Come, Holy Spirit, inspire the hearts of these faithful with your presence; may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.
Mark Douglas paints an interesting metaphor for the letter of James. He calls it a “homiletical mural” where the author gives readers “an overview of what true wisdom looks like: taking care in how we speak, giving care to those in distress, and being careful about what we let into our lives.” Today’s pericope on the power of the tongue expands specifically on taking care how we speak.
How often do we really consider the power of our spoken words? For myself, and anyone for whom “words of affirmation” is their primary love language, words can radically affect our well-being. Moreover, those words have a ripple effect; once centered into our beings, words spoken to us begin to ripple outwards – affecting our perception of self-worth, outward to our own choice of language and accompanying action; potentially radically affecting not only ourselves but others around us with whom we live and move have our being.
How large looms the ability of spoken words to build up or break down! James Boyce cuts to the chase with words when he tells us in the power of our capacity for communication, human beings, made in God’s image and co-creators with God, can substantially change both ourselves and the world around us just with our spoken words. We can use the spoken word for good; or if we give it license, our mouth can utterly destroy ourselves, others, and the world around us. The same could be true for words that are hand-written, typed, emailed, texted, recorded and reviewed, or what-have-you.
It is no coincidence that down through the ages, the Christian community has adopted language referring to Jesus Christ as the Word of God, not to mention the Bible as the written and inspired word of God. When we read and study Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and other spiritual writings, we are endeavoring to seek and gain the wisdom of those who have gone before us; hoping in faith that we might navigate our time on earth with dignity, grace, and presence of mind and heart to be the heavenly examples of God’s love that we have signed up to be as Christians.
Put this teaching in context for a moment. Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that “in the world of early Christianity…multiple understandings of the faith compete[d] with each other, teachers [were] powerful people, and their speech [carried] weight.”
She goes on: “James’s thinking about the tongue, this power of speech, echoes similar observations in other Jewish Wisdom literature:
‘Honor and dishonor come from speaking, and the tongue of mortals may be their downfall. Do not be called double-tongued and do not lay traps with your tongue; for shame comes to the thief, and severe condemnation to the double-tongued. In great and small matters cause no harm, and do not become an enemy instead of a friend; for a bad name incurs shame and reproach; so it is with the double-tongued sinner.’ (Sir. 5:13-6:1)
‘To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble. The proud, haughty person, named “Scoffer,” acts with arrogant pride.’ (Prov. 21:23-24)
‘For all of us make many mistakes,’ James continues—not only teachers, all of us.”
I can give you a personal example of when I failed to curb my tongue. A couple of weeks ago we had a new family visit our church with three boys, the youngest just a bit older than my youngest. He was loud. I unfortunately said so out loud. Then, my unbridled tongue made the comment about our Sunday School classroom being available if there were two adults willing to go over there, otherwise the family was welcome to enjoy staying in worship and try our activity center in the back.
The consequence of my unbridled tongue is that they have not returned. O Lord, I have sinned. Forgive me for driving guests from your house! More recently, a wiser mentor of mine pointed out an observation within my young family. I admit I have struggled some with impatience at the developmental level of my brood now and again, and my mentor observed one of the children speaking about another one with my own descriptive words as I struggled with categorizing and explaining why I get so frustrated. That should not be. With my tongue, I have infected a precious young mind with my own struggles and perceptions!
Thankfully, besides those and other unhappy times when my tongue has been unbridled, I can also recall times my tongue has been able to build up and encourage, to inspire and to speak words of love. Regardless of their behaviors, when we tell children that we love them, even when we do not like specific behaviors they may exhibit from time to time, they are hearing and feeling the power of a spoken word that builds them up. They need to know they are loved in as many ways as possible, just as all of us do. Not only that, but we, who are imperfect agents of God’s love in the world, can still tell them God loves them no matter what.
When we remember to share that love – then do we show forth the light of Christ in the world for others to see. After all, the central point is, as James tells us, to follow the royal law to love neighbor as self.
May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us; even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Douglas, Mark. Commentary on James 3:1-12, Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
 Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).
Questions for Reflection
First three questions provided by Walter Bruggemann’s commentary and study questions based on today’s lectionary from James. For full article, please view http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/free-speech-a-license-to-destroy-or-a-responsibility-to-build-up-james-31-12/.
- What are some ways you’ve hurt people with your words?
- How can we be more careful with our words?
- Think about a time when you gave someone a compliment. How did that make you feel?
Questions and prayers provided by Feasting on the Word Worship Companion; Kimberly Bracken Long, ed.
How do you seek God’s wisdom in your life?
What are the signs and symbols of God’s presence that surround your everyday life?
Household Prayer: Morning
As I open my eyes,
I can see the heavens that tell of your glory.
Allow me to be part of this creation
that proclaims your handiwork
and your real presence in the world. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
As the day winds down,
allow me to find satisfaction in the thought
that I have taken my cross and followed you.
Allow me to find rest in the knowledge
that I did not act as if I was ashamed of you.
And if I failed you, forgive me
and allow me to find solace
in the new mercies of the morning. Amen.