The tongue tells the tale

One of the reasons many, particularly in the Protestant tradition, have become ambivalent about the Epistle of James is a misunderstanding of the type of literature it is. Whereas Paul, being himself a Pharisee trained under the respected teacher Gamaliel, wrote from the perspective of Christ being the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. James wrote from a different, but equally important, perspective.

The great tradition of Hebrew wisdom was embodied by Solomon, the wisest of Israel’s kings and perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs is his most memorable work, as well as most of the book of Ecclesiastes and the dialogue with his beloved, the Song of Solomon. Several non-canonical books of the Apocrypha are also attributed to him.

 

James was steeped in this tradition. Consequently, his epistle is a collection of wise sayings and godly counsel. Perhaps the most practical of all his wisdom is his advice concerning the tongue. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire,” he writes, echoing Solomon. “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:5-6). James sees the tongue as the epicenter of human evil, untamable by any human being. It exposes the double-mindedness of man, his utter inability to live consistently in obedience to God. For while we may, at one moment, use the tongue to “bless our Lord and Father,” we may, at the next moment, use it to “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

This kind of forked-tongue double-mindedness, says James, “ought not be so” (James 3:10). Human beings are created to obey God at all times, not only to honor him with our lips, but also to glorify him with our lives. The tongue tells the tale, whether we  are truly honoring God or vainly invoking his name. We cannot control the tongue unless we are submitted unreservedly in absolute obedience to God. For only then can our tongue praise his name and our lives reflect his glory.

The kingdom is staring you right in the face

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” Jesus says, “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17.20b-21).

This, our Lord says in response to a question from the Pharisees about “when the kingdom of God would come” (v. 20a). It is a question which betrays the Pharisees’ utter faithlessness. Face to face with the One who embodies the kingdom of God, they nevertheless ask, “When will the kingdom come?”

Implied in Jesus’ answer is the Pharisees’ insistence on some kind of observable “sign.” But in answering as he does, Jesus effectively tells them, “If you cannot see the kingdom right before your eyes, no sign will convince you. You will run after every charlatan and pretender who comes along saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ All the while the kingdom you seek is staring you right in the face.”

Jesus is the kingdom of God, the very embodiment of God’s new order. The Pharisees’ failure to see what is literally within their grasp is only further proof of this. In the kingdom of God, privilege counts for nothing. Those, like the Pharisees, who think they have it all figured out will be the ones who miss out. As Jesus embodies the kingdom of God, the new order of the world to come, the Pharisees embody the absolute worst of the old order, the world that is passing away. They are the representatives of “this generation,” the corrupt religious establishment which would reject Jesus and send him to the cross.

Jesus compares his inquisitors to the people of Noah’s day who were “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage” (v. 27), blissfully unaware of their impending doom. So, too, are the Pharisees like like the people of Lot’s day, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all” (vv. 28-29).

By invoking these images of past judgment, Jesus is warning the guardians of the status quo that his day is coming and they will be held accountable for their actions. They will reject him. They will kill him. They will pretend business as usual. But the Son of Man will have the last word.

But there is also a word of caution to Jesus’ disciples. They must remain alert, lest they suffer the same fate as the Pharisees. If they become too concerned with saving their own lives, they will be swept away, also, in the coming judgment. “Remember Lot’s wife,” Jesus says (v. 32). She looked back upon Sodom and became a pillar of salt. So it will be with any who try to preserve any part of the old order. It is passing away in judgment. The way of faith is the way of flight. Flee from this passing world and look forward — LOOK UP! — to the glorious new world of the kingdom of God which, even now, “is in the midst of you.”

Demas Syndrome: A love affair with this present world

To be “in love with this present world,” like Paul’s former companion Demas, is to be deceived by its illusions. Demas deserted Paul in his hour of greatest need, much like the disciples deserted Jesus during his hour of trial. In fact, Paul writes, “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” All of his fair weather friends, it seems, turned out like Demas. They loved “this present world” too much to sacrifice their livelihood for the hope of the world to come. But, in true Christ-like fashion, Paul says, “May it not be charged against them!”

Paul was ready to endure whatever suffering “this present world” could inflict upon him. His wayward companions seemed lacking in perseverance. Being “in love with this present world” clouds one’s perception of things. From a “this present world” perspective, the natural is the reality, not the spiritual. Thus, one can, as Jesus says, “see a cloud rising in the west” and “say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens,” and “see the south wind blowing” and “say, ‘There will be scorching heat, and it happens.” In other words, one can discern all the natural phenomena of “this present world” but be completely blind to the true spiritual climate of “the present time.”

Jesus’ words were a stark warning to a generation blissfully unaware of its impending doom. They could judge by natural appearances, but they could not discern their own sorry spiritual predicament, punctuated by their inability to recognize who Jesus was and what his coming meant. They were all too eager to receive a Messiah who would inflict violence upon their enemies and free them from foreign rule. They were not prepared, however, for a Messiah who would bring division within their own households. But Jesus emphatically declares, “I came to bring fire on the earth,” and the first to get burned will be the household of Israel itself. His coming means not peace, but division, “three divided against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This is what might be called a perfect division; the kind of division which can only come from the One who wields the double-edged sword of the Word of God. It is not what those “in love with this present world” expected from the Messiah. They expected him to take on Israel’s enemies. They did not expect him to take on the enemy within. But that is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to cleanse the temple and drive out those who had turned it into a den of robbers. The ones he came to judge first were those who should have known better. But they were “in love with this present world” and did not realize their love affair was little more than a form of spiritual adultery.