By Victor Austin
The epistle as read today begins with the injunction that there “be not many masters.” There must be somewhere a truth-in-advertising requirement according to which I should inform you that the word master there—that not many should aspire to be masters—means teacher. Be careful about being teachers, according to the epistle, for teachers will be judged with the greater strictness. Let the speaker beware!
What is the danger that befalls a teacher in the Church? It is that a teacher can mislead people, and the harm of misleading in the Church is grave. Jesus spoke of misleading believers — “these little ones” — as something worse than having a millstone hung around one’s neck and being thrown into the sea. That the harm a teacher can produce is great is shown by the images used today by St. James.
The tongue of a teacher is like a bit in the mouth of a horse, a little thing that guides its whole body. It is like a rudder which, though small (and shaped, note, like a tongue), guides a whole ship. It is like a small fire that can set an entire forest ablaze. Were he writing this century, St. James might also liken the tongue of a teacher to a short video used to incite mob violence.
But his focus is not first on the world, it is on the Church, and it is in particular on the teachers of the Church, and it is to say that the accountability to be exacted of them is almost infinite. Bad teaching, bad preaching, bad priests, bad bishops: just a small misguidance, a small error, can send the horse galloping in the wrong direction, can result in shipwreck, can gravely damage the souls of people for whom Jesus died.
Such is the word to the preacher today. What then can this preacher dare to say to you?
The very images that show the relationship of the teacher to the whole body of the church also speak, even literally, to the relationship of the speech — the tongue — of any of us to our own body. The teachers of the Church need for their tongues to be governed by God, and in particular by his wisdom and his love. We need teachers who are wise and loving, and who lead the church in the ways of God’s wisdom and love. Just so, wisdom and love should govern the tongue of every one of us. Your tongue should be governed by your mind and by your love for one another.
This is a hard thing. It is easier for us to control all sorts of other things than to control ourselves. The epistle says the human being can control or tame all the other animals of the world but it can’t control its own tongue. And I suppose that’s, broadly speaking, true — although, if you were walking with me down, say, 58th Street between 6th and 7th, and we suddenly came upon a lion, you would not have chosen the best walking companion for that journey. Yet there are human beings who can control or tame lions. So, yes, we can control or tame the animals of the world. But the tongue is different. It escapes our control.
I think this is because of sin. The other animals of the world suffer from our sin, of course, but we do not speak of them as sinners. Only human beings are sinners. And sin is something that escapes our control, something in us that we cannot tame. So it keeps breaking out. The epistle points to this by saying that it’s in our tongue. But we might wonder why the tongue is an especially appropriate synecdoche (Grandfather, what big words you use) — especially appropriate symbol for the sinful human being.
Indeed, in some circles at least, it would seem that the sexual organs, both male and female, would be the more appropriate symbols of sinfulness. For, both inside and outside the Church, many people think that when Christians speak about sin, they are first of all speaking about sex. But I think (I don’t want to mislead you! —and not to minimize sexual sins—still it seems to me) that the sins of the tongue are the most fundamental, the most basic, of human sins.
After all, we use our sexual organs for intimate congress with another person. But our tongues connect us with lots of persons at once, indeed, in potential, with every person. And the root of our sinfulness, humanly speaking, is in the way we corrupt our connections with other people.
Gossip, then, is the fundamental human sin. But gossip is not “talking about other people.” We human beings are designed by God as creatures who flourish in a kind of society that is unknown among other animals, and one characteristic of our kind of society is that we talk about one another.
This talk about one another that is characteristic of human interconnection has really no limit. We are interested in how other people shop, what footwear they have, how they build shelter, how they educate their children. We want to know about the new skyscraper on 57th, and how much the workers are paid, and what the apartments sell for. We want to know how people avoid sickness, which techniques are the best for the cleansing of our teeth, and is it true that 37 cups of coffee a day will prevent Alzheimer’s? We want to know what our friends are doing. We are incorrigibly interested in one another.
This sort of talk is what makes us human, and whether it’s lofty or down to earth there’s nothing wrong about it.
It turns into gossip when it slips reason’s tether, when our talk becomes decoupled from our love for one another.
It is not gossip to talk about who’s dating whom. But it is gossip to do so without love for them.
It is not gossip to talk about people who have no footwear. But it is gossip to do so without love for them.
It is not gossip to talk about someone’s new white teeth. But it is gossip to do so without love for them.
So here the teacher speaks to himself as he also speaks to you. We must talk about each other, because we are humans. But for the same reason, we must find ways to talk about each other with wisdom and love. Thank God, the possibility of doing so, the wisdom and the love for overcoming this sign of sin in us, is given to us by the Holy Spirit, who makes Jesus present to us — Jesus, who remains interested in everything that human beings do.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.