First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 16

William Loader

Pentecost 16: 16 September James 3:1-12

The wisdom of James continues: advice and exhortation for good living. Many of the images are standard in such advice, as are the themes. The opening comment about teachers could put everything which follows into perspective. Is it all about false teachers? Does the threat of greater judgement against them lie in the background of all the comments about bridling the tongue? That is certainly possible, although the comments also have much broader application.

So watching your tongue is like bridling a horse or controlling the rudder of a boat. The ancient world was very aware of the need for such control. Writers spoke more often of the mind or reason being like a rudder for the whole person or like a pilot. Our author clearly means more than the physical tongue. He is speaking about words, and word or communication generally. The word, logos, which appears in 3:2, means word, speech and reason. James is therefore very close to other teachers of his time.

The issue is not about making errors in the way we put words together, stumbling over our sentences, but about how and what we communicate. We might think of using speech to attack and abuse, to gossip and malign. Perhaps that is in view with the image of fire. It is probably wider than that. It seems to be, on the one hand, what and how we communicate and the base from which it comes. Other writers would focus more on the heart or mind as the source of communication. Our author focuses on the act, but the effect is similar. It is all about how we relate to people and this is all about our attitude towards others. Matthew 6:22-23 speaks of the eye in a similar way, emphasising the way it affects the whole being.

We are in the realm of a kind of people's psychology. Get your attitude towards others right and you will get everything right. You will control your direction - whether you think of a horse or a ship. It is a spirituality which focuses on the importance of getting some basic things right without which there will be dissonance and lack of integration. Taming our untrainable tongue is about much more than learning to be tactful or to hold back expressing what we really think. It is an aspect of who and what we really are. We are what we communicate. We exist in relationship to others and to our world. What is our mode of being?

The real intention becomes clear as we read on into the final verses. Do we bless God and curse people? The problem with cursing people is not so much that they are made in the image of God - as if only the God aspect matters - but that to curse people runs contrary to what our author believes is the attitude of God and the good news of Jesus.

Like many in his day the author is quite pessimistic about the chances of people being healthy communicators and he is realistic enough at the beginning to say that we all make mistakes. This is another way of saying that we are in process. At the end he talks about the water that comes from a spring and fruit that comes from a tree. This is like the teaching of Jesus about good trees producing good fruit. It is also fundamental for approaching behaviour. Behaviour results from a state of being and from the attitude which that generates. In Mark 7:21-23 Jesus speaks of the heart (=mind) as the source of attitudes and behaviours which are destructive. This was common wisdom of the time.

Their wisdom is as relevant today as it was then. It is salutary to be reminded that communication does things to people, the givers and the receivers. Wisdom is about getting things together, seeing how they connect, and becoming more of a whole person.

Gospel: Pentecost 16: 16 September Mark 8:27-38

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