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.
Psalm 136:1-3, 10-15
If asked the question, “How would you describe God’s character?” how would you respond? Of course, none of us can really answer that question in its fullness. Even with a careful apophasis—that is, an approach to speaking of God in terms of what God is not—we nonetheless remain confronted with the reality that our language about God can only ever attempt to point toward God’s character. It would be a bit like asking the character in a novel to describe the author of that novel. Anything the character might say is limited to the very materials the author has disposed for that character—none of which is actually the author.
Yet today’s readings remind us that there is indeed one way of describing God that very nearly rises beyond our usual linguistic limitations. From God’s “night of vigil” to bring Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, to the incessant refrain of Psalm 136 (“for his mercy endures forever”), to Jesus’ work of blessing even in the midst of his rejection in the sight of the Pharisees, the biblical authors never fail to describe God’s character and self-understanding in terms of love.
Monks pray often. But as we learn many times over, quantity or frequency in themselves don’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out here, do length or verbal sophistication in themselves equal substance in the realm of prayer. Even when the phrases are full of meaning, such as those drawn directly from Scripture, it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, and miss the meaning because something in us is missing.
The Christians at Corinth seemed to go weak in the knees for verbal sophistication. In this slightly odd snippet from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I hear Paul’s sense of humor and his deep sense of irony. The Corinthians are distractible; they are flirtatious with other teachings, other teachers, and other “gospels” with finer phrases and finer reputations than Paul’s gospel, which can be a bit of a downer. Length and sophistication were these teachers’ specialty: in public prayer, in preaching, and in their long and impressive resumes. Paul was capable of great rhetorical sophistication himself, but the gospel he stewards is, first and foremost, treasure in a clay jar, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Rather than a super-apostle– a term heavy with irony – Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Rather than marrying up in the world, spiritually speaking, Paul has married down… and down and down. He has wedded himself to a Bridegroom Messiah who makes him look like a loser. And that is his greatest boast.