Lectionary Commentaries for September 13, 2009
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

Alyce M. McKenzie

Last week, we began a three week exploration of the question: “What if?

A big “What if?” question for the Gospel of Mark is: “What if the disciples had been more perceptive and not such “slow studies?” We know that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ pet name for the disciples is “ye of little faith.” (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) At least they have a little, and, by the end of the gospel they do make progress.

But in Mark, they contest Jesus each time he foretells his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection (8:31; 9:31-32; 10:33-34), they quake in fear in two separate storms at sea (4:35-41 and 6:45-52), and they are unable to heal a boy possessed by a spirit because they forget to pray (9:29). Finally, after dramatic promises of undying loyalty, they abandon Jesus to those who abuse and kill him. (14:29-31).

I guess the answer to the big “What if?” question−what if the disciples had “gotten it?”− is that they would be positive role models for us rather than cautionary tales. They wouldn’t have abdicated the function of “positive role model” to several people that appear in Mark’s gospel who, while not disciples, are better models of faith than the disciples. These include the paralytic’s friends (2:1-12), the Gerasene demoniac (5:18-20), Bartimaeus (10:51-52), the scribe (12:32-34), the woman with the ointment (14:3-9), the women disciples a crucifixion (14:40-41), and Joseph of Arimathea (15:43-46).

Of course, if the disciples in Mark had been better role models for us, we wouldn’t have the satisfaction of feeling superior to them and thinking smugly to ourselves, “If we had been there, we would have gotten it the first time.”

What if we had been there? There is a question. Let’s wade into this text with our “What ifs” and see what happens! I see two right off the bat:
1. What if Jesus had not asked the disciples who others thought he was and who they thought he was?
2. What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?

1. What if Jesus had not taken his public and personal opinion poll of the disciples in 8: 27ff?
They would not have had been challenged to express their thoughts and feelings or crystallize their convictions in words so they could evaluate and hopefully improve them. It’s significant that the question comes as Jesus led his disciples into a region, Caesarea Philippi, where Pan was honored and the cult of the emperor was practiced.

It is vital that we twenty-first century Christians take the pulse of our cultural context to understand who those outside the church think Christ is and who they perceive Christians to be. If, as some studies suggest, the view outside looking in, is that Christians are judgmental and unloving, then the Church needs to ask itself, what can we do about the aspersion this casts on the identity of Jesus whom we allege that we follow? If Christ’s reputation suffers because of our stunted discipleship, then what are we going to do about it?

But Jesus doesn’t stop at asking the disciples for a public opinion poll. He asks them for a personal one. “Who do you say that I am?” Is that different from public opinion? While we are fortunate enough to live in a pluralistic society and have much to learn from the religious choices of others, still, we need to be able to give an account of our own. If we have chosen Christ, then why? Who is he to us? Who are we becoming as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus continually asks us that question. If we don’t hear it, then maybe we’re not listening. In the world of the text, it is those who are already “on the way” with Jesus who hear his question and who are then challenged continually to reflect on, articulate, and live out who he is to them. It stands to reason, then, that the mission of the Church is to invite others to embark on “the way” with us. Not so much so that we can give them all the answers, as that we can invite them to hear Jesus’ question.

2. What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?
That could have meant one of two things. It could have meant that he decided to hold his disagreement inside for the time being. Or, it could have meant that he was starting to get with the program.

In the latter case, it would have meant that while he was repulsed by Jesus’ prediction of future persecution and death, he was neither going to stand in Jesus’ way nor abandon him.

Brainstorming about what it would have meant if he hadn’t rebuked Jesus clarifies for me the significance of the fact that he did. I think his rebuke Jesus foreshadows his eventual falling away and denying knowledge of Jesus.

We twenty-first century disciples have the glorious benefit of hindsight. That means that, while we can join in Peter’s rebuke, we don’t have to join in his eventual denial. They say it’s not healthy to bottle up emotions. So maybe it was best that Peter expressed his feelings, his anguish, his outrage, his opposition, directly to Jesus in this moment. Maybe we should follow suit. It would be better than smiling and offering lip service to discipleship, while inwardly not getting with the program at all.

Cognitive dissonance is when you believe one thing inwardly but live out another set of values outwardly. That is not Peter’s problem, according to this text. Nor do I think it is ours. Our problem is that we don’t really believe that the life of discipleship should have to involve sacrifice or suffering. Since life holds enough of that as it is, why voluntarily add to it?

