A Vivid Picture of the Dangerous Power of the Tongue

Scriptures: James 3:1
by Jacob Abshire on September 2, 2019

First days were the best in school. I still remember the time my sophomore biology teacher took attendance. She began by kindly granting us the option to state our preferred name when she called what was on the role. A few students went by nicknames. Rudolph was one. His family and friends called him Rudy. William went by Bill. Jennifer by Jen. I had no nickname. At least, not officially. My friends called me Toop as a joke. It was short for “toupee,” a word that captured my skater-boy hair cut. Nevertheless, mischief entered the room.

Since attendance was alphabetized, my name was usually called first. “Jacob Abshire,” the teacher said. “Here,” I responded, “I go by Toop.” It was too early for her to assume that trickory had spawned. She looked cock-eyed over her paper and mumbled, “O … kay.” The next two names were easy enough. Then, my friend Derin followed in my steps. “Here, I like to be called Dez,” he said. She wrote it down. It was reasonable. Another few names before my friend David. “Deemo is what I go by.” She was catching by now. I could see the heat rising from her collar. 

A few common names distracted her until Jake. He had no nickname, not even among us. When she called his name, he wasn’t quite prepared, but was nevertheless determined to get in on the fun. “Please call me …” He paused to think. It felt like minutes. After looking downward through the desk he came up with something. It was the first thing that came to his mind, “Jake the Snake!”

She broke.

The class erupted into laughter. The teacher threw her attendance sheet like lightning from a raging cloud. “We are not starting the year like this,” she sternly informed us. “Everyone will be called by their birth name!” This was unfortunate for Rudolph. He hated his birth name.

Our perspectives of teachers vary. However, it is commonly recognized that most American households have a poor regard for teachers. Children prize their celebrity idols. Adults venerate successful leaders. Teachers, far and wide, are taken for granted. It is evident by the way we treat them. Generally speaking, teachers are underpaid, under appreciated, under staffed, under trained, and overwhelmed by unruly children with intolerant parents. Instead of being societal gems, teachers are disrespected. It comes to us as a shocker that James wants us to consider teachers when launching a lesson on speech.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (Ja. 3:1)

While direct and to the point, this verse has landed into a mushpot of interpretations. Basically, it is a warning not to rush into the role of a spiritual instructor. His reasoning is clear: greater judgement awaits you. How this ties into the larger context is where it gets tricky. Some commentaries treat the verse as a kind of parenthetical note to anyone who might want to preach. Others completely ignore it altogether. While there is freedom here to talk firmly about the responsibility of teaching God’s Word, I believe the message is not so much in the words themselves, but in the prudent feelings they produce. To feel the verse, you have to put your kippah on.

Put Your Kippah On

My mother said this the most to me, “Put your thinking cap on.” I wish it were as easy as running to my room to grab some magical hat. It’s not. It will take some critical thinking and historical context.

James is writing to a general audience—scattered Jewish Christians. Unlike Paul’s letters to the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and the like, James has a broader, possibly nomadic, people group in mind. They are not in one city or even one country. They are all over the surrounding regions and mixed into diverse cultures. It would not be reasonable to assume he was address needs specific to one local. He had to think general. It’s common knowledge that you can’t tell inside jokes to outside audiences. James had to keep things mainstream.

The mainstream Jew had the greatest respect for his teacher. The Talmud, a collection of Jewish commentaries and wisdom, explains. “Let your esteem for your friend border upon your respect for you teacher, and respect for your teacher on reverence for God.” In other words, the only one worthy of more honor than your teacher was God Himself. This was because God sovereignly puts His teachers in position. “Respect for a teacher should exceed respect for a father, for both father and son owe respect to a teacher.” It continues, “his father only brought him into this world,” and “his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brings him into the world to come.” It’s been taught that if the house is burning down with both your father and teacher inside, rescue the teacher first. It’s very reasonable. We will all live longest in the world to come. We have a limited time to prepare!

This prestigious position of teacher was initially held by the priests. However, they floundered it and gave it over to the Scribes who spent most of their time studying and writing about God’s truth. When the Scribes spoke, people listened. Their words put their hearers on eternal trajectories. This is why Jesus told their hearers, “practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matt 23:2). 

Sitting in Moses’ Seat

One of the most popular sayings from the Spider-Man tales is something that the wise Uncle Ben taught his young nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The web crawler was given a gift to accomplish good in his neighborhood. He was not to use it irresponsibly. The same was true of the Scribes and Pharisees. They were given a gift of knowledge. Their tongues were powerful. With their words, they affected the course of lives.

This kind of power was only given to a few who sat on the “seat of Moses.” (Matt. 23:2). This ideas was commonly known among the Jews as metaphor to refer to masters with divine authority. It was derived from the story of Moses in Exodus 18. As disagreements arose in the camp, the people settled their matters before Moses, God’s appointed leader. He sat and ruled, as it were. Jethro, his father-in-law, advised him to delegate this authority to other qualified men when the line of people extended too far. Scribes and Pharisees were distant delegates, metaphorically speaking, who judged the people who “inquire of God” (Ex. 18:15).

Speaking on God’s behalf was not to be taken lightly. After all, this is God, the all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving Creator of all things. While Jesus exhorted people to pay close attention to the Scribes, he prefaced it with this caution: “do not the works they do.” His reasoning, “For they preach but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2). They were prone to “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:3). They added extra-biblical traditions and “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matt. 23:13). In other words, they were irresponsible with their power. For this irresponsibility, they were rebuked in the strongest of ways. This rebuke is commonly known as the Seven Woes (Matt. 23:13-26). A “woe” was a judgement too strong for words. They received seven of them.

The Weight of Words

Teachers in the Jewish world were spiritual guides who used their tongue to shepherd God’s people with God’s truth. This is why James begins his trial of speech with this caution. Teachers are the most vivid depictions of the dangerous power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” James wants his audience to have a sense of the seriousness of speech. He wants to lay a foundation of importance and consequence that you can feel deep in your soul.

“Not many of you should become teachers,” he says (Ja. 3:1). No one ought to rush into the seat of steering others with your mouth. No one should casually run their mouths in all directions. “For you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Ja. 3:1). Jesus warned us all in Matthew 12:36-37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Although teachers are held accountable for their speech, everyone will be judged for every word.

Scientists say that sound waves, once set in motion, never truly end. If we had the right instruments, we could recapture these sound waves years after they’ve been generated. Imagine this instrument being used to listen to all the words you’ve voice in your life. If your words are the basis of judgement, what would your words say about you? Would they justify your faith or condemn it?

While such an instrument doesn’t exist right now, God does and He needs no help remembering everything you’ve said. Therefore, be mindful of the weight of your words.

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