals that share the planet with us.

So, the discipline of teaching. The grounding of our understanding in a theology of creation. James is next concerned for community, not so much for the individual speaker. The focus of so much of wisdom literature and of the Greek and Roman moralists was on how a speaker should and could avoid being shamed by his or her speech. In other words, how not to sound foolish, how to say things in such a way and at such a time that you didn’t have to retract them later, claiming that you “misspoke” or some other excuse. But James is more interested in how speaking promotes relationships of care, healing, and hope among people. No one speaks into a vacuum. We are all in a context, greater or smaller. A family. A workplace. A church. A public forum. Does what we say promote healthy and positive human relationships of understanding or does it inflame anger, conflict, the desire for vengeance? Do our words respect others or do they denigrate them? Do we with our tongues bring brokenness and pain, which is demonic, what James calls the “fire of hell”? Or is our speech the kind that unifies and comforts?

We not only speak to build up our neighbors and our sisters and brothers in faith; we also need to acknowledge how much we need them to help us with our speaking. How many of us really can edit ourselves effectively? How much are we aware of what we say and how we say it affects somebody else? That’s where our families, friends, other believers come in. They can help us understand the power, as well as the promise, of our speech.

When I was in seminary the first time, I took to calling particular things, situations, and even people “stupid.” It’s unfortunately a habit I still fall into sometimes. One day, two friends, Geren and Bill, took me aside on the front steps of the library. They told me they had noticed what I had been saying, and how people were offended by it. I protested that they said the very same words. “Yeah, but you make As; we make Cs. It’s different when you say it.”

Wham! I had no idea. I was blind to my fault. I didn’t see myself as any different than anyone else. I was oblivious to the hurt my speech was causing. My friends helped me to see myself as I was. Such is the power of community.

James’s warnings and appeals are more important than ever in our hyper-connected world of viral videos, social networking, texting, and global communication. We know how words spoken off the cuff, in haste or thoughtlessly can multiply in effect far beyond our little circle. And once they’re out there, it’s hard to take them back; apologies and corrections so often sound lame and utilitarian. Politician’s gaffes. Radio commentator’s ignorant and insulting remarks. Ads that tell only a half-truth or distort a statistic or play on our fear, our desire, our basest instincts. A film. A tweet. A Facebook post. All these can have a ripple effect that becomes a wave. We see it all the time.

The text is unfortunately pessimistic that anything can be done or anything will change. We can tame anything but our tongues, he says. It’s as if they have minds and wills of their own, and nothing we think or try works to harness their evil or serve as an antidote to their poison.

What can be done? I wouldn’t be true to the text if here I offered a happy ending and pious platitudes. There is no easy or quick solution. How to deal with our tongues seems to be a perennial human problem, including in the church.

Perhaps one blogger, the Rev. Eric Barreto, has a sound suggestion. His comments are about political speech, but they could apply to any way we use our tongues: “What if we were to turn our words to a single, holy purpose? What if we were to turn away from the expediency of duplicity and to the glaring power of truth and love?

“Perhaps such hopes are too lofty. But let’s start small.

“What if we simply stop denying the destructive force our words can carry in their wake? In this season, that may be precisely the change we need” (“James 3:1-12: Sticks, Stones, and the Power of Words”


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