Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:1-12

[An explanation of what this post is about can be found in the first pass at this Bible lesson, here.]

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.

More in the next installment, I hope.

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