Lectionary Commentaries for September 13, 2015
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

Micah D. Kiel

I am working on this entry for Working Preacher at home today, so instead of using “my” Bible in my office, I pulled off the shelf the Bible my wife used when we were in college (almost) 20 years ago.

She was a good student and she did a lot of highlighting, underlining, and writing of notes in the margins. Every chapter in Mark has several things underlined or annotated in some way, except for chapter 8. Did she daydream during that part of the lecture? Did she skip that chapter? I doubt it. I suspect that she was so drawn into Mark’s narrative that she simply read to find out what was going to happen. My wife asked only one question in the margin: “Which one is it?” I believe she is referring to the myriad of titles and names that are thrown at Jesus in this episode. Jesus is called a prophet, Messiah, and Son of Man, along with John the Baptist and Elijah.

Caesarea Philippi, characters, and narrative rift

Jesus’ identity and characters’ varying abilities to discern it are a basso continuo in the narrative up to this point. The stories leading up to this episode repeatedly emphasize the disciples’ ignorance and hardness of heart. In chapter 4 they ask: “who is this?” In Chapter 6 they mistake Jesus for a ghost. For the reader, however, Jesus’ identity in the Gospel of Mark is never in doubt. The opening line tells us he is the Messiah and Son of God. We are privy to voices from heaven and declarations from demons, both of which declare Jesus’ true identity as Messiah and Son of God. This rift between the reader’s knowledge and that of the characters (particularly the disciples) is a significant narrative technique for Mark. It helps create irony and build tension.

Up until chapter 8, however, that tension remains implicit. In the episode of Caesarea Philippi it becomes explicit in Jesus’ questions directly to the disciples. First, “who do people say that I am?” And then, “who do you say that I am?”

The disciples’ first answer harkens back to the story of the arrest and beheading of John the Baptist in Mark 6:14-29. That story is introduced with confusion over Jesus’ identity. Some were calling him John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets. This introduces a long flashback about John’s death, a story told with more detail in Mark than in other gospels. It introduces the idea that a prophetic ministry such as John the Baptist’s (or Jesus’) will probably end with suffering and death. As it turns out, this is exactly the direction of the narrative in chapter 8.

When Peter responds to Jesus’ question with the right answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, the reader might breathe a sigh of relief. The rift of knowledge between the reader and the characters is closed. What Peter quickly learns is that grasping Jesus’ identity is not simply about getting the title right. Naming does not define. Mark opens the rift again, this time between expectations of the title Messiah and the reality of what Jesus’ role as Messiah will be like. Mark’s Jesus pivots immediately and discusses how the Son of Man must suffer and die and be raised after three days. Jesus says all this with a boldness that contrasts the secrecy preferred only two verses earlier (Mark 8:30).

A suffering Messiah?

The suffering of Jesus and his followers needs to be understood properly. C-3PO, human cyborg droid from the Star Wars universe says at one point: “We [droids] seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” The droids suffer from harsh treatment because they are machines and an afterthought. C-3PO adopts a “woe-is-me” attitude and expects suffering because he is worth nothing more. This is not the kind of suffering Mark profiles in his Gospel. Jesus does not suffer and die because suffering is good. The necessity of the suffering comes from the way Jesus lives — a series of actions that pay no heed to social and religious norms, a life that reaches out to those who are ostracized (Mark 5:1-20), unclean (Mark 5:21-43), or marginalized (Mark 7:24-30). Mark has already profiled this suffering in the story of John the Baptist’s death in chapter 6. John is arrested and dies because he ran afoul of those in power (Mark 6:18). Suffering that results from the ways that God’s kingdom does not comport with human dominion is very different from prescribing suffering for its own sake.

Identity and expectation

What we find then in this pericope in Mark is a series of questions about identity and expectations. For preachers of the word, it is important that we realize that these issues are not locked in the past. This was not only a problem for the disciples or those early Christians to whom Mark is writing. Mark profiles a deeper dynamic that spans the ages: how are human knowledge and expectations in tension with the aims of God? We know the way things are, how they are supposed to go. If we believe God is active and that Jesus is alive in the world, then the question posed to us is not whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That is the easy part. We know what the title is. The question becomes how do we misunderstand what the title means? How do our expectations not align with God’s?

