JAMES 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. 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. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

The science of cultural anthropology marks the arrival of our distinctive human consciousness with the emergence of language. As an evolutionary advance on the primitive signal systems of animal communication where the motivation is for behavioral responses of various sorts (e.g., territorial warnings, courtship rituals, dominance displays, social bonding), human language introduces a capacity for mentally representing the world in such a way that meaning becomes the overarching concern.

What is the meaning of property? What is the significance of love? Such questions reveal a mind that is no longer satisfied with mere animal preoccupations. For the first time consciousness becomes a creator, and constructing a world of meaning becomes its new and everlasting fascination.

Words, then, are not mere signals to elicit behavioral responses; they are building blocks in the cultural cosmos of human meaning. Not only that, words can also serve to break apart and bring to collapse the cultural assumptions and judgments that enforce a particular worldview over rival perspectives and belief systems. At the more personal level, we are each familiar with the power in words to build up or tear down the largely emotional architecture of human relations.

With a single word the confidence of a young toddler can be devastated for years. With mere words we can alternately inspire hope and break trust, praise and blame, forgive and condemn. And it’s all in the power of this little organ, the tongue, and how we control it.

Advertisements

PSALM 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
    Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
    do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you,
    Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

For the heavens to “tell” and the firmament to “proclaim” anything more than dumb material existence is an absurd notion to the modern mind. Receiving instruction, cooperatively or unconsciously, in the school of Western scientific materialism, our age has accepted a worldview that is essentially absent of spiritual or symbolic meaning. The universe – just is, that’s all. 

Modern religion may still hold a place for God as creator, sustainer, and final judge, but the heavens and the firmament for us are just so much limitless space and atmospheric gases. The day does not “pour forth speech” nor does the night “declare knowledge.” Space and time have become mere categories, containers for the amazing variety of still more meaningless stuff.

Now, that picture may sound bleak and grim, but the surprising thing to learn is that it isn’t peculiar to our own cultural period and worldview. “There is no speech, nor are there worlds; their voice is not heart” – such was the state of things in ancient Israel. It would seem that what we are complaining of here is a more universally human problem, and not just a modern one.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Western scientific materialism simply accepted the universe as consisting of dumb matter, never suspecting that the real problem was not in the world itself but in the spiritually deaf ear of the human observer. The psalmist asked God for an orientation course in spiritual attention and higher awareness – to open his ears.

PROVERBS 1:20-33

20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
    have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
30 would have none of my counsel,
    and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
    and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
    and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

The Wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, some of which is represented in the biblical writings of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Psalms, envisions the living form of the human being as maturing along a path toward fulfillment. Imagining a straight line, we might thus represent the ideal trajectory of a human life as progressing from genesis to fulfillment, moving through predictable passages and developmental stages along the way.

In real life, each human being makes choices that take him or her in a winding fashion, at times crossing over but then diverging from this evolutionary life-line. Those points in experience when our path intersects or briefly merges with this ideal line are called “opportunities.” Listening to the voice of Wisdom can increase the frequency of our opportunities and deepen our fulfillment in life.

The voice of Lady Wisdom in the mythology of the Bible is portrayed as calling to the human being so as to choose and live according to the path of greatest happiness. Even though we may think at times that our happiness will be best served by way of this or that pleasure, achievement, or fortune, the truth is that we are happiest when we are following the guiding line of our Human Ideal. Wandering off course brings natural consequences, not punishment.

MARK 7:24-37

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Both of the miracles reported in this passage were performed in a geographical region (from Tyre in the north and southward into the area of the ten federated cities of eastern Palestine, the Decapolis) populated primarily by non-Jews. In light of what we noted in D-257, in considering the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman as a possible breakthrough moment in his own mission strategy, it is interesting that the second miracle, healing a deaf-mute, was performed by him without the need to be persuaded.

If we accept the developmental theory of Jesus and his gospel, then these two miracles in the foreign territory of the gentiles were his first with a universalist intention behind them. He had come, he now understood, for the sake of all people. His philosophy of mission had penetrated below the ideological divisions of insiders (Jews, “the children”) and outsiders (gentiles, “the dogs”), to include all of humanity.

In line with what James cautioned concerning a faith that is inwardly removed from the sphere of practical challenges, social issues, and moral choices, we can see that the developmental crisis in Jesus’ life and ministry had to do with the fact that his deepest spiritual insights were as yet inner realizations and not ethically mature. In particular, his conviction about the universal love and unconditional forgiveness of God needed to break through certain traditional prejudices and personal habits of mind in order to find its fulfillment in action. Until he relented to the woman’s protest and then reached out to the deaf-mute’s human need, his faith, on that level at least, was, practically speaking, dead.

MARK 7:24-37

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Recent studies of the Gospel that approach both the narratives as well as the personal life and career of Jesus from an evolutionary perspective have compiled textual evidence suggesting that Jesus grew into his enlightened vision of the kingdom of God by steps, or developmental crises, along the way. A couple instances, for example, portray Jesus early in his ministry operating by the conviction that his “good news” was intended exclusively for the Jews, since he was himself a Jew and had caught hold (so he believed) of the key to its essential truth and future hope.

