August 23, 2021
The Proper 17B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 from the Lectionary Gospel; Song of Solomon 2:8-13 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 15 from the Lectionary Psalms; and James 1:17-27 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 118 (Lord’s Day 45)
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Author: Chelsey Harmon
The lectionary’s selection of verses for this week could be seen as a helpful streamlining to the main idea or as a heavy-handed push to that main idea… Many lectionary commentaries choose to treat the passage as whole, so take time to consider whether hearing all 23 verses will benefit your congregation in understanding the main point of Jesus’ words. I’ll be commenting on the selected verses.
The crux of the matter is that Jesus re-centers purity for his followers: instead of just looking at exterior activity, we are to consider our activities’ interior source, the heart. Further, we see the greatest threat of tradition: adding so much to the intent of God’s commandment that the law’s true purpose is utterly lost.
When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not take on the ritual task of washing before they eat, they aren’t asking out of concern for personal hygiene. They’re asking because this sort of washing has become an identity marker for them as Jewish people—they were the only ethnic/religious group that practices such a thing; it sets them apart, and it helps them tell others apart.
Notice how Mark takes the time to describe the thoroughness of their washing: they wash all of their food vessels, and any time they are out and about among people who are different than them, they come home and “clean” off anything that might have gotten them “dirty” (or unclean/defiled, to use the biblical term.) These details serve a dual purpose. Mark is writing to a mostly non-Jewish community who didn’t understand or practice these rituals so he needs to explain them, and they show us how far removed this human tradition had become from the law it is rooted in.
In Exodus 30.17-21, Moses is told to set up a wash basin for the priests to use before going into the presence of God, including when they are going to make an animal offering to the Lord on behalf of the people. They washed in recognition and as an expression of the holiness of God (as in, humans are not holy compared to God, the always holy one). To put it briefly, priestly ritual cleansing related to food was about marking and communicating the holiness, purity, and oneness of God more than it was about anything else.
Eventually, someone somewhere decided that if it was good for priests to do, it would be good for everyone to do, and a new tradition was born (yes—there is a moment in time when a tradition is NOT). And see how the tradition, shaped by human hands and hearts, becomes about us rather than about God? The Pharisees’ question reveals their focus: they aren’t angry that God’s holiness is being violated, they are insulted that “these people” aren’t setting themselves apart from “those people” as is “our custom.” Instead of God’s purity, the tradition of the elders made the ritual cleansing be about separating themselves from others, about their own purity compared to others. True, a definition of holiness is “to be set apart,” but God’s intent with this and other purity laws had taken on a whole new life and meaning through the “tradition of the elders.”
The infatuation with washing was a matter of ritual purity, whereas by verses 21-23, Jesus has focused our attention on moral purity. Ritual purity was not about sin but about the wholeness of God being symbolically expressed by his people. Modern Christianity doesn’t really distinguish between the moral and ritual purity the way that Judaism and the early church did. There’s probably something good about that, but we could do well with a bit more care taken to parsing things out. Considering the ways we talk in circles about “modesty” and “purity,” understanding that some things may not be good to be around or exposed to (a matter of ritual purity), but that they don’t actually make people bad (i.e, they aren’t sin in and of themselves), could help us find the nuance that is lacking in these conversations.
Let’s consider this from the context of the passage. Jesus calls the crowd in verse 14 so that he can awaken them to what the “tradition of the elders” has poorly shaped in them. Though ritual cleansing, when done as God commands, teaches an important message about God, what they are engaged in is actually teaching them a dangerous, false lesson about themselves. Jesus tells them that when it comes to food, they don’t need to worry about the “bad” from outside getting into them; there’s no interaction, person, or food that can contaminate them—they are plenty capable of this on their own.
By Jesus’ words, we see how our human traditions, whether we mean them to or not, can lead us very far from the will of God. What was once about the purity of God has become about something entirely different—about making ourselves feel better compared to someone else, so Jesus steps in to reorient us back to himself.
