Summary: Ordinary Proper 19: We face an uphill battle as we consider the challenge of getting our tongue - our speech - under control. But that is precisely what St. James exhorts us to do!
Words matter - they matter a lot. In order to uncover the processes that destroy unions, marital researchers studied couples over the course of years, and even decades, and retraced the star-crossed steps of those who had split up back to their wedding day. What they discovered is unsettling. None of the factors one would guess might predict a couple’s durability actually does: not how in love a newlywed couple says they are; how much affection they exchange; how much they fight or what they fight about. In fact, couples who will endure and those who won’t look remarkably similar in the early days.
Yet when psychologists Cliff Notarius of Catholic University and Howard Markman of the University of Denver studied newlyweds over the first decade of marriage, they found a very subtle but telling difference at the beginning of the relationships. Among couples who would ultimately stay together, 5 out of every 100 comments made about each other were putdowns. Among couples who would later split, 10 of every 100 comments were insults. That gap magnified over the following decade, until couples heading downhill were flinging five times as many cruel and invalidating comments at each other as happy couples. "Hostile putdowns act as cancerous cells that, if unchecked, erode the relationship over time," says Notarius, who with Markman co-authored the new book We Can Work It Out. "In the end, relentless unremitting negativity takes control and the couple can’t get through a week without major blowups." (Adapted from U.S. News & World Report, February 21, 1994, Page 67.) Words matter - they matter a lot.
They matter to the preacher and religious teacher and to the Christian too! If we read the scriptures carefully, we find that it is clearly taught that the standard of judgment for church leaders is higher – and rightly so because the reality is that souls are at stake! We see it in Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his time. You see it as Paul rebukes and exhorts teachers – even Saint Peter! And we see it expressed clearly in today’s Epistle Lesson in James. Let’s read together:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (James 3.1-2, NIV)
What we say - how we speak - what words we use with others matter. That is why Saint James cautions people who desire to exercise leadership in the Church. Words can encourage, words can destroy. If we use words wrongly as we exercise care of souls, the consequences can be enormous! That is what St. James is writing about.
It surprises me at the confidence with which some folks approach the task of leadership in a congregation. Souls are at stake. Scriptural integrity is absolutely critical when we speak in the church. And so St. James urges care when teaching. Part of the problem to which this speaks is that we tend to be pretty well convinced that we know what is best and often push our thoughts on others. When we think about it, doesn’t that convey an attitude that is arrogant? Often this manifests itself as a propensity to speak often and self assuredly – and without a clue that by doing so, we place ourselves under stricter judgment.