Taming the tongue

Proper 19 (September 13, 2009)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 50:4-9a; Ps. 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mk. 8:27-38

Ramadan is drawing to a close. By this time next week, Muslims will be celebrating the Eid ul-Fitr, a three-day holiday that marks the end to a month of fasting.

A young boy in Amman sells dates, often used to break the fast (AP photo by Mohammad abu Ghosh)

In Amman, we are beginning to enjoy the first hints of fall, with cooler nights. Daryl is training for the Amman International Marathon, Oct. 17. This is one of many events commemorating 100 years since Amman became the capital of Jordan.

Logo for 1st Amman International Marathon

Many in the United States paused this week to mark the sad memory of the Sept. 11 tragedy eight years ago. We are reminded of its repercussions in this region as well. Violence seems to be on the upswing in both Afghanistan and Iraq – the twin targets of U.S. attacks after Sept. 11. This week a suicide bombing near Mosul killed 20 people, and blasts in Kirkuk and Baghdad killed at least 10 more people. 

Also this week, Israel approved more than 450 new settlement units in the occupied West Bank and Russia and the United States responded in very different ways to Iran’s proposal to engage in comprehensive discussions about a range of security issues, including global nuclear disarmament.

Most of the Common Lectionary readings this week focus on the human tongue.

Isaiah says that God has given him the tongue of a teacher so that he can “sustain the weary with a word” (Is. 50:4a). Isaiah’s secret for being a good teacher is his ability to first listen (vv. 4b-5). The psalmist uses his tongue to call on the Lord in times of trouble (Ps. 116:2-4).

In the Epistle reading, James urges few to become teachers because they will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). James says that, while every species of beast, bird, reptile and sea creature can be tamed, “no one can tame the tongue” (vv. 7-8). He describes the tongue as a small member that boasts of great exploits (v.5a), a fire (v.6a), a world of iniquity (v.6b) and a restless evil, full of deadly poison (v.8). “With it we bless the Lord and Father,” says James, “and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (v.9).

In the Gospel reading, Peter’s tongue gains him both blessing and rebuke. Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ (Mk. 8:29), but then gets in trouble when he chastises Jesus for saying that the Christ will suffer and be killed (v.33).

Our tongue can give voice to words that sustain the weary. It allows us to call on God in times of distress. But it is also a dangerous weapon with the power to curse those who are created in the image of God.

If swords can be beaten into plowshares (Is. 2:4), certainly, with God’s help, the tongue can be tamed. Are we using our tongues to build a more just and peaceful world? Or do our words contribute to the chaos and violence that are far too prevalent?

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