Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 12, 2021
James 3:1-12 Commentary
“Not many of you should presume to be didaskaloi (teachers),” James begins this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson (1). About now, many teachers might agree with him. A few weeks (or days) into the new school year have probably begun to tax even the most dedicated teachers in ways that may leave them considering some kind of easier job, like brain surgeon.
I stand in and come from a long line of teachers. Since we’ve all found teaching to be rewarding but challenging, I suspect many of my family members might agree with James’ assertion, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers.”
One of my favorite teacher stories about the strain of teaching involves two professors who are married to each other. They always felt teaching pressures mount as their weekends ended. So this husband and wife agreed not to hold against each other anything one said to the other on Sunday evenings. Not many of us should presume to be teachers — perhaps especially on Sunday nights!
School teachers are sometimes caught in the middle of a kind of sometimes-painful three-sided game of dodge ball between administrators, students, and parents. So on this Sunday near the beginning of another school year, it’s appropriate for churches to encourage teachers. After all, we may sometimes wonder why anyone would even want to be do such critically important work.
Yet scholars suggest that the position of “teacher” was an honorable and coveted one in James’ day. We might even compare the work of teaching then 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.” Teaching, after all, requires people to use their tongues a lot. And while it may be difficult to control any part of us, our tongues are, James suggests in verse 2, perhaps especially notoriously hard to control.
Some of our backyards and homes testify to people’s abilities to “control” animals like dogs and cats. A few bold people have even tried to tame wild animals like tigers and wolverines. James reminds us that to control our tongues, however, is like more like trying to control a great white shark than a hamster.
The tongue is, after all, not only naturally wild, but also dangerous and 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 chase countless people out of parts of the North American west. A lightning strike has been known, in fact, to cause as many as twenty separate forest and brush fires.
When I was in high school, the lightning that was 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.
A 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 lengthening legs and sneered, “I guess Bratt’s getting ready for flooding.”
James says tongues 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 both are relatively tiny, they can “control” 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 the apostle means by that, he at least seems to mean that our tongues have power over every part of us. Might James 2’s proclaimers think of it this way? If I were to use my tongue to brag that I could run a marathon, I might think I must try to back my boast up by actually running one. So I’d change my whole life 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 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 my former colleague and mentor, Bill. He was such a wonderful preacher that a few people called him a “golden-tongued orator.” Yet Bill was also one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever known. He always found a way to use his tongue to build up people.
By contrast, think of how our tongues can also cut people down. 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.
A boy whom I’ll call AC was a member of the church I served when I was a new pastor. On one Sunday, in an effort to be funny, I jokingly said, “Here comes trouble” when he approached. But when I did that, I didn’t realize that AC had gotten into quite a bit of trouble. So my “tongue” lit the fire of reinforcing his negative self-image and, what’s more, hurting his parents.
James goes on in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to add that in a way we don’t fully understand, our tongues can even set our lives on fire. By that he seems to mean that our tongues have immense power to cause disaster. They can incinerate friendships and families. They may even have the power, if we give it to them, to drag us perilously close to hell.
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.
People naturally serve the evil one. In fact, even those whom God redeems sometimes still want to serve both the evil one and the Lord. So Christians fight the temptation to, for example, use our tongues to both gossip about other people and praise God. After all, 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 children in the ways of its godliness. Its proclaimers 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. We 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 deliberately, 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 “underlings” 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.” LBJ once ridiculed Dave Cheavens of the Associated Press, whom Caro calls “a sensitive, sweet-tempered guy who was fat and short.” Cheavens fell behind Johnson as they moved across a plowed field. The president taunted him: “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 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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