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Patricia Tull

Isaiah 50 occurs in the second half of a section scholars call “Second Isaiah,” Isaiah 40-55, which arose toward the end of the Babylonian exile, as King Cyrus of Persia overcame Babylon’s regional dominance and established a new empire.

Second Isaiah’s composer(s) wrote in hope of uniting scattered Judah once again in Jerusalem, and inspiring fellow Israelites to rebuild the city destroyed decades before. For more on this time see my commentary on Isaiah 35 on September 6, 2015.

On the model of individual prophets and divine spokespersons found in previous scripture and called God’s servants, Isaiah 40-48 had repeatedly claimed that Israel, the nation, was God’s servant (see particularly Isaiah 41:8-10; 43:10; 44:1-3, 21; 45:1-4; 48:20). Like predecessors such as Moses when pressed into holy service, Israel seems to show reluctance and misunderstanding regarding its role before God (40:27; 42:19-22; 49:3-4). Despite this reluctance, the prophet projects for Israel a transcendent greatness, calling the nation into service not only toward its own people but toward the world’s nations, the whole realm of the all-creating God (42:1-9; 49:5-10).

Beginning in Isaiah 49, portraits of this collective figure take on ever more vivid personal characteristics, as Servant Israel is shown articulating both his former reluctance and his present acceptance of this calling as a prophetic change agent. Here, increasingly, the servant is the model nation as the prophet knows it can be and hopes it will be.

In Isaiah 50:4-9, Servant Israel speaks once more, this time describing himself as both learner and teacher. Every educator knows there is nothing to teach that we didn’t first learn, and learn well. The speaker describes himself listening every morning to God’s instruction, willingly, persistently, eagerly.

A new motif enters in verse 6 that will reappear in chapter 53: God’s servant’s violent opposition by others. Causes are left unstated. We aren’t told whether the foes are Babylonians or fellow Israelites, nor does it really matter. Like the Psalms, which portray dynamics of human relationships while leaving particulars unstated, this passage does not tell one person’s story so much as it describes a stance of valiant faithfulness despite ugly opposition. In God’s presence, it’s not that enemies disappear, but that their fearsomeness shrinks.

This passage echoes an earlier expression of hope against opposition. The book of Lamentations had introduced two characters speaking as the people’s representatives. The first is Daughter Zion, personification of the city itself, its walls and buildings and spirit, who prays for her people. The other is a figure who introduces himself in chapter 3 simply as “the one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath.” This one uses searing metaphors to describe his sufferings, saying that God had walled him about, chained him up, shut out his prayers, and made his paths crooked (Lamentations 3:7-9).

What is remarkable about this figure is not that he so eloquently describes his own sufferings. Rather, it is that he expresses hope at all. Here is what he brings himself to say, not because he sees it but because he persistently believes it:

            But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

            The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

            God’s mercies never come to an end;

            they are new every morning.

He goes on to describe a stance of expectancy. The hope he affirms still awaits vindication:

            The Lord is good to those who wait, to the soul that seeks God.

            It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

            It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth,

            to sit alone in silence with the Lord has imposed it,

            to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope)

            to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults.

He expresses hope that God sees injustice and exercises compassion, and that the appropriate human stance before God is to lift up hearts and hands. He seeks resolution neither in understanding nor in outcome. He simply prescribes a response, a stance of creaturely hope that God’s goodness will in the end prevail, a stance of hope sturdy enough to withstand affliction, a stance that maintains integrity without defensiveness and humility without abjectness. One can hardly think this lamenter could advocate such a stance without having lived it as well.

In Lamentations 3 a new and creative response to suffering begins to emerge, a response that does not explain or justify, but simply endures with hope. Articulations like this enabled Judah to survive the sixth century B.C.E. Without such expressions Judaism would not have survived, and Christianity would not have been born.

This is where Isaiah 50 enters the picture. The prophet repeats theme after theme from Lamentations, describing himself doing all that the lamenter had prescribed. Like that lamenter he walks in darkness, without light, and envisions a stance of trust despite confusion, despite opposition, despite present straits. The prophet teaches this vision to others, beckoning them to endure with hope, and through their endurance to become God’s light to the nations. Over and over the prophet tells a suffering audience that the things they have endured have meaning, and that their life has a future.

