The Rudder (9/7/03)
Words of Life: James 3:7-10
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The Protestant Church does not give the Book of James a lot of thought. Like many books of the Bible, scholars aren’t sure who actually wrote it. And the dating of this book causes lots of arguments in the seminaries. For reasons that only a Bible scholar could love, some believe this book was written as late as the middle of the second century—over 100 years after the death of Jesus; and others insist it was composed by James—the actual brother of Jesus himself—in the decades following Jesus’ crucifixion .
But it is not the question of authorship that has led much of the church to ignore the Book of James. The problem comes in what it says. In the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—we find the teachings of Jesus and the story of his life. The rest of the New Testament doesn’t deal much with what Jesus said and did. The rest of the New Testament deals with who Jesus was—the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God.
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But not the Book of James. James only mentions Jesus twice—in the introduction to each of the first two chapters—and then only to say that, like his readers, he, James, is a follower and believer of Jesus Christ. But that’s it. Unlike the rest of the New Testament, James doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to believe. He doesn’t speak of Jesus in cosmic terms; he doesn’t concern himself with how Jesus came into the world and how he went out of it; and he doesn’t attempt to explain the relationship between Jesus and God.
Instead, James is a type of wisdom literature. It resembles Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount more than it does the letters of Paul or the other New Testament books. James asks us to live moral lives. I think the reason so many people shun James is that James sounds a whole lot like Jesus. And Jesus is pretty hard to take. I have yet to meet the person who can read through the sermons of Jesus and put a check mark beside each teaching—let’s see, love those who hate me, check; give to everyone who begs from me, check; sell everything I have and give all the money to the poor, check.
We may have to take that from Jesus, but we sure don’t have to take it from his brother! Jesus spent his life telling us—and showing us—how to live. He didn’t craft detailed theological tracts on what to believe. That job was left for Paul and the leaders of the early church. And James was like his brother Jesus, in that respect. James was not too concerned about theology.
In James we find the famous quote, “Faith without works if dead.” 1500 years later, this infuriated Martin Luther and the other reformers. “It’s all about faith!” they cried. “It’s all about acknowledging our unworthiness and trusting God. It’s not about our works; it’s not about what we do; it’s about who we are—the beloved children of God.” And there is a lot of truth in that, but I think Martin Luther went a little too far when he said the Book of James was “straw.” Straw—something worthless, something to be trampled underfoot, something, at best, to be fed to horses.
And all because James had the audacity to tell us the same things Jesus told us—that the way we act in this world is important, and that all the so-called faith in the world isn’t worth a whole lot if it isn’t backed up by a life that is anchored on that faith and doing good things in this world.
I want to expand on that passage we heard read from the lectern this morning. This is not Jesus talking—this is James. But there is no place in the Bible that sounds more like Jesus than these words from the third chapter of the Book of James:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 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. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth, from the same opening, both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives or grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
That sounds like Jesus to me. I guess it sounds like Jesus because I find myself accused and found guilty with those words, the same way the words of Jesus have a way of pointing out those parts of me that fall far short of the glory of God. And I think this little teaching about the way we use our tongue resonates with everybody. We can look at most biblical teachings and come away feeling pretty good about ourselves. Honor your mother and father—most of us can do that. Don’t steal—we’re okay there. Don’t envy your neighbor—okay, that ones a little tougher, but we’re still alright, for the most part.
But who among us hasn’t said something they wish they could take back? Who among us, over the course of our lives, hasn’t said hundreds of things we wish we could take back? A twelfth century Sufi mystic wrote, “A word is like an arrow; let it loose, and it does not return.” (Abd-el-Kader) That is so true! And our words have such power! Perhaps the biggest lie we teach our children is that little rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” What a bunch of nonsense! The fact is, especially for children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words—words can completely destroy me.”
This is a powerful weapon God has placed between our palate and our chin. It’s the sharpest knife in the world. With one quick movement of our tongue we can ruin the self-esteem of a child forever. We can take a person who is struggling in search of meaning for his life, and with a single slash of the tongue, convince him all of reality is a useless accident, a waste of time. We can take a person who is clinging to life in search of hope, and with a single jab of the tongue, push her into despair.
The tongue is a mighty weapon. Of course, I’m not saying anything new. One of the most ancient sayings known to humankind is found in the Maxims of Ptahhotep (ptah-HO-tep), and is dated to 3400 B.C.—that’s the first dynasty period, over 2000 years before the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt to what is now Israel. The maxim reads, “Be a craftsman in speech that thou may be strong, for the strength of one’s tongue and speech is mightier than all fighting.”
A few thousand years later, a Psalm attributed to King David would compare the human tongue to a razor. Biblical proverbs claim that even “a soft tongue can break bones,” and that “rash words are like sword thrusts.” The ancient Greek playwright Menander (muh-NAN-der) wrote, “The sword the body wounds, sharp words the mind.”
One of my favorite passages of scripture is found in Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus attempts to explain to the crowd that all those laws regarding what food people should and should not eat are not really that important. The people of Jesus’ time, like people today, didn’t want to upset God. Today, many Christians concern themselves with finding a place of worship that uses the proper methods of baptism and communion, and that adheres to the proper creeds. Back then, they made sacrifices at the Temple altar, and were careful to eat only the proper foods. Eating only the right foods, and eating only with the right people, was a huge concern in 1st Century Israel. Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand; it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
What a great teaching! I wonder what Jesus would say to those people in our world today who argue about how to be baptized? As I mentioned last week, in seminary we called it the dunk ‘em, drip ‘em or dry-clean ‘em controversy. I think Jesus would like hearing us laugh at the controversy that way, because that is just the sort of thing he told us to quit worrying over. For all those people who continually argue over whether or not a person must be completely immersed beneath the water, or if a light sprinkling on the forehead will suffice, I imagine Jesus would say something like, “It’s not how wet you get that is important. It’s how the wetting of your head affects the wagging of your tongue that matters.”
