By David Baumann
A Reading from James 3:1-12
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. 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.
Jesus taught that a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit (Matt. 7:18), but in today’s lesson, James says, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” Likely James is talking about what happens when one is being formed (or deformed), and Jesus is teaching about the final product.
James’s teaching about the power of the tongue — words that people speak — is gripping. Probably most of us know, or have known, people with an ability to use words to hurt or to uplift with great effectiveness. The Psalms describe those who “love all words that hurt” (52:4) and those for whom “lies are their chief delight” (62:4). By contrast, we hear of Joseph, first introduced in Acts 4:36, whom the apostles called Barnabas, or “son of encouragement.”
Today’s lesson is a warning to those in authority, i.e. teachers, since they have immediate influence over others in Christ and will therefore be “judged more strictly.” James further acknowledges that “We all stumble in many ways.” Even with the best of intentions, the most careful discipline, and the earnest desire to do right, there are times when we will fall short. Yet it is no light matter. Parents, preachers, teachers, and employers all have inestimable influence over the souls of others, who are “those for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). Though we all “stumble in many ways,” we are charged never, ever to underestimate the power of the words we speak.
The lesson concludes with James echoing Jesus, “A salt spring cannot produce fresh water.” Paul teaches, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” (Eph. 4:29). We will make mistakes, but in the end we will produce either fresh or salt water, but not both.
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 47 years, mainly in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Springfield. He is now retired and has published nonfiction, science fiction novels, and short stories.
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Today we pray for:
Christ Cathedral, Salina, Kan.
The Diocese of Ekiti West (Church of Nigeria)