Moral purity, unlike ritual purity, is about sin. Jesus wants us to be more concerned about our own sin and hearts. Jesus calls us to pay attention to what is coming out of us because it is an even more important way that we symbolically express the wholeness and purity of God to the world: not by separating ourselves from those who are different, but by living according to the fruit of the Spirit.
What I also find interesting is how Jesus lists vices that happen within human interactions. How we treat one another truly is a sign of how we worship and image God. But given the particular context of food and washing—practices that were used to separate people— it’s as though Jesus is trying to re-root us in our associations with others: that in our posture of loving God and loving neighbour, service is superior to separation in the way of holiness.
One final note about this pericope: it marks a pivot point in Jesus’ interactions. The rest of the gospel, beginning with next week’s text, will include Jesus interacting with non-Jewish people. Coincidence? I think not.
The Greek word for “hypocrite” doesn’t have the same moral weight to it that our modern English word does. As Jesus is using it here, it refers to an actor playing a part or someone who is putting on a show but whose true identity and heart isn’t in it. In the case of the Pharisees, Jesus saw in them what the Holy Spirit has been trying to get the people of God to see about themselves throughout our history: being obsessed about and satisfied to stay focused on outward devotion reveals a heart that is far from God. Their hearts were not in true communion with and worship of God, and this resulted in their human ideas becoming more important than God’s commands. The modern idea of a hypocrite is to say one thing and do another. In our text’s version of being a hypocrite, they do exactly what they say; the problem is that instead of God filling their hearts, it’s their own tradition and ideas that rule the nest. Of course, both forms of hypocrisy are bad.
Also, if you’re sticking to the lectionary’s selections, it is good to note that each section has Jesus in dialogue with a different group of people:
in verses 1-8, Jesus is speaking with the Pharisees and scribes;
in verses 14-14, Jesus is teaching the crowd;
in verses 21-23, Jesus is explaining things in private to the disciples.
We get to witness and be shaped by all three stages of the conversation. The three partners are a good reminder that our traditions have implications for different groups in faith communities:
there are some who set the tone of expectation and establish tradition (a human understanding of how to live God’s will on a specific subject) as the measure for everyone;
there are some who follow the tradition because “it’s what we do”—believing that the tradition is (unquestionably) the same as the will of God;
and there are some who are becoming awakened by the Spirit to the ways our traditions have become more human-focused than God-willed.
Illustrations for passages such as this can be tricky, sticky, dangerous ground. It seems that we are in a particularly divisive and polarizing time—especially in the church in North America. These days, the stakes are much higher than arguing over sanctuary carpet colour… As you consider the “sacred cows” of your congregation and how best to help them be open to the heart transforming words of Christ, you’ll likely be aware of the hotspots in your midst. The following two examples may be too hot, or, they may be far enough removed to help your congregation grasp the sort of thing Jesus is trying to awaken. But, we don’t use examples to make ourselves (our churches, our denominations) feel better about ourselves; they’re meant to help us see ourselves more clearly. So, blessings to you as you move from illustration to application for your community.
The Southern Baptist Convention has taken center stage in religious news this year, and for some, it is a literal debate about tradition becoming a “smoke screen” for avoiding deeper, moral issues. Just as Jesus brings the matter to the interior piety, some members of America’s largest denomination are trying to raise issues of sexual abuse and misogyny, racism, and power among their ranks, and they have met resistance. Prominent figures within the denomination seem to have chosen women’s ordination as a more important challenge to the well-being of the church. Whether you view women’s ordination as an issue of tradition or not, it is undisputable that it has become one of those outward litmus tests for faith communities, a position that many people hold without understanding why; for many, it has become tradition: something to focus on that is outside of our own hearts—about someone else (like the disciples not washing their hands). On the other hand, having to address systemic racism and misogyny would mean having to look within, and it would mean having to carefully examine with the Holy Spirit each of our religious traditions. That’s a big task for individuals, let alone churches, and denominations. It isn’t surprising that most of us would rather focus elsewhere.
