1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 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. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Once, when I was 15 years old, I made my mother cry. I’m not proud of this in any way, but it’s a painful memory that, for a variety of reasons, stands out in my mind after all these years.
One of those reasons is because, when it happened, it really surprised to me. It would still be surprising for anyone who knew (or knows) my mother! She was an army officer in an era before that was a common thing for women. She was the daughter of an infantry Colonel, one of six children. She was raised to be strong and tough even before she officially became “Major Locke,” which was her rank and title in the Army, and sometimes at home, too.
Her other nickname, coined by my Dad while driving the streets of Germany with her, was Einbahnstraße (one way street). In our family, if you wanted compromise, negotiation or flexibility, you went to Dad. If you wanted a decision, an ultimatum, or an irreversible judgment, you went to Mom. Or more likely, she found you.
But as far back as I can remember, my mom was an unmovable, unshakable, solid rock. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to make her cry, let alone me. And it wasn’t even anything I did. That’s probably how most teenage boys make their mothers cry.
No, in my case, it was something I said. I don’t even remember what exactly my words were, what we were arguing about that time in the car on the way home from somewhere. I have a vague recollection that it was about money, and that I was being a spoiled brat about not getting something I thought I was entitled to.
Usually, as I noted earlier, arguing with my mother was an exercise in utter futility, and a potentially dangerous exercise at that. If I was really pushing my luck in an argument with her, it might end with a sudden slap across my face. If she was in a more charitable mood, I would just be grounded one week for every additional word that came out of my mouth after she determined that the argument was over.
But for some reason that day, I risked it, and happened to push all the right buttons–probably some combination of guilt, status shaming, perceived parental responsibility and teenage angst all rolled together in one rapid-fire burst of words.
And right there in the car with my younger siblings watching, my mother, Major Locke, broke down in tears, stammering something about not being able to afford to give her children all the things she wanted or hoped to.
I felt like dirt. And rightfully so. My callous words had been calculated to win the argument, but I never considered at what cost that would come. I certainly didn’t feel like I had won anything worth winning. To this day, I can’t even remember what it was that I had wanted so badly in the first place.
Sometimes I wonder if all these words I say to you each Sunday morning, if all my efforts to inspire people, reconcile people, and give people hope, if all these hundreds of thousands of words I preach are all just an elaborate attempt to undo the damage done by those few ugly words spoken to my mother when I was 15.
Sticks and stones, it is said, may break our bones, but words will wound us to the very core.
And that’s precisely what James is getting at in chapter three of his letter. In previous chapters, he has emphasized the importance of the things we do over the things we believe, or the things we say. But here he takes things a step further:
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” That’s a great metaphor. Fire gives us light and warmth; the harnessing of fire was the beginning of civilization. But unchecked, untamed, fire rages out of control and is tremendously destructive, deadly.
It didn’t take me long, as a teenager, to realize the power and influence of my words. While other boys were far more athletic or good-looking than I was, when it came to girls and dating…I learned that I could write poetry, stories and beautiful love songs. Sometimes I would write a poem or a song for one girl, then just change the name but use the same poem or song for the next girl that came along. By this point, I wasn’t using my words to actively hurt or tear anyone down, but I was still using them to exploit or manipulate.
In college, I became involved in student government, and discovered a whole new venue for the power of my words. I wrote and delivered persuasive political speeches, first for other students running for this office or that, then for myself. My final year of college, I was elected student body president. That was actually quite a feat of persuasion, considering at the time I was an openly unashamed liberal democrat in the most fundamentalist, conservative Republican college in the country.
I had big plans. I was going to go into a career of politics and elected office. I even drew up a timeline for when I would first run for state legislature, then congress, then the senate. According to that timeline I made back in 1995, I was supposed to have been elected President of the United States just last November.
As a “student politician” I wasn’t destructive with my words (which is more than I can say for some actual politicians these days!). I don’t think I was exploiting anyone with my words anymore–by then I actually believed most of what I was saying in my political speeches and campaigns. But at the heart of all those words was still something that James warns us about in verse 16 of today’s passage: “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” I had no desire to tear others down, but I also had a strong desire to lift myself and my interests above all others. Which, if you think about it, has exactly the same effect in the end.