In the narrative flow of Mark’s gospel, Peter’s rebuke instigates Jesus’ clear, pointed summary of the life of faith (8:34-38). Each of the four gospels is a depiction of the identity of Jesus, shaped by the theological agenda of the evangelist in response to his context. It matters who we understand Jesus to be because his identity shapes our own. That’s what being a disciple means: embarking on a lifelong journey of allowing his identity gradually to shape our own. Verses 34-37 state the shape of that life.

It would be nice if we could now say, “OK, I get Mark 8:34-37. I get who Jesus is and what he expects of me. I’ll put a check in that box.” But the life of discipleship is a journey, not an instantaneous accomplishment. It’s one in which we express both our faith (“You are the Messiah.” Mark 8:29) and our fears (“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” Mark 8:32). Discipleship is a process of our continually articulating our faith, but also our difficulty with, our objections to, Jesus’ identity and mission, so that he can continually counter them.

I’m glad, for Peter’s sake, that Mark isn’t the only gospel. Why? Because in the Gospel of John, Peter gets a chance he doesn’t get in Mark. He gets the chance to come face to face with the Risen Lord and receive from him forgiveness for his earlier abandonment and energy for future discipleship and sacrifice. And so do we.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Frank M. Yamada

What is the meaning of suffering?

This is one of the most profound questions that confront the human condition. In today’s passage from Isaiah, we hear the musings of a prophet who is seeking to make sense of the painful realities of exile. Isaiah 50:4–9a is also found in the lectionary on Palm Sunday at the conclusion of Lent.

As an introduction to Holy Week, this text provides the Christian year with a particular understanding of Jesus’ journey to resurrection through the cross. In the middle of ordinary time, the passage reminds the faithful of the cost of discipleship. There will be times in the Christian life when living into God’s calling comes at a price. Today’s lection helps us to frame such issues through the particular historical experience of Deutero-Isaiah’s servant, who is confronted with the lingering effects of exilic life in Babylon.

Isaiah 50:4–9 is one of the four Servant Songs found within Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40–55). The other passages are 42:1–4, 49:1–6, and 52:13–53:12. The protagonist in these well-known poetic texts is a nameless servant, whom scholars have identified as either a particular individual or collective Israel. Deutero-Isaiah writes within the context of the Babylonian exile, after 587 B.C.E. The author addresses this historical reality through oracles of hope that draw on the rich themes of creation and redemption within Israel’s theological traditions.

The idea of righteous suffering is prevalent in Isaiah 50:4–9 and in the Servant Songs in general. This week’s text, however, emphasizes particular nuances to the more general theme, namely the cost of being faithful to the LORD’s calling and God’s vindication of the servant’s obedience. Isaiah 50:4–9 is written in the first person. Thus, the prophet equates himself with the servant or is speaking about the experience of suffering through the lens of the servant’s first-hand experience.

Today’s passage has two sections, verses 4–5 and verses 7–9, both of which hinge on the servant’s suffering at the hands of his enemies in verse 6. The first unit focuses on the servant’s calling through images of speaking/hearing. The center of this passage, literarily and thematically, is verse 6, which depicts graphically the abuse that the servant’s enemies inflict upon him. The passage concludes with verses 7–9 by using legal language to describe the LORD’s advocacy. The structure of the passage focuses the reader’s attention on 50:6. Thus, the meaning of suffering is the central problem that the prophet confronts. The servant’s divine calling, on the one hand, and the LORD’s vindication, on the other, frames this weighty theological dilemma.

Verses 4–5 emphasize the servant’s calling through the theme of faithfulness. The communication of God’s intention to the people is fundamental to the core of a prophet’s calling. In verse 4, the tongue of this loyal “teacher” is used to support the weary. In verse 4b–5, the ear of the servant is opened to both those whom he teaches and to the LORD. Hearkening to the voices of both characterizes the prophet’s obedience; and hence, he declares confidently, “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (verse 5b).

Both verses 4 and 5 begin with the LORD God as the subject of verbs that enable the servant’s vocation. In verse 4, the LORD has “given” (nātan) the prophet his tongue in order to speak words that sustain the people. In verse 5, the LORD God has “opened” (pātach) the ear of the servant. Thus, the LORD both enables and is the source of this prophetic calling, making possible both the servant’s speech and hearing.