For an overview of this situation in the Southern Baptist Convention:
On a more “local” level, I remember this one Sunday at church when a young child talked quite loudly through the entire worship service. Afterwards, I met an irate, long-standing member in the church office. A leader in the church at the time, the man revealed with his angry words how many people probably view that sacred Sunday hour: he was angry that his “nice time with his friends” was interrupted; he yelled about how he came to church to be with his friends and how this kid ruined it. He wasn’t mad because he thought God had been disrespected, he was mad because he didn’t get to feel the way worship usually makes him feel. That’s what a human tradition and ritual is all about, isn’t it, making us feel a certain way about ourselves? In the case of the Pharisees and scribes, it made them feel set apart from non-Jewish people. But in the course of setting up a way to get that feeling, separating from others became central to the task—and that willingness and acting to separate reveals an interior immorality, a broken heart in need of Christ’s mending.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
Are the people who put together the Common Lectionary winking at us this week? The Lectionary across its three-year cycle contains exactly ONE text from the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) and this is it. But it occurs on the same Year B Sunday when the Gospel lection is from Mark 7 where Jesus makes it clear that those who are focused on a legalistic keeping of the rules miss the point of God’s good creation and of the grace of God in which we all live if we are true followers of God.
Need I point out that sexuality has been one of the primary places where the Church along the ages has created the most rules? Things having to do with sexuality and gender differences have even provided some of the key flashpoints of church history. And if you want to hear moralistic preaching at its best from any number of pulpits, just let sexuality be the topic d’jour and you’ll hear plenty of rules proclaimed, most of which succeed in making even reasonably moral people feel really guilty.
So is there a message being sent in linking these two Lectionary texts? Maybe. Maybe not. But there it is nonetheless: the same Sunday that would have us hear our Lord tell us that those who focus only on exterior rule-keeping miss the boat would also have us hear these two young lovers rhapsodize about springtime and all the wonderfully carnal desires that season evokes. Maybe the message is not that there are no rules where sexuality is concerned but that as with so much of life, we’ll miss the splendors of this part of human life in God’s creation if all we can ever do is be negative about it all.
But for the moment let’s forget trying to make a connection to Mark 7 and just look at Song of Songs 2. I am helped enormously in what I am about to present to you by William Willimon’s delightful article in the first volume of The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001, Roger VanHarn, editor).
Willimon points out what most of us already know; viz., across the ages neither Jews nor Christians have quite known what to do with a biblical book that appears to be a series of poems that unabashedly celebrate bodies, including breasts and groins and hands and lips and eyes and ears and . . . well, and just about everything. Since many have determined that people of faith just ought not be quite that sensual about anything—much less about sexy things—the allegorizations of these poems have long ago taken on a life of their own. Hence many commentaries along the centuries have essentially told us that when it comes to these chapters, “When you read ‘X,’ you must think of ‘Y’.” When you read something that looks physical, close your eyes and think of the wispy, the spiritual, the insubstantial.
But as Willimon and others have noted, that will never do. This book is exactly what it appears to be: a series of canticles (perhaps for use at weddings) that turns cartwheels over young love. The book nowhere mentions God, but fretting about that is a little like tying yourself into knots over the fact that no character in King Lear ever mentions Shakespeare. Why would they? They would have nothing to say or do without the playwright being behind it all. So also in Song of Songs: we don’t need to mention the Creator of all good things—including of all good sexual things—because we’d have nothing to sing about in the first place if the Creator’s presence did not permeate these songs through and through.
And just that is the point: this seemingly silly, frivolous book about young people going starry-eyed over each other celebrates creation and encourages us to pay really close attention to that creation whenever and however we can. As Willimon says, when you’re young and in love, you really do tend to believe that every daffodil that blooms in April was sent to this planet just for you! The cardinals in the trees warble their songs because your Jill or your David is just such a beautiful human being! The world seems brighter and more colorful and more alive to you when you’re in love in the springtime, but what you are noticing just then is nothing short of the wonderful work of a generous Creator God.
