Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons

[Each week, I try to present a bit of background on one or all of the appointed Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. I hope that you find it helpful.]

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9

James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

[I'll be preaching on the James text and only discussing it here this week.]

General Comments:
1. For some general information on the New Testament book of James, go here.

2. Most scholars agree that James 3:1-12 is a tightly constructed essay.

The book of James is an example of what Biblical scholars call wisdom literature. But unlike most examples of this genre, James weaves the aphorisms and forms of argument associated with this literature into cohesive statements, essays.

The overall theme of James is that Christians should authenticate the faith they believe and confess in the way they live; that living requires wisdom, which can only be acquired through faithful reliance on Jesus Christ through the everyday moments of life.

But more than delivering a series of should statements, James seems to be saying that we can act our way into deep faith. If we take the risk of living the way faithful people live, we'll find Christ at work, creating genuine trust in God within us.

This weekend's lesson is bookended, forming what the scholars call an inclusio (or inclusion), by addressing believers as brothers and sisters at both the beginning and the end of the essay.

3. It would be inappropriate, I think, to believe that this chapter is addressed only to teachers of the faith. Given the general tenor of the book of James and the fact that it was addressed to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region, James is here discussing the corrosive effects of gossip and other intemperate speech on the fellowship of the Church and its witness before the world. All Christians are called to put their speech under the authority of Jesus Christ, though James acknowledges "that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (3:1, the only place in the book where James uses the first person plural).

4. Concern over the devastating effect of uncontrolled speech was commonly expressed not only in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature, it also was a frequent theme in the writings of ancient philosophy. But there are some very specifically Biblical and Christian elements to James' discussion of this problem that aren't found in other ancient literature. Among these unique elements, which I hope to delve into in the verse-by-verse comments, are:
  • Seeing gossip and other unseemly talk as an outbreak of hell.
  • A pessimistic view of our capacity for exercising human-directed self-control over our speech.
  • An acknowledgement that because none of us is perfect, we cannot control our speech.
  • The doublemindedness that James speaks of earlier in the book (1:8) is reflected in the doubletongued ways of those under the influence of hell. Such people dare to praise God and curse the person made in the image of God with the same tongue.
  • The passage is filled with allusions to the creation imagery of Genesis and the ideas of being made part of a new creation through Jesus Christ which we've already seen several times in the book of James.
  • At the end of this passage, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the only way to be self-controlled in speech is to rely on the power of God. (Paul says that self-control is a "fruit of the Spirit," the result of faithful reliance on Jesus Christ, in Galatians 5:22-23.)
5. This passage has more than speech in mind, of course. All our communication is included.

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
(1) Jesus, like James, speaks of the stringent standards to which teachers are held by God in Matthew 5:19. Jesus also upbraids those teachers who love their role for the honor it accords them, rather than doing it to be servants.

(2) But verse 2 will make clear, the speech of all Christians has eternal significance, either reflecting the presence of Christ in our lives or the disruption, discord, hate, greed, and envy of hell.

2For 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.
(1) James is not about to commend religious perfectionism. None of us is perfect, he says. In order for our speech to accord with God's will for human beings, we need wisdom. Wisdom is ours when we ask God to give it to us, James has already said. Wisdom, in short, is a gift God grants to those who live in what Martin Luther called "daily repentance and renewal."

(2) The image of the bridle as a check on one's mouth is a commonplace in Hebrew, Greek, religious, and secular discussions of uncontrolled speech. But James will discuss this issue in decidedly Christian terms.

3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or 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. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
(1) In the world around us, we see how large things can be controlled by small measures. The tongue is a small thing, the strongest muscle in the human body, that controls our body and mind. Yet when our words aren't under God's control, they're under demonic control, as James will soon make plain. The damage thus inflicted by our words--our tongues--is incalculable!

(2) Chris Haslam notes that one of the books of the Apocrypha, Sirach, has some passages that relate to these verses. (The Apocrypha is a set of writings which neither Jews or Protestant Christians accept as being part of the Bible, but is accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Episcopal fellowships.) I found the following passages, beyond even those specifically cited by Haslam, to be of particular interest in connection with our verses from James:
Curse the whisperer and doubletongued: for such have destroyed many that were at peace. A backbiting tongue hath disquieted many, and driven them from nation to nation: strong cities hath it pulled down, and overthrown the houses of great men. A backbiting tongue hath cast out virtuous women, and deprived them of their labours. Whoso hearkeneth unto it shall never find rest, and never dwell quietly. The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword: but not so many as have fallen by the tongue. Well is he that is defended through the venom thereof; who hath not drawn the yoke thereof, nor hath been bound in her bands. For the yoke thereof is a yoke of iron, and the bands thereof are bands of brass. The death thereof is an evil death, the grave were better than it. It shall not have rule over them that fear God, neither shall they be burned with the flame thereof. Such as forsake the Lord shall fall into it; and it shall burn in them, and not be quenched; it shall be sent upon them as a lion, and devour them as a leopard. (Sirach 28:13-23)
While I don't accept the books of the Apocrypha as being part of the Bible, they do give us some insight into the thinking of the early Jewish-Christian community of which James was, according to Acts, a prime leader. Sirach, like James, is an example of wisdom literature, albeit one not as sophisticated as James. Unlike Sirach, James also explicitly links wisdom and right-living to the maintenance of a strong relationship with Christ, a relationship initiated in Baptism, when God's Name is invoked over Christians.

