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A Talk About the Tongue; Wisdom Calls

September 14, 2015

Note: I present along with the sermon on the epistle text from yesterday a reflection from 16 years ago on the Old Testament lesson.

“A Talk About the Tongue” James 3:1-12 © 9.13.15 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 is a chant from 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. And careless, ill-considered words, especially those spoken by people with influence and power, harm groups of people, societies, even the entire planet. We can incriminate, and thus hurt, ourselves with our words. 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.” Maybe such sayings are behind the depiction of the hero in classic Westerns. He was the strong, silent type, taciturn to the extreme. Speaking was weakness; better, rather, to act.

On the other hand, we fill the world with words and feel the need to comment on everything anybody does or says. If you’re silent, there must be something wrong with a situation or more likely, with you. That’s what my granddaddy thought about me, a shy and frightened child, when he roared: “WHAT’S THE MATTER, BOY?! CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE?” Not talking is something to be dreaded by a kid going on a first date who doesn’t know what to say or a long-married couple who seem to have run out of topics. Quiet people are often considered antisocial and maybe looked on with a bit of suspicion. “He was such a quiet boy, kept to himself” is the clichéd description of the killer.

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 earlier in this series, 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 imagination, intelligence, and energy, faith, hope, and love. 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 an individual or a team. When our friends and relatives copy our behaviors or start using phrases and inflections they have heard from us. When we comment on what someone 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, maybe our child or a younger sibling or a person who looks up to us. So James says to us all: watch yourselves. Remember that others are listening, and you can’t control how they will act on what you say. Therefore, you neither can nor ought to express exactly what is on your mind. 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. But James goes beyond the philosophers of his day by grounding 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 they wrote, how 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. In that case, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, after he said the mother of all profanities, we deserve to have our mouths washed out with soap. 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 other origin story 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. Then, the grounding of our understanding in a theology of creation. Finally, James is concerned for the community, not so much for the individual speaker. The focus of the majority 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 in 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 often called particular things, situations, and even people “stupid,” quite loudly and publicly. 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 instantaneous 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 anyone will change. We can tame anything but our tongues, James 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 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 commentator has a sound suggestion. His observations 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? …[T]hat may be precisely the change we need” (Eric Baretto, “James 3:1-12: Sticks, Stones, and the Power of Words”

Or as the old praise and worship song has it, and James would agree: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…” (Kurt Kaiser, “Pass It On,” 1969).


“Wisdom Calls” Proverbs 1:20-33 © 11.10.99 by Tom Cheatham at Owensboro, KY. All rights reserved.

She was shouting loudly, clapping her hands to emphasize her point. Her message was mostly highly traditional and hierarchical social values purporting to be Christian teaching. It was her firm conviction, for example, that women should not work outside the home.

Now all this would not have seemed unusual had this woman been preaching in some rural fundamentalist congregation somewhere in the deep South. But she wasn’t. Rather, she was proclaiming her word to a group of people who had gathered to wait for the bus at Bienville Square in Mobile, AL. On one side of her, there were business people, lawyers, and secretaries enjoying their lunches on the square. On the other side, the First National Bank building loomed 34 stories over her head. It housed not only the financial institution, but also the offices of a large and powerful law firm. At the top was the exclusive Bienville Club. Across the street diagonally from this preacher was another bank, with more lawyers, more offices.

Two blocks away, to the east, lay the Port of Mobile, where one might see ships from many nations anchored, taking aboard or unloading their cargoes. On one particular day, there was an American tanker anchored, and just beyond it, a Russian freighter. Down the street from the square, about two blocks, was the federal courthouse. No, this woman was not in a rural church. She was in the heart of a city’s financial, legal, and commercial district. She was proclaiming her version of the gospel where one could as easily see a homeless person asking for help as encounter an investment banker on her way to a meeting, where there were sailors from all over the world on the streets, patronizing the area’s sleazy bars.