Want to get the idea: check out this 1970s ballad:
Yup, that’s pretty much it.
Sometimes it’s just good to be alive in God’s good world. Not always, grant you. Life is tough, too, and even young lovers sometimes grow up sadder but wiser as life knocks them around a bit and the blaze of courtship gets reduced some days to a glowing ember. But the fact is that sometimes it is good to be alive in God’s good world, good to feel the tingles and the goosebumps that come when her hand brushes lightly across your hand, when the soft touch of his lips make your lips feel like they are on fire with excitement.
These are good things, good gifts. They remind us we serve a God who delights in our delight, who from Genesis 1 forward makes it clear that when we his image-bearers revel in the splendors of his creation, God himself claps his hands together the way a grandmother beams to see her grandkids dive into those thickly iced chocolate cupcakes with an abandon that only youngsters seem to have. Sometimes there’s no sight more gorgeous to see than a child’s face rimmed with frosting! “Eat up!” grandma may say, “That’s why I made ‘em!!”
“Enjoy it, my children,” God may say, “That’s why I made it all!”
As William Willimon says, preachers who think that preaching is mostly about doling out moral prescriptions or generating long “To Do” lists by which to set people’s moral agenda for the week to come may be a bit baffled by most any text from Song of Songs, including these half-dozen verses from the second chapter. Because here is a biblical text that does not encourage us to do but to be.
True, you could turn even this exuberant piece of poetry into bad news by scolding people in case they do not exist in just this way already. But, to quote another poet, let us to the marriage of true minds not admit impediments! Let’s simply let this poem stand as a wonderful reminder that when we soak up the delights of creation, when we feel the strength and the vitality and, yes, the desires of our bodies, what we are feeling and celebrating and exercising are the gifts of God for the people of God. And that properly leads to doxology, pure and plain and as simple as that. And on one of the last Sundays of summer and as summer’s splendors begin to fade and the busyness of another fall season looms, spending a little time in doxology is not a bad thing to do. Not bad at all!
To quote William Willimon:
“On other Sundays there will be an opportunity to speak of the dangers of being overly exuberant about such matters. There will be other occasions to remind young people of their responsibilities for their feelings and their bodies . . . But this Sunday, if you accept the invitation of these two young lovers, relax, revel, lighten up, and praise God for blossoms, and leaping stags, and silly young fools, and all the rest. How much the poorer we would have been without this frivolous book of the Bible, how much the poorer our lives would be without these gifts of God” (The Lectionary Commentary, Volume 1, p. 291).
From Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABCs. Harper & Row 1973, pp. 87-88.
“Sex is like nitroglycerin: it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts. At its roots, the hunger for food is the hunger for survival. At its roots the hunger to know a person sexually is the hunger to know and be known by that person humanly. Food without nourishment doesn’t fill the bill for long, and neither does sex without humanness. In practice, Jesus was notoriously soft on sexual misbehavior. He saved the woman taken in adultery from stoning. He did not tell the woman at the well to marry the man she was living with. Possibly he found their fresh-faced sensualities closer to loving God and man than the thin-lipped pieties of the Pharisees. Certainly he shared the Old Testament view that the body in all its manifestations was basically good because God made it. But he also had hard words to say about lust and told the adulterous woman to go and sin no more. When the force of a person’s sexuality is centrifugal, pushing farther and farther away as psyches the very ones being embraced as somas, this sexuality is of the Devil. When it is centripetal, it is of God.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Well, I guess you had best count me out. At least in terms of dwelling in God’s “sacred tent.” Because if the list of entry requirements in Psalm 15 are accurate, rare would be the day I could check every box. I might be able to check certain boxes on certain days and different ones on other days but I am pretty sure that grading oneself on the curve here is not the point. Nor is this horseshoes or Tiddlywinks or hand grenades: close is definitely not going to be good enough.
