Scripture: James 3:1-12
Preachers are a strange breed of people.
Here is a passage of scripture that is packed to the gills with metaphors and analogies:
bits and ships
winds and rudders
sparks and fires
wild beasts and domestication
all kinds of trees
and even salt and freshwater springs.
Yet there is something in the preacher that cannot help but try to come up with a new–and even better–analogy than the biblical writer. Even though I’ve encountered countless insufficient attempts at “reinventing” these metaphors, I’ve yet to hear any that could count as an improvement. And that’s probably because these metaphors still work in the world we live in.
We still use bits to control horses.
Ships still use rudders.
Sparks still cause fire.
There continue to be domesticated animals of all sorts.
Trees keep reproducing “according to their kind” as Genesis described.
And we haven’t become any more adept at drinking salt water.
It all still works. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to attempting brainstorming some “improvements” myself.
There’s also something different about the way we preachers think about things. It may be our training, it may be our observations, it may be the painful stories of others we have heard. But whatever the reason, there are times something that appears mundane takes on extraordinary significance to a preacher. And this text has one of these challenges for me, too.
It’s found in what looks like a passing–and plain–phrase in v.10: the verse that really represents the heart of the whole reading. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads:
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:30 NRSV)
It’s that “ought”–or in the NIV, “should”–that raises my pastoral hackles a bit. Let me try to explain why.
The Weapon of Fear
There are a number of weapons that the Enemy uses against us with great efficiency. The greatest of these, I believe is fear. There are countless stories in both Old and New Testaments wherein someone reacts with fear, instead of love or trust in God, and clearly deviates from the path of God-likeness. Elsewhere in the New Testament, 1John argues that fear and love are opposites. Looking at the world around us, and reflecting on our human history in both the recent and more distant past, it’s not too hard to find our own illustrations of human actions driven by fear, and the disastrous consequences for humanity (and too-often, for the reputation of Christ and God’s Kingdom).
The Weapon of the Illusion of Self-Sufficiency
Another weapon I see deployed with startling efficiency might be confused with pride, but it’s the actually the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is the deception that we are enough in and of ourselves. While other factors certainly came into it, this is the core of the deception of the first humans in Eden: they don’t need God to determine right from wrong; they can do it themselves.
Again, the scriptures are littered with stories of our defeat by this weapon. Perhaps most obviously, this weapon was used in bringing about the defeat of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and again that of the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 140 years later. Instead of trusting in God for safety and prosperity, they trusted in their ability to navigate foreign alliances. They thought they could do a better job themselves, but it proved to be precisely their dalliances with these other nations that brought about their defeat.
And once again, we don’t have to think too hard to be convicted about our own illusions of self-sufficiency, even as we contradictorily profess reliance on Jesus as Lord. There’s something in the very fabric of our makeup as “Americans” that imbues us with a high valuation for this deception–we want the deception to be true; we want to be self-sufficient, and we look down on those who are not.
“Deceived, we are,” Yoda might say.
The Weapon of Guilt
But a third powerful weapon (that I believe is) used by the powers of darkness against humanity with savage effectiveness is guilt.
This may surprise you, I realize. Guilt has, after all, been part of the stock-and-trade of preachers for at least 250 years. Guilt has driven alter calls for generations. It has undergirded evangelistic endeavors. It has been used to manipulate behaviors to conform to specific religious and moral norms.
And all that shows you just how potent this weapon really is, and that even those regarded as most faithful are not immune from its deception.
Guilt paralyzes us. It does not draw us into a better version of ourself. It does not drive us toward love, but it evokes embarrassment. And that leads us to withdraw from others, to hide our brokenness, and to fall into deeper and deeper isolation. In other words, guilt makes us weaker by moving us away from God.
Back to “Ought”
Which is why I cringe when I hear people say what someone “ought” to do or “should” do. “Ought” and “should”–at least in the way we communicate here and now–is the language of guilt.
Pastor Michael, you ought to preach more interesting sermons.
Pastor Michael, you really should dress nicer.
Pastor Michael, you ought to spend more time doing what I think is important.
There is (I hope you realize) a way of communicating all this constructively and without using words that induce guilt or shame. But when “ought” and “should” really gain destructive power is when we apply them to the past.
I really ought to have used a different illustration. Why didn’t I think of that?
So-and-so really should have learned by now… why do they keep hooking up with such losers?
Did you hear about such-and-such? They really ought to have expected this would happen!
Perhaps by now you can better see the connection to our scripture lesson.
Despite this lengthy digression (as it might seem), I do not think James is trying to evoke guilt. I think he is instead creatively and passionately trying to illustrate a contradiction between who the community of Christ is called to be, and what they are in fact doing.
The gossiping church member has apparently been a cliche since the very beginning.
I enjoy watching BBC murder mysteries, and it seems every episode there’s a scene where someone–usually some little old lady–exits a church building and is gossiping about someone before she even gets out of earshot of the pastor. In those mysteries, such things are sometimes redeemed, as the gossip contains hints that lead to catching the killer. In real life, however, I have yet to discover such positive outcomes of this guilt- and shame-ridden enterprise.
In Matthew 5, as Jesus is teaching his followers how to read and interpret their scriptures, he warns of the danger of words. They think that because they never laid a hand on another person that they’ve kept the command “do not murder.” But Jesus (Matt 5:22) is clear that they have murdered people with their words; to call names is to destroy something of the humanity in each other.
This isn’t any different than what James is arguing here, especially when he calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). He is not, of course, condemning the physical organ of the body, but rather the ways it is used. If we are (James 3:9-10) going to bless God as we sing and proclaim his praises, how then (James asks us) do we speak harshly and destructively about (and to) people who bear God’s image?
I grew up watching a lot of 1980’s sitcoms, especially of the “PI” variety. I remember a number of times when someone would start to use foul language and another character would counter “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
That’s the sentiment James is bringing out in v.10 of this reading. Hearing the destructive ways they are speaking to and about each other, James asks, “You bless your God with that mouth?…… You speak of Jesus with that mouth?”
That’s not the way it is supposed to be, he says.
James doesn’t want to guilt them into inaction–or into hiding or being more sneaky about their sin. James wants them to see the inconsistency between who they say they are and how they are living, and he wants that awareness to drive them toward Christ-likeness–a change that will lead them to value others more than they do currently.
You see, the image of repentance in the bible–through all the stories of failing, and there are many—repentance is never about driving people to experience guilt. It is always about people learning of an inconsistency between what is and what can be.
brokenness vs. wholeness
doing harm vs. bringing help
hypocrisy vs. consistency
isolating vs. bringing into community
The work that Jesus tasks us with is not to invoke guilt in others. It is not to get others to repent of their evil ways. It is not to be the morality police of the world. As “ambassadors for Christ,” the work we are called to is instead the work of reconciliation. And it’s important to note what Paul says that ministry looks like. In 2Corinthians 5, Paul says this:
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (2Corinthians 5:18–20 NRSV)
Note the way Paul describes Jesus’s own reconciling work. He points out that it is both the same kind of work that God accomplishes through Jesus, and that this reconciling work involves “not counting their trespasses against them.” If we are doing the reconciling work of Christ too, then that will describe what we Christians are about as well.
But does it? Or do our tongues get in the way of genuinely Christ-like ministry? Christ calls us to something more. That was James’s challenge 2000 years ago, and it is just as much a challenge today.