Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Today James talks about teachers of the faith and the power of words. Although he concentrates of the metaphor of the tongue, it is clear that the words we choose have great power to heal or hurt. There are very few things as wonderful or as terrible a great orator: A man or woman with convincing words can lead enthusiastic followers to goodness or evil. The Jews have called it “the gift of gab” and the Irish call it “the gift of Blarney,” but in America we usually call it “salesmanship.”
James first deals with the needs of congregations and speaks to the need for teachers. The teachers of the Gospel need to be judged by the congregation to see if they teach correctly. He warns potential teachers that they will be judged more strictly for what they say.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
In these first verses, James seems to contradict himself, speaking both of perfection and the fact that “we all stumble (fail) in many ways.” The task of the teacher of the Gospel is to attempt perfection while being aware of their own sinfulness. Because of this contradiction that we all face, sincerity always needs to be linked to humility.
There have been many teachers and pastors I have had through the years who seemed to be virtuous and as good as I could imagine people to be, but all of them would speak of their own sinfulness and the need to remember only God is perfectly good. It has been said that you should never meet your heroes, because they will let you down, but I have been impressed by their humility.
If you look at the Old Testament, you will find that God called very faulted and sinful people to share and spread his word. Righteous people are rare even in scripture. Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, are all heavily faulted people who need to be forgiven much. The more righteous people would include Sarah, Elijah, Ruth, and Jonathan.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph set forward as almost perfect people, but all the followers of Jesus have their faults. Paul started out as a persecutor of the church, Peter was an impulsive mess, James started out by thinking that Jesus was crazy, and even Mary Magdalene followed Jesus after being possessed. Most of our biblical role models were quite aware of their failings, but each embraced humility because of it.
James continues with the human tongue as an image of convincing speech:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
So James is warning us to beware of the power of human speech. The power is there for good or evil. In American sports, there is an almost mythic attitude that we hold toward pep talks before games and at half-time. We expect a good coach to be able to inspire and motivate a team to greatness through the power of words. As we approach the coming election there will be mighty attempts at inspiring some voters and disheartening others.
The human tongue, human speech, can lift you up or tear you down. A few well-chosen words can inspire while a few other words can break you down into apathy or break your heart.
James goes one with these thoughts of how we should only use language to build people’s spirits and not to injure or destroy…
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
So we are called to use our power of words for good; for blessing and not for cursing.
The ability to share the Gospel in words and deeds is every believer’s right and duty. But teachers are held to a higher standard. We aim at a perfection that we know we can’t reach. As James says, “we all stumble in many ways.” We are all sinners in need of redemption. As Paul says in the seventh chapter of Romans, we are incapable of freeing ourselves from our own sinfulness. Also, every teacher makes mistakes.
Personally, as I try to live with my failings, sinfulness and my duties a teacher of the Gospel, I follow the advice of erring on the side of love. A few different pastors have said this to me over the years (in various ways), “If you make mistakes it would be better to be judged as too loving than too legalistic.”
For all of us, we are reminded by James and Jesus that the merciful receive mercy. So, if you ever take on the task of leading a Bible study or teaching Sunday School or a confirmation class, be merciful and ask God for mercy as you lead.
To close, I want share a prayer written in the form of a poem by one of my Christian heroes, C.S.Lewis. It is for teachers of the Gospel who need God’s grace and mercy because of their failures and the arrogance that comes with success. The prayer is written as an old fashioned poem. It might be easier to read if you think of it like the words of an old hymn. It is a prayer for humility and mercy:
“From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.”