We could admit, however, that we surely would like to aspire to being a Psalm 15 person. And we most assuredly would enjoy life more if our friends and family were all Psalm 15 folks.
In speech: only truth, no slander, no lies, no curses.
In conduct: does no harm to anyone, keeps promises even when it hurts, is steadfast and faithful, lends freely without thought of cost, refuses bribes.
In outlook: despises truly vile people, honors God, and is on the lookout always for the right thing to do.
This is definitely more than just a nice person. This is a person whose character is greater than that which can be conceived. But one wonders how ancient Israel received these words. Because if the Old Testament is nothing else, it is honest about the foibles and failings of most every character who ever appears. Even Noah’s story ends on a sour note. But Abraham also got himself into jams because he lied about Sarah now and then. Moses was known to lose his cool once in a while. Saul was just kind of a hot mess on most levels but even David, the man after God’s own heart, violated just about every part of Psalm 15 at some point. Solomon did not fare much better and it was all downhill for Israel’s leaders after that.
Psalm 15 is said to be “of David” and no one knows for sure what that means. Maybe David wrote every Psalm attributed to him in this way or maybe “of David” means in David’s style or in honor of David or something else. But if David did compose this particular poem, it’s hard to believe when it was finished that he thought to himself, “My goodness, this is a mirror image of me!” It wasn’t and isn’t.
Over the years of teaching at a seminary, I have read my fair share of sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Probably because that parable ends with the line “Go and do likewise,” students tend to turn that story into a moralistic bromide that shames people for not being a Good Samaritan but then also orders them to go forth and aspire to be one. But that is probably a bit wide of the mark (although there is an element of truth there).
What students and preachers often fail to appreciate is something that most of the Early Church Fathers saw right away in that parable. Most of the Church’s earliest preachers and theologians looked at this parable and said immediately, “Who is the Good Samaritan? Only Jesus, of course.” So if you are not Jesus, you are never going to embody perfectly or consistently the Good Samaritan. Only Jesus can pull that off. The rest of us can and must aspire to a greater Christ-likeness but if that happens at all, it is all by grace and only through the power and inward working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Being a Good Samaritan for us is never an achievement. It is at most a gift.
So also with Psalm 15. Who is this psalm talking about? Jesus, of course. And only Jesus. Again, the Old Testament Israelites could not have made this conclusion but one has to believe that whoever wrote Psalm 15 knew full well that he was talking about someone he’d never met. And quite probably there was a deep down sense that whomever Psalm 15 was describing, it would one day be embodied only by the final Messiah and never by any of the Messianic forebearers we meet in the run-up to the Messiah’s advent into our world.
On our own, we none of us can live in God’s sacred tent if Psalm 15 is a list of prerequisites. Probably the “sacred tent” in question was a reference to the Tabernacle or maybe even to the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle and later the Temple: the Holy of Holies, the place where God was imagined to be seated on the Mercy Seat of the Ark. One would need to be God to be able to dwell in that holy place with God, and that is once more precisely where Jesus comes in.
But now we know Jesus has opened the way for us to dwell there after all. The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament makes it eminently clear that all the things the ancient Israelites failed to live up to—and just so were banished eventually from the presence of God—Jesus did on our behalf and so Jesus is now able to take us with him into that sacred place.
Thus when preaching on Psalm 15, we don’t want to turn it into a moral checklist or a To Do list as though this is how one curries favor with God. Nor do we want to leave the impression that any of us could become all this on our own by way of personal achievement. No, the focus must stay on the grace of God unto salvation that alone can begin to transform us into the likeness of Christ Jesus and, just so, into being a Psalm 15 kind of person.
It is right to aspire to be and to do all that this psalm describes. We just should never lose sight of Who alone it is that can make us into a person who—as the final line of the psalm says—can never be shaken. But the only foundation we know of to build on that will never be shaken is Christ alone. That is the right place to begin and it most assuredly is the right place to finish.
Most of us know that when it comes to loans from banks or mortgage companies, the more money involved, the more serious everything gets. The number of pages you have to sign increase exponentially as loan amounts increase until finally you are looking at a stack of forms a couple inches thick for a hefty mortgage loan. Another key feature to all this is having collateral, showing evidence that you are “good” and can qualify for the loan.
Years ago on the TV sitcom “Happy Days” the character of Fonzie tries to get a loan to start up his own business and so a banker visits him in the Cunningham living room. At one point the banker asks him what his collateral is to support getting a loan and when Fonzie says he doesn’t know what that means, the banker gives him a long list of property, bank accounts, and so on that could serve as collateral. “If I had all of that to begin with,” Fonzie retorts, “I wouldn’t need a loan!”
Maybe this is a bit of a stretch but something in that reminds me of Psalm 15. We get a long list of moral capital that we are supposed to embody. But suppose you were a kind of seeker wondering how you could be saved and someone gave you the list from Psalm 15. Surely an honest response would be, “If I could become all of that to begin with, I would not need to be saved!”
And that’s true. That is why our only hope of being a Psalm 15 person is to become one with Christ and let his benefits accrue to us even as the grace of his sanctifying Holy Spirit transforms us ever more into the image of Jesus himself.
Author: Doug Bratt
I suspect that many of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers consider ourselves reasonably self-sufficient. At least some of us were raised in solid homes and received better-than-average formal educations. Many of us have good jobs that support comfortable lifestyles. Since we have worked hard to get where we are, we naturally see our current station in life as at least the result of our hard work.
Of course, Christians know, as James insists in verse 17, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.” Yet it is not easy to fully live out of that truth. It is easier and more natural for reasonably “successful” people to assume that we have gotten ourselves to where we are.
What is more, at least some of us also proclaim James 1 to fairly “successful” hearers. While God’s kingdom is made up of people from every place in life, including socio-economically, at least some of this Starter’s readers speak to economically prosperous people. Not a few of our hearers may also assume they have at least largely gotten to where they are on their own. So, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might spend beneficial time exploring resistance to any sense of complete dependence on God for every good thing.
Of course, James is speaking primarily about Jesus’ friends’ complete dependence on God for the faithful obedience that the apostle describes in this Sunday’s Lesson. The good and perfect gifts that he describes are gifts of godliness and holiness that are an integral part of a faithful response to God’s good and perfect gift of salvation.
But Jesus’ friends’ sense of economic self-sufficiency easily spills over onto a sense of obedience “self-sufficiency.” We naturally suspect that, for example, we are quicker to listen than to speak and become angry (19) just because we work hard at being nice.
John Calvin spoke of God’s “double grace:” “By partaking of [Christ], we principally receive a double grace: namely that by being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a judge a gracious Father, and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (italics added). The epistolary lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday speaks to that “second” grace.
Of course, by leading into that claim of every good gift as coming from God by alluding to the suffering his letter’s readers are enduring, James may at least hint that misery threatens that sense of complete dependence. In verse 2 he invites his readers to “Consider it all joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
Yet James also asserts that none of the temptations that arise from those trials come from God. Temptation is not one of God’s “good and perfect” gifts (17). It is instead, as James asserts here, the product of unchecked “evil desire” (15).
James 1’s proclaimers want to cultivate the love the apostle feels for those who read it. He addresses his readers in all times and places as his “dear brothers [and sisters]” (19). That suggests that he has a close relationship with his suffering first readers as well as. Even the apostle’s later use of almost harsh language with those to whom he writes may arise from how much he both treasures them and longs for them to follow Jesus with not just their hearts, but also their obedience.
James begins the lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday by asserting that God’s gifts to God’s adopted sons and daughters include God’s choice to rescue God’s adopted children. God elected, he writes, “to give us birth through the words of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (18).