Such a stance is not adopted easily. Ambiguous realities still persist. Throughout faith’s history, many turning points have presented themselves, many ambiguous moments at which decisions have been made to choose trust. In every instance, some individuals and communities have found themselves unable or unwilling to adopt the role presented here. And in every instance, more than we can possibly know, some have trusted God through the midst of terrible darkness. Despite distress and opposition, they maintained their integrity. And just as the New Testament Gospel writers saw this paradigmatic servant in the suffering and integrity of Jesus, we too see in Jesus’ example, following the servant portrayed here, a pattern for ourselves.

Faithful roads often proceed through dark places and require sturdy trust. They sometimes require resistance to wrongful accusation, and always commend respect and advocacy for others who are wrongly harmed. Among all the rich legacies of our faith is this one, that even without explanations we may take a stand, a stand of hope in God’s justice and mercy, a hope that shapes those who hold it, morning by morning, into faithful servants of God.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

Walter C. Bouzard

The pericope introduces the enigmatic Woman Wisdom, a figure who is — at the least — a literary personification of a wisdom that permeates the creation.

We also encounter her in chapter 8 where she declares herself the first of the LORD’s creation and present before the cosmos itself (Proverbs 8:22-31). In chapter 9, she summons the simple to her banquet with the remarkable promise that her meal leads to life (Proverbs 9:1-6, 11).

Scholars have spilled much ink over the origin and character of Woman Wisdom.1 Richard J. Clifford argues convincingly that personified Wisdom in Proverbs is derived from mythical bringers of culture in Mesopotamian mythology but, alas (and to bend a phrase), such excellent scholarship will not likely play — or preach — in Peoria.2

The structure of the poem is chiastic, i.e., words, lines of poetry, or even clusters of lines repeat in discernible patterns. Milton P. Horne, locates the center of the chiasm in verses 26-28, the “announcement of divine judgment.” On the other hand, Woman Wisdom’s summons and the rejection of her council (vv. 24-24) reappear in verses 28-30. The chiastic center of the poem, therefore, is the description of calamity in verses 26-27:

24 Because I have called (qara’thi < qara) and you refused,

have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,

25 and because you have ignored all my counsel (`atsathi)

and would have none of (‘abithem < ‘abah) my reproof (thokhahti),

26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you,

27 when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

28 Then they will call upon me (yiqra’uneni < qara) but I will not answer;

they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.

29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD,

30 would have none of (‘abu < ‘abah) my counsel (`atsathi),

and despised all my reproof (thokhahti),

The message of the poem is transparent. Woman Wisdom is publically accessible throughout the city (Proverbs 1:20-21; see 8:1-3). From every quarter she calls and yet she is frustrated by the fact that the wisdom she offers finds no reception among the simpletons and fools who hear her.

The sages believed that a rejection of wisdom was the same as the rejection of the LORD and of God’s ways.4 Had they the proper insight, those who refuse wisdom’s summons might anticipate that, eventually, they would experience their comeuppance, for God had so ordered the world. Woman Wisdom declares that when that inevitable disaster begins, she will laugh derisively and mock their panic.

Note well that neither Woman Wisdom nor the LORD initiate the simpleton’s calamity. The inseparable suffixes in the Hebrew (“your calamity,” “your panic”) in both vv. 26-27 underscore the conviction that the burden for calamity, panic, storm, and tempest rest on the shoulders of those who failed to heed Woman Wisdom’s summons. They will finally call upon her but, she declares, at that point it will be too late for them (vv. 28-30). The simpletons and fools will literally eat their own ‘just deserts:’ “therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices” (v. 31).

The poem presents a challenge for preachers. For one thing, most of us are not as sanguine as were the sages about the orderliness of the world. We are even more suspicious about their notion that God has imbedded a sort of primal retributive justice in the creation. Wise and worthy people become mortally ill or perish in some accident while people who are self-centered, greedy, and yes, fools, enjoy long and luxurious days with no sign of this poem’s promised storms on the horizon.

If our worldview is less robustly optimistic than the wise of ancient Israel, the preacher could do worse than to consider these two points,

First, wisdom is its own reward. Woman wisdom summons us all to a live of reverent awe of the LORD so that we eschew foolish behavior that may shorten our lives and lead us to suffer unduly. Once one has found wisdom, a comprehension of “righteousness and justice and equity, every good path” will follow “for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Proverbs 2:9-10). It is simply better and more satisfying for us to live wisely in awe of the LORD than to live as though we were not creatures of a living God. That last proposition cannot be defended against a cynic, of course, but people who have encountered the God in Jesus Christ nonetheless know it to be true.