Even if her message consisted of thinly veiled reactionary social mores, the context for this woman’s proclamation was proper. Even if Lady Wisdom would not speak the same message, she would choose the same pulpit. The wisdom teachers of tenth century BC Israel pictured Wisdom standing in the essential part of the city, bidding people to heed her message of prudence, practicality, and respect for life. Wherever people gathered, wherever they did business or shopped, wherever they sought to settle disputes, there could Wisdom be found. She was most at home in public places, out in the world. She could not be confined to the work of religious professionals or the decisions of government officials. She was accessible to all, her ways were to be practiced by all. No one nation, person or group, no matter what their claim, had a corner on her truth. The wisdom teachers rejected such parochialism and embraced a global outlook.

But Lady Wisdom was not the only one trying to get the attention of people hurrying about their daily tasks. For the ancient sages, Dame Stupidity also stood on the street corner, enticing people to come with her. But that is where the similarity ended. Dame Stupidity was not reasoning with folk, and she was certainly not preaching. She was soliciting.

If Wisdom is a sophisticated, charming, intelligent woman, then Stupidity is an obvious, vulgar, and base one. The teachers said that the pleasures offered by Wisdom were to be enjoyed in public, in community, learning, promoting the good of all. If you went with Dame Stupidity, they observed, you closed the door behind you, and found selfish gratification for yourself alone, in private. Such behavior was not what promoted life, and that was the purpose of human existence that the sages held above all others.

Lady Wisdom sought to save people from the clutches of Dame Stupidity. She gave an invitation to follow her, learn prudence and practicality, gain insight, and experience discipline and self-control. That word went especially to those whom the sages called the simple. That word meant for them someone who was easily deceived, hopelessly naïve, and lacked sound judgment. He or she would rush headlong into a project without proper consideration of resources or consequences. This sort of person was considered to have little moral judgment and would come easily under the influence of others, who are likely to exploit his or her trust. It seems to me that such a person is always a gullible follower, giving into authority, a constant victim of scams.

The wisdom teachers had sympathy for the simple and believed their lives could be turned around with the right leadership. But there were others to whom Wisdom’s message was directed. They are the scorners and the fools. The latter cannot stand to learn anything, mainly because they believe they already know it all already. They think it’s fun to do wrong and typically just blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, without considering what effect their words might have on others.

The former bunch, the scorners, are proud and haughty men and women who are incapable of discipline. They will not listen to reproof or rebuke, whereas wise people know they can learn from criticism. They are stuck on themselves, anarchists, predators. In their more subtle moments, they twist words, so that truth is obscured. The scorner leads others astray by half-truths and faulty logic that seem sound until they’re subjected to close analysis.

There’s hope for people like that, but they have to want to embrace the discipline and way of Lady Wisdom. She does not force her message on anyone. It’s there; it makes sense. Take it or leave it. But she warns anyone who chooses to reject her that such action comes with consequences. There may come a day when they need her insight, and she won’t be there.

The sobering message is that opportunity missed today may be opportunity missed forever. What’s wrong with today to heal that rift with someone you’ve hurt? Why put off taking action to change that habit or addiction that is consuming your life, costing money, destroying relationships? How about going to the seminar you had decided against or start working out at the health club or saving the money you know you need to put back? Say the words you have wanted to say, tell the ones you love that you do indeed care for them, begin to learn and grow and change your life. “Seize the day,” said the poet. “Now is the time, now is the day of salvation,” wrote the apostle. Wisdom calls, Wisdom warns, Wisdom reminds: every day is precious, every moment. Don’t let opportunity pass by.

But if you do miss it, there’s still hope. The sages believed in the order of the universe. That led to them on the one hand to say that there were such things as cause and effect, action and consequence, judgment and retribution. But their faith also convinced them that there were always possibilities, to quote a famous Star Trek line. Possibilities for safety and wholeness. For peace and harmony. For learning and loving. Chaos would be replaced by order. People would live in community. Life would go on, and people would find a way to survive and even to live abundantly.

For the Christian, all that the sages said finds its greatest expression in Jesus of Nazareth. He is wisdom in the flesh, who has taken on himself all our scorn, all our brazen disregard for truth, all our willingness to follow Dame Stupidity, and even let that destroy him, so we might live in safety and be at peace.


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