Verse 6 is the crux of Isaiah 50:4–9. It describes the servant’s suffering at the hands of his enemies. This theme is directly related to the servant’s calling and message described in verses 4–5. Within the context of exile, a prophet’s advocacy on behalf of the marginalized can lead to resistance from the powerful and even from those who suffer. The servant gives his back to those who strike him. The same Hebrew verb, nātan (“give”), which the poet uses to describe the LORD’s gift of speech in verse 4, is used here in verse 6 to describe the prophet’s disposition toward those who oppose the message.

It is important to point out that the servant does not receive this suffering passively; but he actively chooses to accept the conflict that arises through his proclamation. This last point emphasizes that suffering, in and of itself, is not vicarious. It is a byproduct of speaking truth to power. Moreover, the servant always remains an agent in relationship to his enemies’ abuse. The danger in this verse is obvious. Preachers and theologians have often adopted the theme of righteous suffering uncritically to the harm of many. In the context of unavoidable suffering, human dignity is lost when survivors are denied their agency to resist violent oppression or when victimization is held up as a universal standard for sainthood.

In group oriented societies, suffering is a source of shame for individuals and communities. In the final unit (verses 7–9a), the LORD God vindicates the honor of the servant in language that evokes a legal hearing, especially through the use of the Hebrew verb, ‘āzar (“help”) in both verses 7 and 9. Thus, the LORD, who is the source of the servant’s calling in verses 4–5, is also the agent of the prophet’s vindication in this second unit. Because of God’s help, the servant will “not be put to shame” (verse 7) and his enemies will not be able to “contend” (verse 8) against him or declare him guilty (verse 9).

In the LORD’s court of opinion, the servant is righteous. Though suffering is the thematic and structural center of Isaiah 50, the LORD’s calling (verses 4–5) and vindication (verses 7–9) of the servant frames the passage on either side. It is the LORD’s initiative that defines both the vocation and destiny of the faithful. God’s help is the source of their confidence and hope in the midst of suffering.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

Brent A. Strawn

This is the first time that Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks in the book of Proverbs (see 8:1-36; 9:1-6).

As the first speech, it carries particular importance because it sets the stage for what follows. By the end of chapter 1 — after the superscription (1:1), prologue (1:2-6), and motto (1:7) of the book — we have heard from the two main voices that lobby for wise living in Proverbs: the teacher, figured as a father speaking to his son (e.g., 1:8-19; 2:1-22; 3:1-12; etc.), and Wisdom herself, who in the end of the book becomes “incarnate,” as it were, in the poem on the valorous wife and mother (31:10-31). These are the two wise “parents” who give birth to the virtuous person. In this construal, Wisdom is, of course, the mother — the mother of all wisdom!

Wisdom is not just a mother; she is also something of a prophet. Her first speech is nothing if not straightforward, and it is strongly reminiscent of several of the prophets. The opening verses (1:20-21) locate Wisdom in the midst of society’s hustle and bustle. She hawks her wares where everyone can hear — on the busiest corner and at the city gates (which often doubled as the place of justice in ancient Israel).

The irony is that so few people do listen to her voice. We know those who heed Wisdom are few in number because she addresses her audience as “simple ones,” “scoffers,” and “fools,” and describes them as loving and delighting in such behavior while hating knowledge (verse 22). This scenario is no accident. Wisdom’s audience has refused to hear her call and has not heeded her outstretched hand (verse 24). They have ignored all her counsel (verse 25a), and, indeed, would have none of her discipline (verse 25b). How could it be otherwise? Wisdom is, after all, on the busiest corner where everyone can hear. Everyone can, but not everyone will.

The passage takes an even worse turn by describing how Wisdom will laugh when the foolishness of her audience comes back to roost. Such retribution is a hallmark of the traditional pole of Wisdom Literature throughout the ancient Near East and which is represented in the Bible most strongly in Proverbs and certain parts of Job (particularly in the theology of Job’s friends). Bad things result from bad — or, in this case, foolish — behavior. What is striking, if not troubling, is Wisdom’s statement that she will laugh when ill fortune, panic, and anguish come upon her audience (verses 26-27).