It is a claim James packs with theological riches that resonate with Scriptural images. The “birth” to which he refers echoes Jesus’ call to Nicodemus to be born again (John 3:3-7). Talk about “firstfruits” reminds us of God’s invitation to God’s Israelite people to bring their first harvest, their best produce to the Lord. Yet, God does not just choose to rescue God’s adopted sons and daughters. God also graciously sanctifies us so that we may become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, increasingly like Jesus.
James’ list of the first three gifts of obedience which God gives God’s people involves our tongues. Hurry to listen, he insists, and slow down your speaking and becoming angry. Or as The Message so memorably paraphrases verse 19: “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might ask why the apostle begins his description of God’s good gift of holiness and righteousness with the tongue. Why not begin, for example, with the heart, eyes, hands, or feet? Might it be because while the scars we inflict on each other with our hands and feet are visible and identifiable, the scars we cause each other with our tongues are often far less noticeable and so far more treacherous?
What is more, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, when we spend all our time using our tongues to speak and express
anger, we may have neither the time nor the ability to hear God’s Word of truth that gives life. That is especially important to remember for those who live in a noisy culture. So many voices and noises compete for our attention and affection. When we constantly join our own voices to that cacophony, James at least suggests, we cannot hear the full beauty of God’s truthful word.
In fact, the apostle views the control of our tongue as both so central to our life of faith and such a good gift that he returns to it in verse 26. There he insists that Christians’ failure to speak carefully and wisely contradicts our claims to follow Jesus. We may even be so busy talking that we fail to hear God’s gracious call to care for people who are vulnerable, as well as do justice in an often-unjust world.
But, of course, as the apostle adds in verses 22 and following, it is not enough to just listen to God speaking. That easily leads to the self-deception that is the assumption that God cares about our listening instead of also our obeying. God, insists James, did not graciously give God’s adopted children new birth so that we could act like spiritual newborns the rest of our life. God has brought us into God’s kingdom so that we might grow in our obedience to the heart of the law that is fully loving God as well as loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (which is a whole lot!).
In fact, the apostle goes on to point out in a vivid way that those who merely listen to God’s Word are like people who forget what they look like right after seeing their image in a mirror. It is, of course, a ludicrous idea, unless something is seriously medically or emotionally wrong with a person.
We might compare hearing but not obeying God’s word to someone telling us we have a piece of spinach caught between
our teeth. Even after someone points it out to you, you turn and walk around all day as if you never saw the embarrassing string. You never bother to pluck the spinach out of your teeth because you forgot it was even there.
Of course, hearing as well as obeying what we hear is also one of God’s good gifts to us. So, James’ “children’s message” about forgetting what we look like may say something about the ridiculousness of people’s natural state. Without God’s redeeming work, even God’s most mature beloved people are like stubborn toddlers because we naturally refuse to obey God’s word that we hear.
Yet this assertion is subject to the homiletic distortion that is moralizing. So, James 1’s proclaimers may want to end their presentation on it with a reminder that among God’s best gifts to God’s children is both the desire and power to look after widows and orphans in their distress, as well as to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. This is not just a wonderful thing to do. It also closely mirrors God’s deep passion for society’s most vulnerable citizens.
The book Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks edited entitled, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, quotes the master preacher Fred Craddock as saying, “The Bible takes listening very seriously. The Bible term for ‘listening’ is translated most often as ‘obey’ [as if listening leads seamlessly to obedience, or even constitutes the first stage of it]. The Bible does not know the difference between ‘listen’ and ‘obey.’
“Listening is fundamental, but it is so hard to do. We have marvelous mechanisms for not listening. The Bible recognizes this. Recall that marvelous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4b-5, ‘Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord opened my ear, and I was not rebellious.’ The wording is ‘God dug out my ear.’ You don’t just listen—it takes an act of God to really listen (my italics).”