Second, as people of faith, we live in the conviction that — eventually — God’s reign will come on earth as it is already in heaven. If I do not actively wish for a tempestuous storm to blow away the fools and scoffers that pester me and that seem to make the world a worse place (and most days, I do not), then I do hope for a few more signs of God’s reign in my life and in the world. Woman Wisdom and the sages of ancient Israel suggest that those who listen to her will see such signs in as much as they “will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster” (Proverbs 1:33).

Will they really?

At first blush, it might not seem like it. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus declares, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

That does not sound like security, ease, or a life without dread of disaster.

In light of the resurrection, however, the two claims are not inimical. As the Apostle Paul put it, in any and all adversity, “ … we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). On the strength of that resurrection promise, even in adversity we might truly live “without dread of disaster,” come what may. Wise men and women remain more than conquerors.


1 See Carol R Fontaine, “The Personification of Wisdom,” in Harper’s Bible Commentary, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988): 501-503; Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999): 23-28.

2 Clifford, Proverbs, pp. 24-7. Clifford’s explanation of the origins of Woman Wisdom also offers a solution to the problem of Proverbs 8:30a, where the Hebrew ‘amôn is translated as “master worker” by the NRSV and interpreted as “little child” by others. Clifford writes, “The word seems to have been misunderstood by early scribes and misvocalized by the Masoretes. It is actually a loanword from the Akkadian ummanu and should be vocalized ‘omman or the like in Hebrew. The proper translation is “I was at his side as a (heavenly) sage,” that is, as a heavenly figure mediating to humans the knowledge of God they need to be good and blessed servants of God” (p, 26).

3 See Milton P. Horne, Proverbs-Eccesiastes, SHBC 12 (Macon, GA: Smyth-Helwys, 2003): 38. Horne cites both Duane A. Garret, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, NAC 14 (Nashville: Broadman, 1984): 71, and Phyllis Trible, “Wisdom Builds a Poem: The Architecture of Proverbs 1:20-33,” JBL 94 (1975): 509-18.

4 Proverbs 1:30; see 1:7; 9:10; 10:27; 14:27; 15:33: 19:23; 22:4.


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-9

James K. Mead

The 16th Sunday after Pentecost is the only instance of Psalm 116:1-9 as a Sunday reading in the Lectionary that provides opportunities to use most of its second half (vv. 10-17) which are read on Maundy Thursday and Eastertide for Year A.

If you make this selection the basis of your message, it will be tempting to dip into verses 10-19 for homiletical insight. Indeed, a strong case can be made for the structural coherence of Psalm 116 as a literary unit,1 but there are also reasons for treating verses 1-9 independently, as the Septuagint did by dividing the poem into two psalms. As one of about a dozen Thanksgiving psalms, this passage is spoken from a post-crisis perspective, but the psalm offers no real clue as to the nature of the problem(s) that prompted the poet’s “supplications” (verse 1). It will probably be helpful, if not necessary, to call attention to the second half of the psalm simply because in the key features we can emphasize for the first half carry over into the second half. Nevertheless, even on its own terms, these nine verses are by no means lacking in theological and spiritual resources for the life of faith, the church’s worship, and the mission of God’s people. Here are some of the aspects that strike me as being most fruitful for proclamation.

First, the flexibility of prayer-forms. We are indebted to the insights of form criticism for psalms research, mainly because thinking about the typical structure and elements of laments and praises helps us understand their message. Psalms scholars tell us that Psalm 116, however, does not follow the “traditional” order of elements in thanksgiving psalms, where we typically hear a narration of the poet’s crisis before learning about the deliverance or share in the act of thanksgiving.2 Rather, as one commentator notes, it alternates the “experience of deliverance” (3-4, 7-11, 15-16) with “outbursts of thanksgiving” (1-2, 12-14, 17-19).3 This gives certain energy to the prayer, what Derek Kidner described as “infectious delight and touching gratitude.”4 The takeaway from this observation is not only the assurance that our prayers need not conform to a rigid pattern; the psalm’s inclusion in the canon is further evidence that the faith community believed that God is pleased to hear this variety. Each believer’s faith experience and spiritual inclinations will be different, and this psalm can, as Kidner added, help others “to find words for [their] own public thanksgiving.”5

