Hearing is one of those central and recurring themes in the Bible. Jewish tradition still marks this theme’s centrality. In the round of daily prayers in the morning and evening, the ancient practice of reciting a bit of text drawn from the sixth chapter of the book Deuteronomy (6:4-5) continues across centuries and continents. We know it as the Shema. Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohainu, Adonai echod, “Hear,” or, “Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Our own Episcopal strain of Anglicanism in the United States acknowledges this tradition (if you know where to look). When I was a chorister at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the Sunday Eucharist would always include the singing of number 818 in Wonder, Love, and Praise before the Liturgy of the Word.
The centrality of this theme of hearing or listening to the people of God is at the forefront of my imagination as I hear this scene from the Gospel According to Mark. The psalm we just prayed front-loads our imagination with this theme. There are references to hearing all over the place. (Hear, O my people… O Israel, if you would but listen to me… and yet my people did not hear my voice… O, that my people would listen to me.)
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.
There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, 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 comprehend 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. Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?