Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Healing Words
Prov 1:20-33; Ps. 19; Jas 3:1-12; Mk 7:24-37[1]
A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon about how the way we use words has the result that they mean nothing at all. I think I should add an asterisk to that opinion: except when we use words to attack another person. The sad truth is that we live in a culture where verbal attack has become a way of life. We have celebrities who are famous because they are so “good” at verbally attacking other famous people. Nobody watches “news” unless the commentator takes a “slash and burn” approach to the news—meaning slashing and burning the people they are supposedly “reporting” about!
Like me, many of you were raised with the proverb, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, in this day of when we pay people millions of dollars to do exactly the opposite, perhaps we should change the saying to “if you can’t say anything nice, you are on your way to fame and fortune!” Various alternatives of the saying are actually in common use, like “if you can’t say anything nice, come sit next to me!” Or, “if you can’t say anything nice, make sure you have a good lawyer.” Or one of my personal favorites, “if you can’t say anything nice, say it in Yiddish!”[2]
I must confess that I get pretty jaded about it all. I for one am tired of living in a culture where we are surrounded by words that I think Jesus and James would have considered “lethal.” It seems that there is no part of our society that is not infected with the poison of harmful and hateful words. Yes, even the church. Make that “especially the church!”
But the Bible makes it very clear that words are powerful, and that we must respect that power. One of the common themes in the book of Proverbs concerns the contrast between the speech of the wise and that of the unwise.[3] Consider a few golden gems:
· The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.[4] (Prov. 10:11 NRSV)
· The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words. (Prov. 10:19, MSG)
· It is foolish to speak scornfully of others. If you are smart, you will keep quiet. (Prov. 11:12, TEV)
· Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin. (Prov. 13:3, Today’s NIV)
· The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (Prov. 15:28, NIV)
Such wisdom is completely foreign to us—in fact it seems completely opposite from the commonly accepted practice of our day!
In our text for this morning, wisdom is personified as a woman crying out in the streets for anyone who will be wise enough to listen. I’m afraid that’s part of our problem these days—we really don’t want to listen to anybody else. But “Lady Wisdom” in Proverbs makes it clear that we will never hear and heed the truth as long as we’re running our mouth; to listen properly we have to be silent (Prov. 1:22-23, 33)!
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that it is not the food you put in your mouth that defiles you, but what comes out of your heart (Mark 7:20-22). In Matthew’s version of this episode, what defiles you is what comes out of your mouth (Matt. 15:11). In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that we will all be judged not only by what we’ve done, but also by what we’ve said. He says, “on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37)! I think we ought to take that particular Scripture a lot more seriously!
Not surprisingly, James elaborates on this theme at great length.[5] It can be argued that James’ whole thesis in his letter is “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).[6] In our lesson for today, James elaborates on being “slow to speak.” He clearly thinks of words as having great power to destroy. For example, James says that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). In an interesting parallel to Jesus’ comment about what comes out of your mouth defiling you, James says that the tongue “corrupts the whole person” (James 3:6, Today’s NIV). Most of us can bear witness to the way in which words can literally destroy our whole lives and the lives of those around us. Once unleashed, harmful words are like a spark that ignites a fire and consumes a whole forest (James 3:5-6). Words of anger, where we say what we will very likely regret; words of gossip, where we say what may very well be true but ought not be said; words of slander, where we say what we know to be false simply to tear someone down; words of abuse, where we tell someone in effect “you’re worthless.” Harmful words like these “set the whole course of one’s life on fire” (James 3:6, Today’s NIV). [7]
I think we have ample evidence around us to verify James’ assertion that our words have the potential to be lethal. I don’t know about you, but I’ve about had it with all the barrage of angry and violent and hateful words—including the ones that come out of my mouth! I think it’s high time we put our words to better use—the use for which they are intended. Not only are our words intended to “bless” God (James 3:9), they are also intended to bless others! [8] Paul says that we should speak “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29; cf. also Colossians 4:6). Our words ought to be healing words; they ought to bring grace and peace; they should build up and not tear down, heal rather than kill, encourage rather than discourage. Then we can truly join the Psalmist in praying, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/13/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] This is the actual title of a recent (2006) book by L. B. Epstein!
[3] Cf. Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs, 258-60.
[4] Cf. Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 114 points out that “cover” in Prov. 10:11 could mean “conceal” as above or it could mean “fill,” i.e., “the mouth of the wicked is full of violence.”
[5] On the relationship between Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and the Letter of James, see Virgil Porter, “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (2005):344-60 and “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 2 ,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (2005):470-82.
[6] Cf. Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise, 30.
[7] Cf. Gene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” (James 3:6, MSG)
[8] James points out the inconsistency of professing to praise God and then turning around and using the very same tongue to assault others with words! Cf. Wall, Community of the Wise, 177: “In Christianity according to James any form of duplicity, including ‘double-speak,’ is the mark of spiritual failure.” He attributes this to a “faulty theology of creation, which supposes there is no connection between a good Creator and the creatures of a good creation.” It seems that, for James, it takes a great deal of “nerve” to speak destructively about or to a person who is created in God’s image!

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