A few things should be said about Wisdom’s attitude here, which seems unfeeling and cavalier. The first is that Wisdom not only says she will laugh when this misfortune happens, but also that she will not answer when her audience finally comes to its senses and calls out to her (verse 28a). Indeed, even if they search diligently for her, they will not find her (verse 28b). These sentiments are very similar to those found in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:15; Jeremiah 11:11, 14; Ezekiel 8:18; Amos 5:23; and especially Isaiah 66:4). Wisdom is not alone, that is, in adopting such a firm tone with her recalcitrant audience. She has a host of distinguished predecessors in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos — not to mention the God in whose name these prophets speak.

Among other things, such statements about not listening or not being findable indicate the severity of the situation: in truth, Wisdom is not simply “hawking a ware”; she is a preacher discussing life-and-death issues (see verse 32; cf. also 1:11-12, 16-19; 3:16, 18; 8:36). These statements also indicate there is a statue of limitations on such important matters. One cannot live foolishly forever without reaping the “benefits.” And when those results come in, it is too late to undo the path that produced them. Wisdom’s laugh, in short, is nothing but an “I-told-you-so” that is well after the fact and well deserved. In the world of wisdom — as in our own — the foolishness of fools and their demise are not without irony and humor.

Second, Wisdom’s statements about laughing (verse 26) and not listening (verse 28) are bracketed by “because-clauses.” Note the structure:

A because I called and you refused… (verse 24)
and because you ignored my counsel… (verse 25)

B I also will laugh…I will mock… (verse 26)
I will not answer… (verse 28)

A’ Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD
would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof…. (verses 29-30)

This structure indicates that Wisdom’s posture is actually caused by the foolishness of the fools. She is not hoping that they fail so she can laugh. It is their failure to listen to Wisdom that brings about their problems in the first place. That is, the improper behavior in question is not Wisdom’s laughter or mockery, but the audience’s foolishness. Verse 29 underscores this by leaving no doubt that hating knowledge is equivalent to rejecting the fear of the LORD. The matters at hand, therefore, are deeply religious as well as practical. Proverbs conjoins these categories, as do the wisdom psalms (see Psalm 1). Foolish behavior, in the end, is not just foolish, it is irreligious.

Wisdom concludes her speech by reiterating the causal nexus between foolish acts and deleterious results (note “therefore” in verse 31). Her final remarks promise destruction for the simple and for fools (v. 32) but a life of ease for those who listen to her (verse 33). We know life isn’t always so simple; those who composed the Wisdom Literature certainly knew the same (witness Job and Ecclesiastes). But Wisdom is a preacher and she is making her strongest appeal here. Perhaps the wise life isn’t always easy or free from disaster, but Wisdom traffics in probability theory, and it is much more probable that foolishness leads to disaster than that wisdom does. Sure, there are exceptions, but exceptions aren’t the rule. The rule is that Wisdom is life (3:16, 18; 8:35).


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-9

Fred Gaiser

In the lectionary portion of Psalm 116, we do not get to the question of verse 12, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”

That question introduces the psalmist’s pledge to offer sacrifice to God and pay the vows made in the midst of distress (verses 13-19); but in a certain sense we do not need that section (though there is no reason to omit it), for the psalmist has already fulfilled the vow.

The ritual thanks offered in the final section is paralleled by the verbal thanks offered in verses 1-9. If the missing latter part of the psalm is about offering, the first part is about witness. Stewardship and evangelism are up-front issues in the church these days. The psalm reminds us of their close connection: our giving, our service, our stewardship (verses 13-19) are empty (or at least silent) without our witness, our evangelism, our testimony to the grace and goodness of God (verses 1-9).

Our psalmist cannot remain silent. He or she echoes the words of Psalm 40:3: “[God] put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” Both Psalms (40 and 116) are called songs of thanksgiving, liturgical poems in which the pray-ers bear witness to what God has done on their behalf and pledge their ongoing devotion to the Lord. The genre is praise, but what rises to God as praise serves as witness to those who hear. Listen to what God has done! God’s deeds and my words bear witness to who God is and how God acts. “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me” (Psalm 66:16).

As usual in the psalms, we do not learn precisely what is plaguing the poet. He or she seems to have been near death (verse 3)–or is that a metaphorical death?–but then experiences God’s deliverance and is “saved.” The lack of particularity allows the song’s use in public liturgy. Too particular, and it becomes unusable by those with different problems. Too general, and it is meaningless. But after living a while, virtually anyone can testify to a near-death experience (physical or metaphorical), and here they hear the psalmist announce that, in that kind of situation, her survival, his deliverance, their salvation was a gift of God.