Second, the contrast of living and dying. Whether the psalm is studied as a whole or in part, James Mays is correct that the theme word is “death”: it ensnares (verse 3); we need to be delivered from it (verse 8); and it comes to all God’s “faithful ones” (verse 15). Moreover, in keeping with a Hebraic mindset, the experience of death is equated with Sheol (verse 3) — the place of the dead — and thus it is “beyond any possible relation to God.”6 In Christian proclamation, of course, there are other scriptural resources that lift up “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” and we should in no way diminish the blessedness of this hope. Nevertheless, I believe the Israelite acknowledgment of death’s reality meant that they “set maximum value upon the God-given resources of this life, and so upon God himself.”7 Furthermore, what is central to the New Testament (NT) hope — that God is gracious and righteous — is central to the message of the text; indeed, the phrase, “Gracious is the Lord,” occurs at the precise center of these nine verses. Thus, I do not think that what we might call “the Christian life” is all that different from the relationship our Hebraic faith-ancestors sought. I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s exposition of this psalm, in which he explores the last sentence of our lection: “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” The verb “to walk” is in the hithpael verb pattern, which in this case renders a sense of repetitiveness. By looking at other uses of this form (e.g., Genesis 3:8; 5:22, 24; 6:9; Job 1:7; Psalm 12:9), Peterson affirmed the idea that “spiritual formation cannot be done in a hurry; it cannot be forced into a schedule.”8

Third, the communion of the saints. Several scholars mention how this psalm functions in Judaism — as one of the Hallel songs of Passover — and Christianity, on Maundy Thursday in particular and for the Lord’s Supper in general.9 But when I speak of the “communion of saints,” I am not thinking primarily of the sacrament but of the creedal affirmation, namely, that God’s people throughout all time and place experience a real fellowship through our union with Christ. Psalm 116 may originally have expressed the gratitude of one Israelite worshiper before the congregation at the temple, but it becomes our song through the unity of the church with the assembly of Israel. There is a reason that the Greek ekklesia was the NT writers’ choice to identify the “church,” because the Septuagint used that term to translate the Hebrew word for the ancient “assembly” (qahal). And this is why I suggested at least referring to the last ten verses of the psalm. It is there that the poet introduces several references to sacrifices, vows, offerings, and public worship. “In the presence of all his people” occurs twice (verses 14, 18), inviting us to practice the same model of gratitude. It seems fitting that a service in which Psalm 116 is the sermon text would create the time and space for worshipers to offer testimony to answered prayer and to intercede for those who are still waiting for answers.


1 For example, Michael L. Barré, “Psalm 116: Its Structure and its Enigmas” JBL 109 (1990): 61-79.

2 J. Clinton McCann “The Book of Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). IV, 1148.

3 Willem VanGemeren, “Psalms” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5, 724.

4 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 TOTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 407.

5 Ibid.

6 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 370.

7 Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 180.

8 Eugene Peterson, “Land of the Living,” Ex Auditu 18 (2002): 180.

9 Mays, Psalms, 371-372.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:1-12

James Boyce

“Not many of you should become teachers.” So the “teaching preacher” or “preaching teacher” launches this section of our sequential reading in James over several Sundays.

Though the whole of James breathes deeply from the biblical wisdom tradition, today’s reading reflects that tradition as deeply as any part of the teacher’s address to the hearer.1 There is a certain irony in the teacher’s warning of course, in that the one who should know better dares to assume the stance of a teacher, and along with that role assumes the risk of the greater standards of judgment that await those who are “in the know.” When it comes to understanding the ways of the world and the “mistakes” that human beings are so prone to make this teacher is part of the territory.

Wisdom and accountability go together

Wisdom flows from experience, both individual and collective. The eye of wisdom looks at the world and sees everywhere examples and experiences containing instructive lessons the one who has the eyes to see and the wisdom to learn from what lies around us in God’s creation. Nor is such learning an individual enterprise; the author’s “we” (James 3:1, 2) suggests it represents the collective sense of the broad community of tradition gained from examination of the world.

Acknowledging the gifts of God

The number one quality of wisdom is its capacity to acknowledge the fundamental reality that all of creation is dependent upon the gifts of God’s grace and mercy. Two passages especially in James express this conviction and serve as a kind of mantra that undergirds every other reflection in the letter: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17); and “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5). As the giver of all the good gifts of creation, God refuses to stand at a distance. God’s grace hovers over and guards jealously those gifts with which creation has been endowed (James 4:6). So the teacher acknowledges an accountability that is aware of God’s longing for a creation that makes perfect (full or complete, James 3:2) acquisition and use of the good gifts that have been given to it.

