Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 16, 2018
James 3:1-12 Commentary
Even some casual sports fans are at least somewhat aware of the controversy that continues to surround the use of what are called performance-enhancing drugs. People have accused numerous athletes of taking drugs like steroids to improve their performance.
Studies suggest that the use of anabolic steroids, for instance, increase lean muscle mass and strength. So some athletes have taken them to help them hit a ball harder, jump higher or run faster.
I suspect, however, that no one has ever been convicted of taking steroids to strengthen the muscle that is their tongue. Our tongues don’t generally, after all, need much help; they’re quite powerful all by themselves.
Perhaps that’s why the book of Proverbs, for example, pays so much attention to the tongue. Chapter 10:19’s wise writer, for instance, insists the one “who holds his tongue is wise.” And in chapter 12:18 he adds, “The tongue of the wise brings healing.”
In James 2 the apostle insists that God will somehow take into account our “works” at the final judgment. After all, while God saves us by grace that we can only receive with our faith, God calls such faith that’s not linked to our actions “dead.” Certainly speaking with our tongues is one of those “actions.” So we might say that faith that’s not affirmed by the positive use of our tongues is at least comatose, if not dead.
Yet James 3:1-12 might not be the best passage to read so close to the beginning of many of our school and church’s teaching activities. Already by now, after all, some teachers as well as students and their parents may be quick to agree, “not many … should presume to be teachers” (1). Some of us are already more than prepared to judge various teachers “strictly” (1).
Teachers are often caught in the middle of a kind of sometimes-painful game of dodge ball between administrators, students and parents. So on this Sunday near the beginning of another school year, it’s very appropriate to encourage our teachers. After all, we may wonder why anyone would even want to be a teacher.
Things seem to have been a little different in James’ day. Scholars suggest that at that time the position of “teacher” was an honorable and coveted one. We might even compare the work of teaching in James’ day to that of a modern doctor or social worker. The apostle, in fact, at least implies that many early Christians were eager for such a prestigious job, perhaps as much for the status it conferred as anything else.
To prospective preachers and teachers, however, James says, “Don’t rush to get into such celebrated work.” Virtually any prominent position, after all, especially teaching, requires people to use their tongues to speak a lot. And while it may be difficult, as James suggests in verse 2, to control any part of us, our tongues are perhaps especially notoriously hard to control.
We’ve been able to control all sorts of things. Some of our backyards and homes testify to people’s abilities to tame animals like dogs and cats. A few bold people have even tried to tame notoriously wild animals like tigers and wolverines. James reminds us that trying to tame our tongues, however, is like more like trying to tame a great white shark or crocodile than a hamster. Those who try are probably more likely to be hurt or even killed than succeed.
The tongue is, after all, not only naturally wild, but also powerful. James compares it to a spark that sets off huge forest fires. Our tongues can figuratively cause the kind of firestorms that continue to ravage the North American west. One lightning strike has been known, in fact, to cause as many as twenty separate forest and brush fires.
When I was in high school, someone’s tongue didn’t start 20 fires. But it did wreak havoc. I was so desperate for friends that at a football game I wandered close to a group of guys with whom I’d gone to middle school. An insecure classmate whom I’ll call Ray, however, incinerated my fragile psyche with one stroke of his powerful tongue. He took one look at my pants that were too short for my growing frame and sneered, “I guess Bratt’s getting ready for flooding.”
In fact, says James, tongues like Ray’s (and my own!) are so powerful that they’re like a little rudder than can steer a massive ship and a small bit that can direct a mighty horse. While they’re both comparatively tiny, they can steer far bigger things. In a similar way, writes James, while our tongues are among our smallest muscles, they can direct our whole lives.
While we’re not entirely sure what he means by that, he at least seems to mean that our tongues have power over every part of us. Might we think of it this way? If I were to brag that I could, for instance, run a marathon, I might think I have to try to back my boast up by actually running one. So my whole life would change as I spent extra time training and altering my eating habits.
Or consider how the encouraging use of our tongues can build a friendship. Or how a word of forgiveness can re-direct nearly our whole lives through reconciliation with people who have hurt us. Or how the gentle use of our tongues might bolster sagging and broken spirits.
Whenever I read James 3, I think of Marv who could talk to nearly anyone. When I asked him how he did it, he answered that he always read the comics, business section and sports page of a newspaper. Marv said he figured that if he could say something about one of those things, he could start a conversation with almost anyone. Those casual conversations, in turn, have helped draw a variety of people into a number of remarkable friendships.
By contrast, think of how our tongues can also push people away. How an irritated word, for instance, can ruin a friendship. Or how a critical word can break down vulnerable people. Or how a word of gossip can destroy a reputation.
In fact, adds James in a way we don’t fully understand, our tongues can even set our lives on fire. The apostle seems to mean that our tongues have immense power to cause disaster. They can incinerate friendships and families. Our tongues can infuriate our bosses or teachers. They may even have the power, if we give it to them, to drag us perilously close to hell.
Peter Matthiessen’s remarkable book Shadow Country’s main character, E.J. Watson, is one of fiction’s most evil, yet tragic figures. Readers certainly sense that he’s extraordinarily mean-tempered. Yet we also get the impression that he feels he must back up his verbal threats with violent, even murderous actions.
So who can tame the restless beast that is our wild and powerful tongue? James says, “no man can tame the tongue” (8). The theologian Augustine says that by saying that the apostle implies that only God can tame the wild and mighty animal that is our tongue.
You and I naturally want to serve the evil one. In fact, even after God redeems us, we sometimes still want to serve both the evil one and the Lord. So Christians have to fight the temptation to, for example, use our tongues to both gossip about other people and praise the Lord. While fig trees don’t grow olives, our tongues sometimes grow the fruit that is both lies to our neighbors and prayers to the Lord.
Those who preach and teach James 3 will want to look for ways to encourage. God’s adopted sons and daughters in the ways of its godliness. We may want to point to, for example, our need to confess to the Lord and each other that we don’t always use our tongues only to praise God and bless each other. You and I also deliberately open our hearts to the Spirit’s work to transform us into those who consistently put our tongues to good use.
Jesus’ followers consciously, too, use our tongues to criticize each other far less and build each other up far more. Yet perhaps more than anything, we faithfully pray for those who whom God has called to use their tongues a lot. After all, preachers and teachers desperately need such prayers perhaps more than almost anyone.
Some of our arguably greatest “teachers” that have been political leaders have had razor-sharp tongues that they have used with ruthless skill. American President Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of them.
In his book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro notes that LBJ was a mean man who abused reporters and ordered his wife around. He tongue-lashed reporters who had not reported his successes with enough enthusiasm to suit him. Johnson verbally shredded them whenever they hinted at criticism of him.
Caro says, the president “even ridiculed them for no reason at all, displaying as he did so that keen insight into other men’s feelings that enabled him to wound them so deeply. He once ridiculed Dave Cheavens of the Associated Press, a sensitive, sweet-tempered guy who was fat and short. Once, when Johnson was moving across a plowed field, Cheavens was falling behind. Johnson to Cheavens: ‘C’mon Cheavens. Won’t those little fat legs of yours carry you any faster than that’?”
Ironically, of course, Johnson also used his mighty tongue to sweet talk enough American congressmen into helping him pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bill made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state and local elections that were designed to deny people who are black the right to vote. Were it not for Johnson’s deft and persuasive use of his tongue, American race relations might arguably be even worse than they are today.
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