In our lections the past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. This Letter, I think, presents one of the most important themes that we of modern times need to consider closely: that of integrity of speech. At the outset, it reads like a collection of lessons straight out of a book of social etiquette. James’ words recall in my memory my mother’s admonishment: “Jimmy, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect most of us would consider this maxim to be good and sound. But, I also think to the days of my childhood when someone would speak to another person ungraciously, perhaps calling them a name. You may know the famous playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unlike my mother’s advice, this saying I find questionable at best.
What is striking to me about James’ wise council, is that it goes deeper than just manners and childhood retorts. Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, James’ Letter draws a correlation between word and action. And, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to identify yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
Is there anyone here this morning who does not want to be wise?
It seems a silly question; who wouldn’t want to be wise? And yet, the picture we have before us from the book of Proverbs suggests there are those who spurn wisdom and stubbornly choose to remain in their foolishness.
The opening chapter of Proverbs imagines Wisdom as a woman calling out in public places – in the streets, on busy corners, at the entrance to the city (v.20,21) – making herself accessible to all. She longs to be listened to, to be heeded, but her counsel is ignored. She calls to the “simple” who don’t know any better, to the “scoffers” who delight in cynicism, and to the “fools” who despise knowledge; but they do not listen (v.22). If only they would change their ways, she would make God’s ways known to them (v.23). But they are unwilling to heed her rebukes or accept her counsel (v.24,25). Instead, they laugh at her.
Listen again to the words of our epistle lesson from The Letter of James as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message: