The following is a reflection on James 3:1-12, the epistle lesson for proper 19B, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
As we saw in the first chapter of James’s epistle, James is writing to a community in conflict. People are fighting, people are arguing, and things are not going well. As we saw in the second chapter of the epistle, the argument is over the bigotry of class distinction.
What becomes clear very early on in the third chapter is that the fighting is intense. People are speaking in anger, using words that pierce and hurt.
James says that such speech is like arson. It sets things on fire. And some things that burn down can never be rebuilt.
I’ve said before that the Letter of James is preeminently a practical letter. It gives practical advice to everyday situations.
And, really, it doesn’t get any more practical than this.
How many of us know relationships that have completely broken down because one person spoke a harsh word to another? How many of us know churches that were completely turned upside-down because one person said something to someone else?
Offense may not have been meant at all. But, that doesn’t matter.
Words hurt. Words tear things down. And, words can’t be unspoken, once they’ve been spoken.
I find it interesting here that James doesn’t address the listeners. He doesn’t admonish people to listen charitably. He doesn’t ask people to constantly give others the benefit of the doubt.
No pleas to give loud-mouths a wide berth.
Oftentimes, when counseling people in relationships, I ask them to consider what may be going on in the other person’s life. Perhaps they are going through a rough spell. Perhaps there is a lot of change going on, and therefore maybe THAT’S why they’ve said this horrible thing.
I try and give others the benefit of the doubt all the time. I suppose I don’t always, but I do try.
But, James doesn’t go there at all.
In a return to the first chapter, he seems to be saying once again, “Be slow to speak.” Choose your words carefully.
Because when you remember how deeply your words can cut, if spoken wrongly, you might just be gentler.
And, a gentler community of brothers and sisters in Christ goes a long, long way in not setting relationships and churches on fire.
Without breaking any confidences, have there been moments in your ministry where a harsh word set your church on fire?