Indeed, because of that experience, the pray-er can make public confession that “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful” (verse 5). The frequent cry of distress in the psalms is perhaps the Bible’s most primal expression of the profound truth that all is not well, that I am not what I ought to be and neither is the world, that something has gone wrong. The human, says psychoanalyst Stanley Leavy, “is a discontented animal.” In life, as in the psalms, out of that distress and discontent, we cry to God. Some call this an illusion, a prop, a crutch, but, as Leavy notes, for believers the experience of deliverance from distress “is the gift of God through Jesus Christ. The critics are quite right in supposing that a fully satisfied human, with no failures, no sense of wrongdoing, no griefs, no fears, no longing for the eternal, would have no occasion to look to God. But it is they who are indulging in fantasy when they imagine such a creature and suppose it to be human.”1

So, as Leavy implies, if the cry of distress is the primal witness to discontent, pain, suffering, and sin, the psalms’ outburst of praise is the primal witness to recovery, renewal, and grace. And the psalmist is pleased and eager to ascribe that renewal to God and to invite others to celebrate and join in that experience.

Some Christian traditions call such witness “testimony,” a term often viewed with suspicion by mainline Christians, but one that clearly reflects the movement of this psalm. God acts, and people tell what God has done so that others might know and enter God’s saving work. Christians of all stripes should find a place in worship for such “testimony,” and a sermon on this psalm might be a place to start.2

Now, to be sure, testimony in the style of the psalms needs to be more than my continued recital of the moment of my conversion–and, finally, it should not focus on “me” at all; but an honest and spontaneous report of God’s saving work is not only appropriate, it is quite impossible to avoid. Which of us, having experienced God’s grace, will not say so? It would be as impossible as seeing a rainbow in the sky and not telling my fellow passengers in the car. The “wow” is part of the experience. The experience is incomplete without it. You can’t not tell.

If the preacher plans in advance, this sermon, after an appropriate introduction, could call forth stories of God’s grace experienced by parishioners–either told by the parishioners themselves (best alternative) or narrated through the pastor if people are uncomfortable speaking publicly. Or, the sermon could introduce the issue and invite folks to prepare for future opportunities to bring their own report (echoing Psalm 66, above) of what God has done for them.3

Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann called psalms of this genre “reporting praise,” where the report of what God has done becomes the praise of God. The psalm or the present preacher may or may not say “Praise the Lord,” but the announcement that God has acted is itself praise in that others hear in it witness to the grace and mercy of God.

1Stanley Leavy, In the Image of God: A Psychoanalyst’s View (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1988) 67-68.
2See Frederick J. Gaiser, “‘I will tell you what God has done for me’ (Psalm 66:16): A Place for Testimony in Lutheran Worship?” Word & World 26/2 (2006) 138-148.
3The article in note 2 suggests places in worship in which such testimony might be appropriate.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:1-12

A.K.M. Adam

This Sunday’s passage involves one of the more peculiar passages in the New Testament.

But that shouldn’t distract preachers from the clear, strong, timely emphasis on the importance of considering the effects of what we say. Whereas once, commentators routinely dismissed James’s hortatory rhetoric as a miscellaneous hodgepodge of wisdom traditions, renewed (and more theologically sympathetic) attention shows that James braids together several related concerns into a thoroughly-integrated exposition of the way of discipleship.

In this week’s epistle lesson, James stakes out a position quite at odds with contemporary enthusiasm for spontaneous outbursts of unfiltered passion. Instead, he challenges Christians, especially leaders, to express themselves carefully, as befits sisters and brothers made in the image of God.

It would be easy to assume that these verses simply warn us against talking too much, perhaps especially against gossiping. While James most likely would discourage both excessive talking and passing along rumors, these aren’t the central issue in this passage. After all, James begins this session by warning, “Let no many of you become teachers;” while teachers are not immune to garrulousness and gossip-mongering, neither are they peculiarly susceptible to these faults.

The danger of teachers’ speech lies in the perilous combination of teachers’ authority on one hand, and misused, damaging speech or erroneous claims on the other. Few should become teachers, and those who do become teachers should watch what they say, because teachers will be held liable not solely for their own follies but also for the errors that their students assimilate and pass on.

