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A Disciplined Faith
Winter Quarter: Faith in Action
Unit 3: Self-Controlled, Upright and Godly Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 11, 2018
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: James 3: 1-12
In the title of the unit and in this lesson, an issue of long-standing debate is raised. The issue is expressed in many ways: Nature/Nurture; Environment/Heredity; and in these days of the 21st Century, Chemistry/Character. In other words, what responsibility do we have for what we say or do? Can you say with Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, “The devil made me do it!” Or can there be a self-controlled and disciplined faith as stated in the lesson material?
James raises three important matters in these 12 verses. The first is the awesome responsibility of being a teacher of the faith. He cautions his readers that very few should consider assuming this role. We have been teachers across the 42 years of active pastoring and now for almost 18 years in retirement. For us, the sharing, learning, and writing about God’s love and purpose have been a great joy and time of constant personal growth. However, we know we have been accountable, not only to those with whom we work, but to God. There can be no greater joy—or responsibility!
This pattern is affirmed in our scripture, when James recognizes the reality that all make mistakes. He also sets the goal of reaching a maturity of faith. In some translations the word is “perfect.” (vs.2) By the way, this is what John Wesley meant by perfection—maturity.
The second area of concern in this passage is the power of words. After last week’s lesson focusing on the interaction of faith and works, this emphasis may seem to be odd or out of sync with James’ earlier emphasis. Not so! Speech is action, and James uses many metaphors to make his point.
Maybe a brief explanation of a metaphor may be in order. A metaphor is a figure of speech using an unrelated but familiar idea to help explain a quality of the original.
His first metaphor is a bridled horse. We have a grandchild who is an accomplished equestrian. She competes in dressage, and watching her with Elijah is something beautiful. She does it all with the reins in her hand and the pressure of her legs. It begins with placing the bit and bridle in the horse’s mouth. Elijah is a BIG horse, but she controls him completely.
James changes the metaphor to a sailing ship and the power of the rudder to control. For years we sailed. Our little sailboat was totally dependent on the wind and the use of the rudder to navigate from point to point. The sails were large, but the rudder was small in comparison.
From these two positive metaphors, James shifts to a very destructive and negative one—a forest fire. In recent days, there have been such fires in California, where many homes and an entire town were destroyed. Such is the power of words.
The Book of Proverbs, one the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament, has many passages dealing with a similar theme. Likewise, Matthew quotes Jesus saying in 15:11: “It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.” Perhaps he was also thinking of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about the connection of anger to killing and how words are used. (Matt.5:22)
The uncontrolled tongue brings chaos, disorder, pain, and destruction. This is true for the speaker as well as the person against whom it is used. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords.” (Proverbs 12:18) How often do we hear people say unwise and hurting words in today’s antagonistic, polarized, and confrontational world? Truth doesn’t seem to matter as much as getting even or making a point, regardless of consequences.
When James compares the corrupt and uncontrolled tongue to fire, he refers to hell—gehenna in the Greek which derives from the Hebrew hinnom. There is a valley south of Jerusalem, outside the walls of the old city, named The Valley of Hinnom. At the time this letter was written, it was the place where garbage was burned. Earlier it was the site of child sacrifice. (See II Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 32:35) Gehenna, the place of constant burning, became the metaphor for the eternal fire of the last judgment. The person who ignores the need to control their speech is risking eternity. Wow!
James uses another metaphor of how all manner of creatures have been tamed, but not the “tongue”—speech! In referring to the deadly poison, he conjures a picture of a deadly snake or spider that can strike and kill. Several biblical passages use similar language. Look at Psalm 140: 3: “They sharpen their tongues like a snake; spider poison is on their lips.” Similarly Paul declares in Romans 3:13: “Their throat is a grave that has been opened. They are deceitful with their tongues, and the poison of vipers is under their lips.” And Jesus Himself labeled the Pharisees as “a brood of vipers.”
For us the most damning of what James says is in verse 9, where the hypocrisy of his readers is made visible when he observes that we worship, praise God, and curse people at the same time. When we do so, we are in reality cursing God! He reminds us that human beings are created in the image of God. Adamantly, but lovingly, he says, “Brothers and sisters, it should not be this way.” Back to the relationship of faith and works: We must practice what we preach!
With his multiplicity of word pictures, James re-enforces his argument with the closing images of fruit—figs, olives, and grapes—producing their own kind. In addition, he makes the observation that fresh and salt water do not have the same source. For us, the meaning is clear: what we say, and how we say it, shows our true nature.
The Church of Jesus Christ stands as a witness to the world. Constantly, we must be certain our shining light gives glory to God. Let that witness begin with what we say—AND DON’T SAY!
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.