So what was the antidote (or maybe penance) for an ambitious young man who has a way with words? Probably it was teaching high school English literature in inner-city Dallas for the next five years. There’s definitely no prestige, no power, and not very much pay in that line of work, but you get to perfect your speech seven times a day in front of a mostly hostile audience. And maybe, just maybe, my words were finally starting to make a positive difference, in a way that benefited others more than me.
Still…James doesn’t cut teachers much of a break. In fact, he says in verse 1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
The Greek word used here for teachers is διδάσκαλοι (didaskaloi). In the New Testament, that almost always refers to those who teach and preach the scriptures, so even (or especially) in my current vocation, I’m still not off the hook. But I’m finally in good company–notice James says, “we who teach.”
Of course, there are only about 1,742 words in James’ letter, his core teaching, and that seems to be all he wrote. By contrast, I will have spoken that many words (and more) by the time I’m finished with this one, 20 minute sermon. And I do this every week. I speak a lot of words. And today I’ve spoken a lot of words about speaking a lot of words.
What’s the point? That’s a great question. If I understand James, he’s saying there really isn’t one. There really isn’t much point to all the many words we say in this life, and if we’re going to use them to bless and praise God, but then turn right around and curse a fellow human being, made in God’s image, we would be better off remaining silent.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James in verse 13. And, returning to his favorite theme, he answers his own question: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” That wisdom, which James calls “wisdom from above” is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That wisdom makes peace.
And of course, those are all things you can observe and witness in a person’s actions, not just their words.
As a pastor of a 135-year old church, I get to do my fair share of funerals each year. And while I can’t exactly say I “enjoy” funerals, it is an incredibly meaningful experience for me to get to weave together the strands of a person’s life one final time in a sermon of remembrance.
Invariably, after the service someone will come up to me and tell me what a good job I did, that I have a way with words. That may be so, but I’ve found that when it comes to a funeral sermon, no amount of skill with words can rescue a life that was not well-lived. Rather, if you were moved by the sermon, chances are what really moved you was the life presented in that sermon. And so I take that opportunity, when someone says “good job” to remind them: Live your life so that when you die the preacher doesn’t have to wonder what to say.
In any case, my words (like most words) will resonate in a few hearts and minds for an hour or two after the sermon is done. But your actions–your kindness, your compassion, your help, your generosity, your love–these things will resonate in the lives you touch for decades, and for an eternity in the kingdom of heaven.
Since we’re talking today about the relative value of words and actions, I have to close with my favorite parrot story. Forgive me if you’ve heard these words too many times already.
There were three brothers, who had all done very well for themselves in life. They were also very competitive, and each tried to outdo the others in showing generosity to their mother, who was by now quite elderly.
The first brother boasted that for her birthday this year, he had bought their mother a brand new Rolls-Royce limousine, complete with a chauffeur to drive her around wherever she wanted to go. The second brother responded, “Good, because she’ll need something to park in one of the four garages of the brand new ten-bedroom Victorian-style mansion that I bought her this year for her birthday.”
At this, the third brother smiled and said, “I’ve got both of you beat: You know how mom gets lonely sometimes, and now with her eyesight failing she can’t read much anymore? Well, I traveled halfway around the world to buy for her a expensive and rare kind of talking parrot that has a 35,000 word vocabulary. This parrot cost me a fortune, but it can quote the entire Bible, all the works of William Shakespeare, and carry on a conversation about philosophy, economics, fine art, and current events. It took the bird’s trainers over thirty years to teach it and it cost me a fortune, but I’m convinced our mother will absolutely love it.
Well, a few months after her birthday, the brothers got together for dinner with their mother in her new mansion, and naturally, they asked her what she thought of all her gifts. She told the first son, “The limousine is very nice, and I sure do enjoy talking to that nice man who drives it…but really, I don’t travel much, I have everything I need right here, so I’m afraid I don’t use it that often.
The second son said, “That’s right, everything you need is right here in this beautiful house! You like the house, don’t you, Mom?” His mother replied, “It is certainly a beautiful house…but you know I really spend most of my time in just one or two rooms, and with my poor eyesight, I’m always afraid of getting lost in here!”
Seeing how hard their mother was to please, the third son got a little nervous (especially since he hadn’t seen or heard the parrot anywhere around the house). But remembering the minor fortune he had paid to please his mother, he timidly asked her, “And how did you like my gift?” Then his mother got a really big smile on her face and she said, “You always were my most practical son, and you always do know just what I like. The chicken was delicious.”
People of First Presbyterian Church, may you preach the gospel at all times, and use words if necessary.