And that leads us back to that great passage from the Book of James. I said earlier that James was not especially concerned with theology—that morality and ethics were the subjects of his letter. But he hides some interesting thoughts in his letter—little theological nuggets that will be mined only by the careful reader.
At one point in today’s passage James laments that the same tongue that praises God curses those made in the likeness of God. James assumes the reader will recall the passage from Genesis in which God creates both male and female in the likeness of God. And when James writes that humankind can tame, quote, “every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature,” his words are drawn directly from the creation account in Genesis. James is anchoring his thoughts firmly on the theology of the Jewish tradition.
Okay, let’s string the facts together here and see what James is trying to tell us. God creates all things; we are created in the image of God; there is one thing we can do that no other species can do—we can speak. And according to Genesis, how does God create the universe? God says “Let there be light,” and there is light. God speaks the universe into being.
Could that be the reason we can be considered to be created in the image of God? Because we too can speak? Because we have the power of language? Because language is such a powerful force, with it we can shape the world around us with our words?
That is some serious theology! And the beautiful poetry of the Book of Genesis supports this theology. What does God do after creation is completed? After God finishes creating the universe, and after God creates humanity, what does God do? God, having given humans the power of language, allows them to name the animals. God gives human beings the power to sort of take over the process of creation.
And look at what we do with this power, this unique gift of language. As James notes, from the same mouth come blessings and curses; from the same opening pours forth good water and brackish water. And James cries out, “This ought not to be so!” James sees what we human beings do with our tongues and he believes it is a corruption of the creative will of God.
There is one place in the Book of James where he creates a metaphor that is truly worthy of Jesus himself. James asks us to envision a great ship. Imagine that ship sailing out on the ocean. It takes a mighty wind to even move the massive vessel, but the pilot can control the direction the ship goes. How? By using a tiny rudder. James points out that even with the most gigantic of ships, its direction is determined by one of its smallest parts—the rudder. James then compares the human body to that ship, and says the tongue is our rudder. It’s one of the smallest parts of our body, but it has an inordinate amount of influence over the direction our life takes.
Words—what powerful things! The great philosopher Martin Heidegger said language is the “house of being.” Other philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, have claimed that a universe without language is inconceivable. It is language that allows us to interpret the world. And if the world could not be interpreted, it would have no meaning.
And this is where theology comes in. We can create false worlds with our words. God’s truth itself can be distorted with our words. We have been given the amazing opportunity and the overwhelming responsibility of continuing God’s work in this world, and that work is done every bit as much with our tongues as it is with our hands. We are creating a world. We are shaping the world around us. And just as humanity was created in God’s image, we are creating the world in our image. And something’s gone wrong! Remember the desperate words of James when he sees blessing and curses coming from the same mouths: “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so!”
When James says that good water and brackish water cannot come from the same opening, and that a fig tree cannot bear olives, we are reminded of one of the more frightening passages of Jesus. In all three synoptic gospels, Jesus says a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes on to say, quote, “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you are justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Well, how many of us can put our little check mark beside that teaching? It really is easy to understand why the early church leaders created a church based on who Jesus was instead of what Jesus taught. It’s easy to understand why Reformers such as Martin Luther wanted to act as if the Book of James did not belong in the Bible. Like I said earlier, that sort of teaching is hard to take, even when it comes from Jesus. But when it comes from his brother, well, that guy can just keep his big mouth shut.
But regardless of one’s feelings about the eternal consequences of our words, one thing is undeniable. We define ourselves with our words. We really do. When we attack somebody with our words, by saying something unkind to them, we are defining ourselves, not others. If I hear a person say to somebody, “You are a worthless, low-life, good-for-nothing idiot,” I have not learned a thing about the person toward whom those words were directed. But I’ve learned a great deal about the one who said them.
We cannot define others with our words—we can only define ourselves. But that does not mean our words have no power. We probably all know people who have sharp tongues. They go through life sowing seeds of emotional poison in the minds and hearts of practically everybody they meet.
A few years ago I preached a series on Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements. In that book, Ruiz claims that the most important thing in life is to be impeccable with our word. We must realize that we not only define ourselves, we create the world around us with our words. Ruiz believes that we each create either heaven or hell around ourselves with our use of the word—with this amazing gift God has given to us. And the world is like it is because most of us spend too much time misusing the word. We curse, blame, destroy, find guilt; we express anger, jealousy, envy, and resentment. We create hatred between races, families, and nations, and the result is a world filled poison. All those negative seeds have grown into something ugly, something that casts a shadow over all of creation.
But by using the word in a good way, we can change our worlds. I say worlds—plural—because each of us has the power to change the world he or she lives in. In this life of ours—in the few years we are granted on this beautiful blue and green planet—heaven and hell are in exactly the same place. They are both right here, right now. And just as our tongues can poison the world, they can also transform the world. It’s all a matter of what world we choose to live in—what direction we choose to take. After all, thanks to the gift of speech, we are pretty much the captains of our own ships. And as James told us, the direction we take has everything to do with how we use our rudder. I