The Taming of the Tongue

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 3:1-12

“Brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers!” It’s a great back-to-school message, isn’t it? James isn’t saying that his readers aren’t qualified to be teachers—he’s saying that for those who teach there is a higher standard, a higher expectation. If you’re a math teacher, it’s a much bigger deal if you screw up on your taxes. If you’re an English teacher, people react much more harshly if you use a dangling preposition. If you’re a parent, it’s a really big deal if one of your kids catches you breaking the rules. Those who teach are judged with a greater strictness.

Of course, James is talking specifically about teachers of the gospel, people like me who are expected to explain what all of the obscure things in the Bible really mean, and why they are relevant to ordinary lives, and how one is expected to behave in response to them. We who teach will be judged with greater strictness. A pastor who spends extravagantly, or has trouble with addiction, or can’t keep her marriage together, or raises his voice in anger loses credibility just as quickly as the gossip mill can spread the news, which is usually pretty quickly. So not many of you should be teachers, James advises. It’s too much of a headache.

Why? Because, James says, no one is perfect. You’re bound to slip up sooner or later, and when you do, everyone is going to relish talking about your fall. No one is perfect. And in particular, we all have slips of the tongue, times that we say something wrong, or say something we don’t mean to say. And sometimes, those slips of the tongue can have enormous consequences.

Our modern culture doesn’t care very much for the spoken word. Writing, action, images—these are the currency of our thoughts and ideas. No longer is a person’s word their bond; we need a written contract. We’d rather read a book or go see a movie than listen to a storyteller. Speech seems too ephemeral, too quaint, too slow. Our information comes at the speed of light, and our entertainment employs the latest in technology.

But in the ancient world, a world without television, or movies, or streaming services, or any kind of projected image, a world without electronic information networks, a world where less than 5% of people were able to read and even professional scribes might not be able to understand the words they were paid to write—in this kind of world the spoken word was everything. News came by word of mouth through the gossip network. Stories were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. Even books and letters were taken in aurally. The original “readers” of James’s letter were almost entirely illiterate. They would have gathered together to have someone read the letter to them.

Speech was even considered to have a sort of magical quality. It wasn’t wrong to curse someone because it was impolite or rude, it was wrong to curse because words had real power and they might actually come true. Words could kill or injure someone. And as we’ve seen in the stories of Jesus, words could heal someone or drive out a demon. Spoken language had a meaning and weight that we simply don’t understand today.

And so when James begins to talk about the power of the tongue, he is talking about serious business. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

It’s a little melodramatic, isn’t it? James is clearly worked up about something. Like one of the old-time, bible-thumping, revival preachers, James is conjuring up images of fire and brimstone, predicting the very unravelling of the cosmos. But instead of decrying the evils of liquor or sex or gambling or dancing, like the old-time preachers did, James is warning against the evil set loose by human speech. A misplaced word can set the world on fire.

You might be carrying some of those words around with you right now, those words that haunt you even years after they were first spoken to you. “I expected more from you. You’re worthless. Why can’t you do anything right? Your sister would never have done something like this. I hate you.” You might still be carrying some of those words around, long after everyone else has forgotten they were ever uttered. And somewhere, someone might be carrying around words that you spoke. Words can change things. Words can set the world on fire.

In our age, we have a new kind of speech, a kind of speech that never goes away, that lasts into eternity. When I was growing up, I could say something stupid and be fairly well assured that within not too much time, most people would have forgotten it. But that is no longer true in the world of the internet, and especially in the world of social media. Now if I make a stupid comment, it lasts forever. Not only that, but it can be seen by everyone. A poorly spoken word might be expected to travel around my acquaintances, but a poorly written comment or text or tweet can travel around the world. The comment I shouldn’t have written, the picture I shouldn’t have posted—there is no way to take it back once it has been posted. Even if I erase it, it is never gone. If a misplaced word can set the world on fire, how much more can a misplaced post?

And in our new digital world, where camera phones are everywhere, even the words we think we are uttering in private can so easily become public. It just takes one person recording us and posting. We’ve seen countless politicians and celebrities get themselves into trouble by saying something they thought was private, only to have someone else record it for everyone to see and hear. More than ever before, our words have lasting consequences. More than ever before, a single word can set the course of our future.

James writes, “With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on.”

Our words have power, power to build up and power to destroy, power to brighten someone’s day or power to haunt someone for the rest of their lives. It’s up to to choose to utter blessings instead of curses. “You are so talented. Every time you do that, it makes me smile.  I love you.  God loves you even more.” If we are going to be carrying words around with us for the rest of our lives, these are much better baggage to carry, baggage that lightens our journey.

It’s not easy. I’ve found it to be even more difficult in the new world of COVID. I’m carrying around so much more anxiety. And I’m missing a lot of the things in life that used to help me stay regulated. And I’m just out of practice at dealing with people. I find myself losing my temper more often than usual. For the harsh words I may have spoken to you, I am sorry. “We know that we teachers will be judged more strictly.”

Yes, there will be times when people are going to disagree with one another, and sometimes in fundamental ways. There will be times when our language becomes necessarily heated by the importance of the subjects we are debating. And it is right and normal that we should disagree and debate the issues. But we can choose to disagree without hating. We can choose to disagree without demonizing. And in our disagreements, we must always remember that each and every person—whether they are sitting in the seat next to us or behind the screen of a computer half a world away—every person is a child of God, created in the very image of God. So with God’s help, let us treat one another with the respect and the love that is due to a beloved child of God.

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