The readings for Year B Proper 19 include James’ indictment of the tongue as a “world of iniquity,” Peter’s confession, and Jesus’ rebuke.
The tongue is a fire. … With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters [and siblings], this ought not to be so, writes James.
Get thee behind me, Satan! replies Jesus.
We have heard many tongues speaking of the descent of civil discourse in our country lately. We have read column inches and books are printing straight out of the presses and off the shelves with page after page of critical analysis, conspiracy theory, and plain old gossip. Our heads snap from left to right as words are lobbed across our screens and our scenes like balls at a tennis match. If, as James says, the tongue and its little movements are like a rudder, then we are in danger of being lost at sea.
Get thee behind me, Satan! nods Jesus.
Peter had just made the statement of his life; the defining claim of his career: that this Jesus was, in very fact, the true Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, anointed, appointed by God to redeem the world out of its suffering and sin, out of its oppressive economy of war and one-upmanship, out of death into the life that God had intended for it, for all of God’s creation, from the beginning.
In the very next breath (or at least the next paragraph, the next scene), Peter is telling Jesus that he knows better than the Son of God, the Son of Man, how to do the work of a Messiah; how to do God’s work in the world. From one tongue in Peter’s mouth came the confession that Jesus is Lord, and the proud and preposterous claim that Peter, in fact, held the true keys to the kingdom of God.
Jesus said, You’re not listening, to yourself or to me. If you say that Jesus is Lord, then the next thing out of your mouth had better be consistent with that statement. Otherwise, get behind me, Satan.
Well, we all make mistakes, as James points out. Still, the idea that if we say that Jesus is our Messiah, then whatever else we say or do should make sense in the context of that foundational, ground-breaking, fundamental statement – that seems to be a good principle for working through some of the difficulties and dilemmas we find ourselves facing today, in whatever conversations we find ourselves having.
You can’t bless God out of one side of your mouth and then curse God’s image made flesh out of the other, says James. Experience would suggest otherwise: that we are capable within a minute, within a mile, within one family, one congregation, within one person to bless God and curse ourselves or another within one breath. But what James is saying is that when we fail to love our neighbour as ourselves (or perhaps ourselves as our neighbour), then we fall short of loving God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength, as we are commanded to do, since we have failed to love God’s image wherever it is to be found.
This is where I find Jesus’ example of anger against Peter to be helpful.
Jesus did not love everything that Peter said, or did. In fact, when Jesus went on to tell the crowd, in front of Peter, that he would be ashamed of those who were ashamed of him and his ministry, his Messiahship – we can’t help but read that as a criticism of Peter’s words and a foreshadowing of Peter’s denial of Jesus, his shame at being associated with Jesus, outside the high priest’s house.
Jesus was hurt, he was frustrated, and for a moment he found it better, wiser even to turn his back on Peter: Get behind me. Get out of my sight, for the sake of my own soul.
Because Jesus is perfect in love, in the next breath he is back on track with Peter, and even after the betrayal before his trial and the desertion, Jesus welcomes Peter back into his resurrected embrace with words of peace. Jesus will not corrupt his own soul, or speech, with bitterness or enduring anger.
James’ advice without Jesus’ humanity is an impossible hurdle. James recognizes that himself: “No one can tame the tongue.” But with Jesus’ humanity, we recognize that there are steps that we can take to feel the anger, the hurt, the outrage, the incredulity, the pessimism, the disgust, the barbs that assault and prick us every day, without cursing the image of God.
A few weeks ago, after putting out invitations to our 90th anniversary picnic, I picked up an angry and anonymous message on our church voicemail. It wasn’t threatening, but the vitriolic, corrosive anger in the caller’s voice upset me. The good thing about a voicemail, though, is there is a separation of time and space between the message, the anger, and its arrival. I wasn’t called upon to respond on the spot, nor to read the features of a rageful person. I was given the gift of time and space to sit and ponder what would make someone so mad that receiving an invitation to a party incited their anger. The more I wondered that, the more I found myself praying for the person who had called, and the people who would cross their path without the insulation of an answering machine. I wondered whether we had, in fact, all unknowing done the work of God that day by absorbing this anger into our own body, safely and harmlessly, turning it into digital nonsense and a memory soon deleted.
The gift of time, to breathe, to pray, is a blessing.
There’s a Graham Greene story in which the characters like to say that we bless what we cannot love.
“I do a lot of blessing myself,” the old man said. “It’s when you want to love and you can’t manage it. You stretch out your hands and say God forgive me that I can’t love but bless this thing anyway.” …
The old man repeated … “We have to bless what we hate. … It would be better to love, but that’s not always possible.”
I think that it’s the Graham Greene version of “bless his heart.”
No one has tamed the tongue, James says, and it is a fire burning our own souls.
Get thee behind me, Satan, agrees Jesus.
When we temper the teaching of James with the humanity of Jesus, we can find a way to live with the tongues in our heads and the secret words of our souls. We do not have to deny the evidence of our senses; we can name what is wrong with the world. We can call out lies and counter them with truth. We take a breath, take a break, even turn away for a time if we need to. We can bless; we can always pray.
We can proclaim that Jesus is Lord, that God is love, and that come what may, the way of the cross is the way of eternal life. We can let it go at that.
We can protect our tongues from bitterness and our souls from shame by keeping to the truth, and holding fast to the hope that Christ has set before us, and following him, step by step, word by word, in the way of the cross, the way of God’s unimaginable love, for all whom God has made in the image of the living God.
“The Blessing” in Graham Greene, Collected Stories (Viking Press, 1973)