Season After Pentecost (Proper 19[24]) – The Epistle Passage: The Tongue of Wisdom

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)

When I at first set up this post and read the first verse, I was not sure if I should be offended or not, on behalf of teachers of the gospel of every type both then and now. And when I sat down to actually write my comments and reflections, I decided that I was a little bit offended – on my own behalf and the behalf of others. Being “judged with greater strictness” has never deterred me from teaching and counseling with others. I know I have opened myself to greater strictness.

If that was not made apparent to me when I first started seminary, it was made clear when I first signed up for spiritual guidance class. I had gone to one of the church leaders at the church I was attending at the time, and told her that I was enrolling in the class. And that I would be letting fellow church attenders know I was looking for spiritual directees to work and counsel with. After asking me how things were in my life, she told me she could not endorse me for being a spiritual director in her congregation. I did not realize at the time her “innocent” asking of how I was doing was actually assessing where she thought I was in my life.

So I told my seminary professor and my fellow classmates at the time that without the endorsement and without what I called “clearness” (using a Quaker terminology meaning that the church body felt that the course of action proposed by one of them had merit and appropriateness) I could not continue in the class nor train at that time to be a spiritual director. To say I felt a profound sadness would be an understatement. The seminary profession commended me for my integrity. The next year, having decided the church I was attending at the time was not meeting my needs, I had started going to a different church. And after a year’s time I felt much more sure of myself, and I was endorsed and welcomed to offer my services there as a spiritual director. Ever since that time I have been well aware that those who teach/preach/speak are especially scrutinized.

“For 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.” (Verse 2)

However, as the writer of the epistle of James says, no one is perfect. Being perfect in speaking (or at least as perfect as humanly possible) means that one has control over one’s body, thoughts, and actions. Or at least according to the writer of the epistle of James. He goes on to make some interesting analogies.

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. 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.” (Verses 3 – 8)

I would take this to mean that if the tongue is NOT an unruly beast, it means the soul and spirit are under control. And I think that is what the writer of James means also. But I would give that a qualified assessment. It may mean only that someone has learned to tame their tongue but my still have a soul and spirit more likened to the fires of hell. The trait of duplicity may not be one that the writer of the James epistle is aware of. Still, he does make a strong argument for the ability to judge actions of the tongue.

“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 a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” (Verses 9 – 12)

A surprising thing happened just a few days after I had to drop the spiritual guidance class. A fellow seminary student came to me and asked me if I would be willing to be a her spiritual counselor. I told her in all honesty that I was not taking a class on spiritual counseling and so could not offer her the assurance that I would be accountable to anyone if I counseled with her. That is one of the expectations of being a counselor – you have someone mentoring you as well. But she said that would not deter her, and she wanted to met with me on a regular basis. So we did. It was interesting the way that worked out. One the one hand I received a “no” from someone in being “clear” to do counseling. One the other hand I received a strong affirmation to be a counselor. Her willingness to trust me caused me to be especially careful and conscientious in working with her. I think my counsel was all the better for me being careful in each of our meetings. I probably judged myself with greater strictness than any supervisor would have. And when I did take the class the following year, I was a better counselor for the purposes of the class than I would have been others.

The writer of the epistle of James is correct – we are judged with greater strictness. Often it is we who judge ourselves so closely. And if we are guided by the Spirit, we will do just fine! Selah!