James makes it clear that he refers not to talking too much by explaining that we ought to talk carefully, since everyone is liable to slip up (ptaio, “stumble” or “err”). Everyone makes many mistakes, James says; if someone didn’t make any verbal gaffes, such a person would be perfect. But although everyone makes mistakes, communication amplifies the effects of these slip-ups. The more a mistake (or a hurtful word) is repeated, and the more authority with which it is clothed, the greater are its damaging effects. In this way, our general proclivity to speak casually, carelessly, bears particular importance for teachers (and other leaders), but applies just as truly to all people. While gabbing and gossiping may increase the odds of us speaking unwisely, the heart of the problem lies in the likelihood that we will slip up when we are speaking.

The concerns that James expresses here cohere closely with his interests in the rest of the epistle. He has several times noted the vacuity of professions of faith divorced from faithful action (1:22-25, 2:12, 2:18-26), and he repeatedly condemns intemperate speech (1:13, 19, 26 and he will return to this at 4:11, 4:13ff, and 5:9). In this extended reflection on the question of the ethics of communication, James draws on a pool of contemporary Hellenistic and Judaic conventions. Many of the epistle’s points could be affirmed without any distinctly Christian commitments; commentators have long noted parallels to these teachings in the moral exhortation of various wisdom traditions.

Although these counsels lack explicit Christological warrants, they reinforce James’s thematic interest in community harmony and in lives that express faithful integrity. Although James concentrates explicitly on control of the tongue — thus on spoken communication — we should note that his warnings apply just as much to the ways we communicate our ideas, our commitments, our very identities in our actions (not only just our words). James cares ardently that disciples shape every aspect of their lives so as to make manifest their faith; he sees the apparently trivial example of spoken words as especially compelling case in point.

While James acknowledges that everyone slips up in speaking, he presses the case that we should not shrug off such mistakes. The slips of the tongue that seem so slight, he reminds us, can cause great consequences. He fires off a series of metaphors that do not align precisely with his point, but that collectively emphasize the fact that small things have disproportionately great implications: a small bridle directs the large, strong horse; a small rudder steers a great ship; a small flame can start a vast forest fire.

Although James shifts from the small thing playing a positive role (a bridle, a rudder) to its playing a dangerous role (staining, burning), the trajectory of his rhetoric makes it clear that he regards the unbridled tongue as a hazardous, possibly virulent force. One should no more take spoken errors lightly than one should play with matches in the forest.

At this point, James breaks off into a digression on the pernicious qualities of the tongue, beginning with an obscure extension of the metaphor of the tongue as a flame. The details of the metaphor remain murky even with the most intricate explanations; apparently the source of the tongue’s evil tendencies is Gehenna (“Hell”) and the tongue then transmits its fiery power to “the cycle of nature.” Although other sources attest to the idea of a “wheel of fortune” and a “cycle of rebirth,” neither of those seems quite a propos in this context.

The rest of these verses involve puzzlements, too. It’s not obvious what the beginning of verse six has to do with the claim that follows immediately after, that the tongue is a “world of unrighteousness'” nor in turn does James make clear what the world of unrighteousness has to do with the tongue’s station among our members, nor with how the fiery tongue stains the whole body. James next asserts the apparently false claim that every sort of animal has been tamed (including sea creatures?), to contrast the docility of the animal kingdom with the ferocity of the tongue. In preaching on all of this, the safest conclusions will steer away from over-confidence about exactly what James is saying in the comparisons, and will stick with the manifest sense that he regards the tongue as a wild, destructive force with unpredictable consequences.

In verse nine, James returns to a clearer discussion of the problem of divided loyalties, as he introduced the problem in 1:8’s reference to the “double-minded” (or, more colloquially, “half-hearted”) believer. The verses that follow express James’s perplexity over people’s capacity for double-talk: He (like Matthew) senses that each tree should consistently give only one sort of fruit, but he sees believers who both bless and curse. James’s frustration should banish any lingering notion that the modern church has a monopoly on shallow discipleship!

Still, James doesn’t allow room for resignation to lukewarm faith — “That shouldn’t be!” (verse 10b). Consistently with his previous arguments, James insists that the ideal of discipleship extends even to self-control with regard to casual speech. And that goes double for leaders in the church!