As in the case represented in this episode from Mark’s Gospel, this conviction was challenged externally by non-Jews who, perhaps better than he at the moment, had grasped the implications of his message and personally challenged his assumptions regarding its broader relevance. This gentile woman perceived in the gospel of Jesus not just a program for Jewish reformation, but a universal vision for the whole world.

Jesus’ distinction between “the children” (Jews) and “the dogs” (gentiles) was common in the ideology of his day, a prejudice in favor of those who saw themselves as the chosen people, God’s elect. The teachings and promises of Judaism, in this view, was not for everyone – only the children. When this Syrophoenician woman protested on behalf of “the dogs,” Jesus had to reconsider.

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Faith and works (or deeds) are the soul and body of the spiritual life. Just as the soul animates the body and the body incarnates the soul, so faith energizes our good works and good works actualize our faith. This dynamic relationship between faith and works was kept in focus so long as faith itself retained its critical position in Christian belief, as that which believes (in Latin, fides qua creditor: faith as basic trust and surrender to God) rather than that which is believed (fides quae creditor: faith as a point of church doctrine).

When the confusion set in, as it did already by the time James is writing, the avalanche towards a more dogmatic orthodoxy had begun – a deviant momentum from the original spirit of Jesus and his gospel that we have not yet been successful in correcting.

Typical characteristics of dogmatic religion are that it is excessively weighted on the side of doctrinal purity, is largely disengaged from the practical-ethical complexities of real life (evidence by general and absolute judgments on contemporary moral issues), and is aggressively exclusive in its ideology. Early Christianity was showing signs of degeneration in this direction, and despite the writer’s good efforts, the trend continued in the post-biblical period.

Of course, we are not suggesting that doctrinal clarity and a more or less systematic understanding of spiritual matters are unimportant. Faith as a simple and fundamental total trust in God needs the mind as much as the will for its full development. James’ point is not that faith  must become less intellectual, but that it needs to be more ethically relevant. In short, it needs to be morally productive. Faith that lacks a strong efferent nerve to the limbs and muscles of practical choices and actions is (as good as) dead.

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

There must have been some in the Jerusalem church who countered the protest against privileging the already-rich with the argument that, compared with other transgressions of the Law, this one was minor and barely qualified anyway. By ranking the trespasses thus, ordinary folk who thought of themselves as basically good people could build a top-heavy list of sins, tapering off on the descent to where their own meager vices were nearly neutralized by comparison. “So I curry the favor of the well-endowed,” we can hear someone saying, “but at least I’m not a murderer!”

But to assign greater value to the rich member over the visiting poor was tantamount to violating two of the most basic principles of biblical ethics: equality of all before God, and responsibility of one for another. So attributing superior worth to a wealthy benefactor over a poor vagrant is no mere slight in the eyes of God. In the ethics of the Bible, to honor the dignity of another human being, however low they may be on the social scale, is to give the greatest glory to God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had put this equation to work.

Something more: the author reminds us that even the smallest violation of the law is nevertheless a violation of the law, which puts us all on equal standing in another sense.

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

“Money talks,” the old adage goes. It doesn’t very often tell the truth, perhaps, but it holds a persuasive power that can be nearly impossible to resist. Just as today, the church in Jerusalem had tended to tilt in favor of the wealthy over the poor, giving them best seats in the house and more volume to their preferences and complaints. Even back then, ministry was supported through congregational stewardship, and the biggest givers frequently got the largest votes.

Thankfully, behind church politics and denominational greed there is the charter document of the Gospel, which tells the story of Jesus whose words on the accumulation of wealth and the societal division between the rich and the poor are anything but sympathetic to our temptations toward money. Jesus consistently came down on the side of the poor against those whose lifestyles, social prejudices, and religious self-justifications perpetrated abuse and neglect on the backs of the disadvantaged majority.

Since those with money often put forward the capital investment to fund the church’s mission to the poor and others in need, it is sometimes (mistakenly) believed that the investors are more important to her ministry than the beneficiaries. Which brings up another question: As church property and the technology of ministry become increasingly expensive and elaborate, what becomes of our responsibility for the humble poor?

PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

 PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Deep in the spirituality of the Bible is a moral insight, that one’s choices and way of life are productive in bringing forth a future harvest of consequences. It’s not simply the fact that every action produces a consequence of some sort, but that one’s quality of life tomorrow, along with one’s moral destiny in the longer term, are determined by the faith and responsibility by which one lives today.

The religion of the Bible is not alone in this belief. Indeed, all of the religions teach that personal destiny is in large part a function of moral character and whether one’s choices and commitments are inherently self-interested or rather performed with a higher good in mind.

The Bible went still further, however, in its unique and revolutionary concern for “the poor of the land.” Beyond just being a “good person,” it was imperative that a believer in God actually share in the divine compassion for those who suffer and who are outside the social circles of power and privilege. With a beginning recognition of equality before God between the rich and the poor, the bible’s compassion-driven morality went on to predict that neglect of the poor would result in one’s own calamity.

This wasn’t a you’d-better-or-else motivational stick, but instead reflected a deep understanding of the plain fact – and you really have to work hard not to see it – that we are all, the rich and the poor, connected in an interdependent web of relationships. In other words, we’re all in this together and it does no good to drill a hole in your neighbor’s side of the boat!