Looking squarely at creation’s story

Faithful wisdom does not avoid but looks squarely and honestly at the story of human existence. It is a peculiar capacity of human wisdom to see underneath the surface and to acknowledge the great irony of human existence, an irony that would be somewhat humorous, if it were not so tragic and so personal. Given the rich extravagance of God’s gifts, humans still are so prone to act in ways that betray or surrender the endowments of creation — “mistakes” the author calls them (James 3.2). The importance of keeping these excesses or mistakes in check is illustrated by familiar examples from our common daily life — the use of bridles for horses, and rudders to control the direction of ships. Part of the delight of the teacher is to call clever attention to the contrast — that such comparatively large bodies can be controlled by such a seemingly meager appendage.

A case in point: the tongue

And now as the supreme example and one perhaps closest to home, the author turns to examine the irony in the human tongue. At the heart of God’s creation story we hear of the power of God’s “Word” to bring about all that exists. It is God’s Word of promise that has established, restored, and sustained God’s rich creation and a faithful people. Among God’s gifts to humans is the ability to participate in that word, both through its power to create and sustain human community, and its ability to speak God’s word of promise to one another.

Such capacity can hardly restrain what now becomes a kind of poetic rehearsal of the images and powers of the tongue, to be noted especially in the contrasts of size and power. The hearers’ imagination is teased out in contemplation of this “small member” capable of “great exploits.” Our fears, too, are tapped: “the tongue is a fire.” Carefully chosen images arouse our emotions and at the same time call forth the richness of human knowledge of the extent of creation: the human body, iniquity, stains, cycle of nature, the fires of hell, all the species of air, land, and sea, the ability of humans to tame the world for its use — the whole culminating in a telling yet almost despairing turn of irony: we can tame the whole world, but no one can tame the tongue, this restless evil, full of deadly poison! (James 3:5-8).

Blessing and curse

For the teacher of wisdom, the most serious aspect is to be observed in human behavior both in its address to God and in its relations with other human beings. If the purpose of God’s gifts of creation is that we should live in accord with the double command of scripture: to love God with our whole heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, then the tongue bears testimony to the fact that as humans we have not lived up to the potential of God’s gifts and purpose. “With it we bless … and with it we curse.” “From the same mouth!” (James 3:9-10). Unbelievable! The author invites us, as it were, to gasp for breath at the shocking wonder of it all. Again it has to do with the Word, and our words. They bind us in blessing and worship of the creator, and they call us to speak congruent words of blessing to one another in community. Yet our words so often fall short. With the same mouth we curse and harm those who like us are made in the image of God. There is such a thin line between blessing and cursing. The picture is immediately a sobering one, and intentionally so. We will ask if this is the sum total of what wisdom has to teach us. Perhaps we would rather not know!

This ought not be so!

Still the author offers no easy fixes, no quick solutions to the sorry picture presented. Part of the solution of course is the hope that naming the problem — calling attention to the sorry state of a human reality that is so far from the intentions of God’s creation — would call us to renewed efforts to live in ways that are more appropriate to God’s purposes. The author muses upon other areas of creation — springs that yield fresh water, fig trees that produce consistent fruit — suggesting a creation that is elsewhere consistent with the gifts with which it has been endowed. As human creatures, the very culmination of God’s creation, can our lives exhibit any less a behavior that is consistent with the gifts with which we have been endowed?

In today’s world we may have grown accustomed to looking at the world around us and noting that “things are not the way they should be.” It is possible that, given the seeming overwhelming scale of the problems, we are tempted to imagine that there is no way that the problems can be addressed or that things can be turned around for the better. Yet the teacher of wisdom calls us back from a counsel of despair. We are invited to acknowledge that in God’s continuing gifts of creation, in even the use of the smallest of endowments, like the tongue, in the power of words and communication, there resides also that power through which God working through us can change both ourselves and the world around us.


1 For further reading, see the summer 2015 issue of the journal Word &World, which is devoted to the book of James, and in particular my article in that issue: “A Mirror of Identity: Implanted Word and Pure Religion in James 1:17-27” Word & World 35/3, p. 213-221.