Verse 8 of the letter of James is rendered into these words in David Bentley Hart’s translation:
‘But from among human beings there is no one able to tame the tongue: a restless evil full of venom.’
Twitter at its worst, the excesses of the tabloid press, fake news, the sort of toxic gossip that can destroy families and friendships: all examples of the truth of that statement.
Those words about the danger of words can’t help but bring to mind for me a particular incident from my teenage years. My mother returned home from a church Bible study one evening in a very perplexed mood, because the person leading it had abandoned the book of the Bible they were meant to be studying and made everyone look at this bit of James instead, so he could talk about the evils of gossip. Only later did I discover that one of his primary targets was me. He believed, entirely wrongly, that I had been the original source of the rumours then flying about. And from then onwards he cut my family dead.
That story is not a happy one but it does exemplify what a practical book the letter of James is, even if so wrongly applied. James is one of the New Testament books that can be very easily read today for its wisdom and insights about the joys and challenges of life, without confronting the reader with a forest of baffling questions that might send them rushing to the experts for help – which isn’t to say that it is delightfully simple, and that the other books are unnecessarily complicated, and that therefore it should be viewed more favourably. It is just different.
There are those who take it as saying that acting charitably is the core of religion and dangerously conclude that being a Christian is just a way to be a good person. Martin Luther, on the other hand, branded James, notoriously, as the ‘letter of straw’ and didn’t think it should ever have made its way into the New Testament, because it appeared to contradict his conviction that the heart of everything was the faithful response to God’s salvation through Christ. For Luther, the letter of James puts too much emphasis on what you do and not enough on what you believe.
Both of these responses fail to do it justice.
The letter of James seems originally to have been written for a church community which didn’t have the kind of mixed membership that many of the recipients of St Paul’s letters had, with people from Jewish, Greek and Roman backgrounds, etc., all struggling with issues of identity. Rather, it seems to have been aimed at a more settled community, a bit more at peace with itself and feeling less at odds with the outside world. And the writer seems to have known his people well, whereas St Paul was often responding, from a great distance, to groups with an agenda. Letters came to Paul which were of the he-said, she-said, he-did, she-did variety, which he then replied to.
The letter of James can seem merely pragmatic, but I would say it is visionary. It does not present a logical argument, constructed from premises to consequences, but seeks to share, using powerful imagery, wisdom about corporate and individual Christian living. And it teems with punchy challenges to lazy assumptions and has insights which are psychologically astute enough to show that we should be cautious about disrespecting old ideas. Just one example from chapter 1, which illustrates both of these points:
‘No one when tempted, should say, I am being tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desires.’
And looking more closely at the short passage set for today: James plunges us immediately into familiar dilemmas surrounding leadership and the need for humility.
‘Not many of you should become teachers… for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make mistakes.’
It is at this point in the letter that the severe warnings about the danger of words take off. All of us with any kind of authority know that what we say can uplift, encourage, harm or deceive! This attention given to the tongue was not unique in the ancient world, but the letter writer uses that piece of cultural wisdom afresh in the context of the church.
‘With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God.’
To me, that is one of those explosive phrases that, as in art influenced by Zen, a few simple strokes paint a sophisticated and illuminating picture. Whenever we attend church or pray in private, we bless God and yet we never cease to have to struggle with our blanket condemnation of other individuals, groups, or peoples. Our patience is tested and we value our time as precious. We want to shut strangers and their needs away.
As I keep on saying, the continuities between the concerns of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching of the New Testament inspired by Jesus, and our own urgent questions, are profound. It is in Isaiah chapter 58 that the prophet insists that feeding the hungry and not hiding from your own relatives are where real piety are manifested. And in James, and in the entire New Testament, the best in people – us and others – is there because God has made us all in his image.
I will finish with another beautiful passage from chapter 1 that helps to put our struggles in context.
‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change.’