I’m continuing my sermon series on James. This Sunday we read about the taming of the tongue. I hope you find these words beneficial.
James 3:1-12—The Judging Tongue
In his letter to these believers of the twelve tribes of Israel scattered among the nations, James doesn’t pull any punches, and today is no different. He’s pretty direct in these statements about what we say, and in case you think this is just directed to teachers, read the text again; this is directed at all of the brothers and sisters, with an added warning about teachers.
We all know that words can set off landmines in our relationships, or in our political landscape or even our world. Imagine what happens when someone in our family says that they detest us. It cuts to our core, because deep down we want to be loved for who we are, and words—no matter how many times we sing that childhood mantra about sticks and stones—words damage us.
James gets this. He gives great examples about the tongue, and I want you to hear it again in a current day translation. “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. 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. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?” (The Message Bible James 3:3-12)
That leaves very little space for wiggle room, and yet we often fall short. But the question has to be why. Why do we do this? Why do we let our tongues run wild? And why do our tongues often run wild against those we love best? You can tame wild beasts, James says, but the tongue, you might as well forget it. It’s a world of evil.
That reference to taming all kinds of animals would have set of alarm bells for those reading James’ letter, because it would remind them of some other verses given much earlier in the biblical narrative. From the first chapter of Genesis, way back at the very beginning. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:27-28) And so when James talks about taming the animals, those hearing his letter would say, “Aha! He’s talking about the work given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” Animal taming and domesticating is a breeze, James says, but taming the tongue, give it up.
A while ago I read a fabulous book called Transformational Architecture: Reshaping Our Lives as Narrative by Dr. Ron Martoia. His main idea is that the Christian story needs to begin where God starts it at Eden, and not where many Christians begin it at the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the fall of humanity. He suggests that when God created us in God’s image, what we received is three core longings within us, three ways in which we connect: namely with God and something larger than ourselves, with each other and a longing to be loved, and with our future, our hope that things will be better. And those longings come directly from God, are God’s imprint, the image of God, on us.
Our relationships with each other are key to our lesson from James. Dr. Martoia tells the story of being in the check-out at a grocery store waiting for his turn, and the woman in front of him had two kids running wild. We’ve all been there. The kids were touching everything, knocking over the candy and Mom was oblivious. What really bothered him was that the kids were running into him as well and were making a scene. Now Ron’s a former pastor and current ministry consultant and spiritual leader. And this is what he was saying under his breath: “Are you kidding me? Control your freakin’ kids. I need to get you a parenting brochure. This is a public place not an outdoor playground. Get some awareness, lady. These are your kids.” Those are some horrible things to be thinking, of course. He writes, “As this frazzled mom paid for her items, she said to the cashier, ‘Thank you for being patient with me. This has been a hard week. I’m taking care of my dying mother at my house, and my husband left me this week.’” He was bowled over, of course. He was grateful he hadn’t spoken the words out loud, but he still felt like an idiot.
It’s that desire to judge that seems to be present in all of us. Dr. Matoria points out that in the creation account, when God separates things—like light from dark or the land from the sea—everything is good. Each day ends with that refrain, “And God saw that it was good.” God sees everything, God knows everything, and what God sees is goodness. Even when things are different from one another, when God looks at the armadillo and the lion on Day 6, God says its all good. God revels in seeing that goodness.
And yet at the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of good and not good, Adam and Eve are told that they shouldn’t eat of it. They are given the right to separate and name—that’s a giraffe over there, and this one is a prairie dog—but are told not to eat of this tree of knowledge of good and evil. “It appears from the text” Martoia writes, “that they would acquire the ability to make pronouncements that only God, with his perfect and infinite knowledge, would be all to make. They would presumably be seeking to make the sort of pronouncements that God had made in the refrain of Genesis, namely ‘and it was good.’” But the problem is when they eat of that fruit, “they immediately begin to judge between good and evil. And the results of their judging seem to be significantly different from God’s appraisal.” They look down and see their nakedness and are ashamed. Martoia concludes, “Part of the sickness introduced by Adam and Eve is our incessant desire to judge between good and not good (evil), even though we are incapable of doing so in any ultimate sort of way.” But that doesn’t stop us. We let our tongues go wild.
We like to separate people into groups that we can then put down easily. We use phrases intended to harm others (We’re in the political season, insert your own example here from the party you support). We judge people based on the color of their skin, or their accent, or their status. Unfortunately, we start young, and many just hope to make it through middle school without getting too many scars inflicted by the verbal attacks. We certainly know what is good and not good based on what others tell us, or what we pick up from our families or what we see on TV, but ultimately it goes completely against what God has said. Because God, when God looks around and sees us, when God sees the Democrat and Republican and Independent, and the 80 year old and the 4 year old, and the guy from Africa, and the woman from the Netherlands, God looks at all of us and says, “It is good.”
This judging, this determining of good and not good, it is a fire, a fire from hell, as James puts it. We destroy one another with our words, which flow right out of our unquenchable desire to judge others. And we do it for no other reason it seems than to make ourselves look good or to feel better about our own choices or to seem bright and witty. We do it even though we know how much we hate it ourselves when we’re on the receiving end.
Which is exactly why we need Christ. James hits the nail on the head, “No one can tame the tongue,” he writes. Try as we might not to judge, not to let hurtful words slip out from between our lips, we cannot do it alone. We need God’s help. You see, it’s God who purifies the brackish waters within us. God brings about the change in our lives, often slowly over a long period of time, but it’s God’s work and not something we can magically do by mere will power.
It is by inviting Christ into our lives each day, again and again, and allowing Christ to transform us, that we can make strides in the right direction. It is in being crucified with Christ, as Paul puts it to the Galatians, that we give Jesus the chance to live in us. By hoisting up that judging nature on the cross, we say again and again how much we want to be the people God always intended us to be. When we offer ourselves to God’s correction and love, we come closer to the way things were always meant to be, people who see others simply as what they—and what we ourselves are—the image, the icon, of the living God. Amen.