6And 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.
(1) The New Interpreter's Bible says that the image of the tongue inflamed by hell means more than that "speech is a problem to be solved." In it, James "points to the cosmic dualism that underlies the two ways of directing human freedom"; it can be directed by God or by the devil. James more fully explores this theme in his discussion of human arrogance and its horrible effects on the Church in 3:13-4:10.

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
(1) Obviously, James is engaging in a little hyperbole in v. 7. Not every species of beast and bird has been tamed by human beings. But many species have been so tamed. And, at the least, human beings exercise dominion over the created order. (Sometimes not to good effect.)

James' argument here is derived from a typical Jewish form of argumentation, employed often in the Old Testament as well as by Jesus and by Paul. The formula is: If this little thing, then how much more this big thing.

James' argument will be: If this little thing, how astounding this smaller thing, which it turns out, is really a much bigger thing.

James is saying, "We're able to tame or subdue the animals of the earth, yet we can't tame a smaller thing, our words. But, in fact, our tiny words are much bigger and far deadlier than the greatest physical predator we will ever encounter! They have the ability to destroy others and ourselves."

(2) The tongue is merely a symbol for our human capacity for communication, often used in intemperate, egotistical, boastful, unkind, or hurtful ways.

(3) The description of the tongue as "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" is an apparent allusion to the serpent whose lying words tempted Eve and Adam into rebellion against God. (A mark of the subtlety of the serpent is that he told the truth in a lying way. It was true that Adam and Eve were not immediately killed by eating the forbidden fruit. But decay and death had become part of the human experience through this chasm created between humanity and the Author of life.)

(4) Chris Haslam points out that the order in which "beast...bird...reptile...and sea creature" are listed here is the same in which they appear in Genesis 9:2 (in which God speaks to Noah); Deuteronomy 4:17-18 (in which God's people are told not to make idols); and I Kings 4:33 (which speaks of Solomon).

(5) Haslam also points out that the reference to the "deadly poison" emitted by those who misuse the gift of speech echoes Psalm 140:3, which says of evildoers:
They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers.
As you can see, these two verses are rife with allusions to Genesis, the Old Testament book which the ancient rabbis insisted was key to understanding God and the faith.

(6) In the description of the tongue as "a restless evil" is mirrored Biblical descriptions of the devil (or Satan). In Job 1:7, for example, Satan tells God that he has been going "to and fro on the earth...walking up and down on it." And First Peter exhorts Christians to stay connected to God, alert to temptations, by saying, "Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour" (First Peter 5:8).

Jesus, in telling people to remain connected to God and alert to temptations after they've been delivered from evil, says that the demons of hell evidence the same restless energy seen in the devil himself, a desire to indwell people and so rob them of life. He also says that we need to fill the vacancies left by old sins and addictions with Him, His life, and His love, otherwise sinful dependencies may take up residence in us again:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)
9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
(1) We dare to praise God and then curse, put down, belittle, or marginalize human beings made in God's image. That doesn't work in the Kingdom of God! John writes in the New Testament:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (First John 4:20-21)
(2) Yet again, this passage alludes to Genesis, reminding us that in one of its creation accounts, Genesis says that we human beings, unlike all the other living things God created, were made "in the image of God."

11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
(1) In the last few verses of his essay, James explains why this ought not to be so (v. 10).

(2) Fruit was an accessible image to an ancient agricultural society like the one from which the Bible emerged. The idea in much of the Bible's use of fruit imagery is that the way we live will reflect what's going on inside of us.

Are we connected to the God we meet in Jesus Christ, surrendered to Him?

Or, is someone else calling the shots in our lives, such as the devil, the world, or our sinful selves, to paraphrase Martin Luther?

John the Baptist, as he prepared the people of Judea for Jesus' ministry, called the people to repent and is quoted in Luke's Gospel as saying:
“You brood of vipers! [venomous snakes again!] Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)
Jesus tells His disciples that those who remain faithful to Him will display that faith in their living:
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:8)
Paul says that those who are in relationship with Christ, in whom the Holy Spirit thus lives, will evidence that presence in their living:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:19-23)
Jesus also says that we'll be able to pick out false prophets from those speaking on His behalf "by their fruits." (He also says that He will allow these false prophets to continue to operate because if he were to destroy them, he would also destroy the righteous among whom they live.):
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)

No comments: