Texts: Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12
The figure of Wisdom—personified as an elusive and demanding female in Hebrew tradition—has captured the attention and imagination of many a young Jewish boy. And that’s what she was intended to do: get those young boys who would rather be playing with their friends to be so intrigued by this woman called Wisdom that they would pay attention to the wisdom traditions she represented, would learn well the lessons their elders wanted to teach them. I’m sure the many teachers in our congregation – who I’m sure should all be teachers – can testify to the need and challenge of making the duller subjects more exciting. Wisdom is the ancient Israelite attempt at just that – she’s here to liven up a tradition of wise sayings and ethical teachings which otherwise might bore. She is here to make your head turn, eyes pop, and ears burn. And boy, does she.
At the entrance of the city gates—a place synonymous with judgment in Hebrew tradition—Wisdom leaves no doubt in her listeners: she is important. Pay attention to her, learn the lessons she has to teach, because if you do not, disaster awaits you. What’s more: Wisdom will pour out her thoughts to you, surrounding you with them like a peaceful river. But if you don’t dive in, she won’t be there to support you when the storm strikes. She will extend her hand but if you don’t take it – you’re on your own. As long as you treat her well, she’ll be there for you. Ignore her and it’s over.
We Christians have been taught—rightfully so—that no matter how much we mess up, no matter how low we fall, no matter how far we stray, that God will seek us out. Jesus himself tells parable after parable that confirm this image of God. The biblical image of Wisdom laughing at us, mocking us – is hard to swallow. For Wisdom of Proverbs fame isn’t representing popular sayings or ethics – she is not the World’s Wisdom, one we could perhaps ignore; she is God’s Wisdom. God who is steadfast, God who is constant, God who has unconditional love, created Wisdom whose affection appears very conditional.
Later in Proverbs Wisdom tells of her origins, saying she was God’s first creation and as such, she was there at the beginning and participated in the formation of the foundations of the earth—was God’s help-mate and daily delight. Wisdom—God’s Wisdom—is such a pervasive and prominent figure that it is understandable that many people see Jesus as not only the Word Incarnate but Wisdom Incarnate – the fulfillment of all ethical teachings that came before him. No wonder that the early Christian community put their own spin on the tradition she represents.
The selection of James, with its exhortation on the tongue and sinful speech, echoes the ethics of a community with such proverbs as “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (I’d like to see that in a fortune cookie.) Rather than taking a broad approach to issues of justice, faith, or morality, James is getting very particular and very earthy. Spiritual issues of old and new covenants, the resurrection and the afterlife, take the back burner while we hear about how our tongue is the only beast which cannot be tamed. In this text we are not called to think about the greatness of God, rather the power of a small part of our own body.
And our tongue – with the words we choose to say and—I would add—those we choose not to – is quite powerful. Words can crush, they can delight, they can shock or comfort. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words have pretty high price tag themselves. That John or I stand up here every week and use words to convey God’s message for us today is just one example of how highly we hold words. We hear sound-bit after sound-bit in political elections because words shape opinions. We have cases taken to the higher courts because words like “one nation under God” can both alienate and inspire. We live in a highly verbal society where words truly matter.
Not only are words powerful, but the tongue on which they rest truly is an untamable beast. I know I am not the only one who can recall moments where the tongue spoke words that surprised the speaker. Where something came out and – oh, if you could spin back time and keep those words from slipping out, you’d give just about anything. Where that good ole lower appendage called the foot finds a home in your mouth. Even for the most careful of speakers, the tongue can escape control. Truly all of us do make mistakes – some more perhaps than others – but none are perfect in speech.
This our reality and this is the reality James is writing about with such conviction. This wisdom teaching – much like Wisdom herself – does not mince, well, words. World of iniquity, restless evil, deadly poison. (Come on James, have an opinion already.) These powerful phrases may seem just as harsh as Wisdom’s speech. Both do not baby the listeners and both take a stand and let you know what it is. But both are so assertive in what they have to say for a reason.
Wisdom and wisdom teachings like the one we find in James must come on strong because they guide our relationships here, guide our life together. Though Wisdom is from God, wisdom teachings are not about God directly. They are about how to live and exist in God’s world, among God’s people. And while God may be endlessly forgiving, while God may seek you out no matter how many times you turn away, God’s people are not always so understanding. We MUST listen to Wisdom when she speaks, take her hand when she reaches out, because if we do not and we find ourselves in the panic she warns against, turning then to her teachings will not help us in that moment. We may avoid future storms, but we will still have to weather the one we are in.
When our tongue goes wild and speaks words that cut someone down, even if we then turn to this teaching of James, remember how wicked the tongue can be, we can never take back what we have said. That calamity will still be upon us. Even though God may forgive us, the one or ones we have hurt are not always so grace-filled.
Wisdom and wisdom’s teachings must be so strongly phrased because we need to learn our lessons well – hopefully not the hard way. And when I say “we” I don’t mean the human family necessarily (though that would be nice) – I mean the Christian family. God has this funny tendency of gifting people with purpose. Abraham and Sarah’s family was made God’s chosen people – but not so their lives would be easy, far from it. They were gifted with as many descendants as the stars and a special relationship with God in order that they would be a light to the nations.
As the body of Christ, we have been given gifts – gifts like faith, laughter, vision, kindness, love – in order that we might continue Christ’s work here on earth. Wisdom is such a purposeful gift as these. God has given us many lessons to learn, passed down teaching after teaching, not just for our betterment, so that our relationships with our friends and our family run smoother. No, Wisdom is meant for greater things. We have been given Wisdom and wisdom teachings in order that we might live well with one another, show Christ’s love not just through our pious thought, but through our daily lives, through ALL of who we are.
James said that those who teach will be judged with greater strictness. The same is true for those who proclaim their faith. As Christians, we are Christ’s representatives here on earth and people know that. People both inside and outside the faith look at how we live and – right or no – judge our faith and THE Faith by those lives. By living well, living faithful, living in wisdom, we represent our faith well to the world. When there is disconnect between the faith we claim and the lives we live, we do a disservice to the one we worship.
I believe this is part of the lesson James would have us learn about the tongue. If with the same mouth we both bless and curse – bless God and curse those made in God’s image – we are not serving the God we bless well. It’s a sad thing, but I have heard many a non-church-going folk – here in Staunton and elsewhere too – say that they are skeptical about church – about organized religion in general – because of the people who make up that church. It’s not that they are just so consumed with passion for justice or morality issues non-church people don’t get them. It’s not that people who don’t go to church can’t understand dedicating one’s life to a higher power. No, it breaks my heart, but many people I have spoken with have experienced what James is speaking of, have experienced people of faith with tongues that bring a hellish fire, who bless and then curse with the same mouth. That—that is what they say makes them wary of God’s community, of becoming a part of that community.
It’s so tragic because as Wisdom has told us – once we have ignored the teachings, once we have cursed those made in the image of God – all our good speech, well-tamed tongues, may fall on deaf ears. Once a person sees incongruence between our praise and our praxis, it may be quite the challenge to overcome that impression. We may not ever be able to fully tame our tongue, but with God’s help we can surely find better uses for it than cursing.
We have been given this beast which cannot be tamed because just as it can be a fire of hell, it can be a fire that blazes across this land, burning to the ground systems of oppression and injustice. Where would movements like the civil rights movement be without speeches like “I Have A Dream” engulfing the nation? The tongue can also spark fires of faith within us, use words to create a great light which reflects the light of Christ to the world. But if this tongue is busy cursing others, if we use this powerful fire for our own purposes and NOT God’s, then we have not learned our lessons, we have not give heed to Wisdom. We have not lived as God’s people ought and not proclaimed God’s glory well.
Oscar Romero, a man who lived his faith so thoroughly he was martyred for the righteous fires he set with his tongue, continually spoke of the power of words used well. “God’s best microphone is Christ,” he said, “and Christ’s best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you.” As the church, we are truly are Christ’s voice as well as body. God has given us a wild tongue but also given us the wisdom to appreciate the power of the tongue. If we learn well the lessons God has to teach us, we will radiate the love of God in ways that will make people take notice – good notice. If we give heed to Wisdom, listen to her voice, we will know how best to use ours.
At the entrance of the city gates, Wisdom speaks. Will you listen?