September 16, 2018
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|[Proverbs 1:20-33]||[ Psalm 19]||James 3:1-12||[Mark 8:27-38]|
by Jeanyne Slettom
The Timeliness of James
The September lectionary readings focus on the general epistle of James, and the pairing of this book with our present socio-politico-economic reality could not be better timed. These commentaries will therefore focus on James, with occasional dips into the other readings.
This week’s reading from James exemplifies both the lure and the challenge of preaching from these texts. On the one hand, James uses evocative imagery—the bit in a horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, a spring of water!—but he uses them for scolding and exhortation, which hardly make for appealing sermons. But he also uses them to make two important points, one embedded in the other and each reinforcing a critical message for our time: what we say matters.
He likens both the bit and the rudder to the tongue, which is James’ way to direct our attention to the words we use, the things we say. The tongue is to the body as the bit is to the horse and the rudder to ship, which is say that each image is about providing direction. That is, the rider uses a bit to direct the path taken by the horse and the speed at which it goes; the rudder sets the course for the ship. The tongue—our speech—reflects our character, or the direction our lives have taken. Choose your words well, he basically argues. Don’t let your words lead you to evil deeds.
Well and good: speech directs action; action reflects character. The one is indicative of, or reveals, the other. At this point he seems to making the “as without, so within” argument—or, the tongue guides the character as the bridle guides the horse. But then he takes his argument upstream, so to speak, and adds the image of the spring, which pours forth water (3:11). The same source cannot produce both fresh, clean water and brackish water—no more than a fig tree can grow grapes. So now James appears to be making the opposite point: “as within, so without.” At the source, it must be one or the other; it cannot be both.
What is he getting at?
At this point, the preacher has to reach back to the theme of the previous chapters, when James declares the hypocrisy of “faith” that is merely spoken, or professed, without the actions that inevitably manifest from authentic faith. He has declared faith without works to be dead and religion without compassion to be worthless. Now he aims a little deeper: the hypocrite who says one thing and does another is actively practicing deceit. It may be self-deception or it may be deliberate lies, but the water at the source is brackish. No matter how eloquently crafted, speech that springs from brackish water cannot be clean.
“Watch what we do, not what we say.” That’s the line famously uttered by Attorney General John Mitchell at the start of the Nixon administration. It was intended to reassure African Americans that despite what the administration was saying to pacify white Southerners, what they would actually do is move toward desegregation.
When we hear the phrase today, we are more likely to take it the other way: spouting fine words about patriotism or religion, but acting in reprehensible ways; that is, using words to distract, to disguise, to disparage, to deceive. Reporters used to call it spin and accuse politicians of it; now politicians call it fake news and accuse reporters of it. Words intended to manipulate truth, to present “alternate facts,” to incite violence—whether uttered in speeches, issued in tweets, or turned into chants—are words that spring from brackish sources.
Public speech that is crafted to deceive is manipulative, and it has two targets: truth and trust. If we can be persuaded to doubt what is true, then we will no longer know whom we can trust. Distrust leads to isolation, and isolation makes us easy prey for despots.
Speech that uplifts, that encourages, that teaches wisdom, that resonates as true, is speech that springs from a pure heart. And that is what James is ultimately aiming for. His fuming against hypocrisy is a plea for its opposite: integrity.
Much has been made of the “messianic secret” in Mark—the term scholars have variously used, rejected, or revived to explain why Jesus enjoins his followers, those he heals, and the demons he casts out, to tell no one of his messianic mission. The more preachable point, however, is not the secret but what Jesus appears to be teaching about messianic expectation.
This is the pivotal chapter of the book, when biblical scholar Ched Myers notes the shift in narrative sites from seas, boats and wilderness to “a journey from the margins of Palestine to its center”1; from the extreme north of Caesarea Philippi southward to Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples are “on the way,” when Jesus asks them (and us, the readers) “Who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then instructs them not to tell anyone about him, but he also begins to teach them openly about the suffering and death that await him. For this, Peter rebukes him, but then Jesus surprises us with his vehement response, saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (33).
What gives? Why does Peter rebuke Jesus, and why does Jesus, in his reply, invoke the temptation in the desert (Mark 1:13)? The key to unlocking this odd exchange is in the verses that follow, which essentially explain Jesus’ theology of reversal and what he understands to be the meaning of “messiah.”
If the outcome of Jesus’ ministry, as he explains it, is to be suffering, rejection, and death, then his model is clearly not based on imperial Rome, with its military might, its royal aggrandizement, and its ostentatious wealth. Instead, Jesus teaches a reversal of how the world understands power and Peter, by failing to understand Jesus’ meaning, appears in the guise of Satan, trying once again to tempt Jesus with Caesar’s kind of power. (Compare with the more detailed story in Matthew 4:1-10, where the wilderness temptations offered by Satan are power, wealth, and glory.)
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks, and Ched Myers, in his commentary on Mark, warns us: “Upon our answer hangs the character of Christianity in the world.”2
Jesus has already used parables to teach the disciples about the kingdom of God (chapter 4), and it bears no resemblance to Rome. The kingdom of God is the opposite of the empire of Caesar, so it stands to reason that Jesus would not use the Roman tools of conquest and domination to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Reversal in one (the true meaning of power) calls for reversal in the other (the true meaning of leadership).
This is a central understanding of process theology. God’s power is persuasive, not coercive or domineering. There’s a metaphysical explanation for this that has to do with genuine free will and the integral creative presence of God in the natural world. But this is not something that process folks figured out and that they then impose back on Christianity. When Alfred North Whitehead was grappling with the creative dynamism of the universe he found an interpretive key in what he calls “the Galilean origin of Christianity” that “slowly and in quietness operate(s) by love.”3
Unfortunately, as Whitehead also observes, this “brief Galilean vision of humility” has only “flickered” down through the ages. Instead, to answer the question posed by Myers above, Christianity has been characterized by Caesar. Or as Whitehead writes, “When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered.”4
This is why the question posed by Jesus—“Who do you say that I am?”—is one that must be asked of every generation, in every historical era. And to simply answer, “You are the Messiah,” is not enough. The more crucial question is the follow-up, namely, how do we understand that word, “messiah”?
Has Caesar conquered, or can we reclaim that “Galilean vision of humility”? Do we want our notions of leadership and power shaped by the likes of Der Führer and Il Duce? Or by someone claiming to be the greatest, a super genius, who has the best words? Or do we want these notions to be shaped by a power that operates slowly and quietly, by love?
What do you say? Choose your words wisely, because what we teach, what we preach, what we say privately, or what we proclaim publically—these days, everything we say matters.
- Ched Myers. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1992, 238.
- Myers, 235.
- Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality. 1929. Corrected Edition. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1978, 343.
Jeanyne Slettom is a UCC minister whose primary interest is process-relational theology. A theologian and teacher, writer and publisher, she has taught at Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites and served churches in California and Minnesota. In addition to being the publisher of Process Century Press, she is theologian-in-residence at Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul and an award-winning preacher whose online liturgies and commentaries have been used by practicing preachers around the world. She is passionate about ecotheology, prophetic resistance, and a ministry of transformation and hope. A past director of Process & Faith, her PhD is in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. She lives and works on the banks of the Mississippi River.