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BIBLICAL PAGES

by Fr Giuseppe Fabbrini

LECTIO

on the Church as the People of God

 

8. James 3:1-12


Introduction

The Church as the ‘People of God’
Some members of the People of God are ‘masters’, ie, they have received the task to teach. This task may have been received as a gift (as far as parents are concerned), or out of grace (as far as ministers, group leaders, catechists are concerned).
Teachers must understand that their task is an ecclesial service, neither a privilege nor a position of power. They should be perfect and do not trip up in speech, because that would result in leading others astray.
The People of God is a community which cannot suffer divisions due to the words of someone against the others. First of all, one should be a ‘master’ of himself: this is possible when we are constantly disciples of the one Master, Jesus Christ. From Him we can learn how to make the Word incarnate in our own speech.

Lectio

James 3:1-12
1 Only a few of you, my brothers, should be teachers, bearing in mind that we shall receive a stricter judgement.
2 For we all trip up in many ways. Someone who does not trip up in speech has reached perfection and is able to keep the whole body on a tight rein.
3 Once we put a bit in the horse’s mouth, to make it do what we want, we have the whole animal under our control.
4 Or think of ships: no matter how big they are, even if a gale is driving them, they are directed by a tiny rudder wherever the whim of the helmsman decides.
5 So the tongue is only a tiny part of the body, but its boasts are great. Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest;
6 the tongue is a flame too. Among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a whole wicked world: it infects the whole body; catching fire itself from hell, it sets fire to the whole wheel of creation.
7 Wild animals and birds, reptiles and fish of every kind can all be tamed, and have been tamed, by humans;
8 but nobody can tame the tongue – it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison.
9 We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse people who are made in God’s image:
10 the blessing and curse come out of the same mouth. My brothers, this must be wrong –
11 does any water supply give a flow of fresh water and salt water out of the same pipe?
12 Can a fig tree yield olives, my brothers, or a vine yield figs? No more can sea water yield fresh water.

Meditatio

1 Only a few of you, my brothers, should be teachers, bearing in mind that we shall receive a stricter judgement.
As an acknowledged leader, St James is worried that somebody may be polemic against somebody else within the community. He refers that to the dangerous tendency of man to be autonomous and presumptuous ‘master’ of the rest. Of course in the community there must be ‘masters’, people gifted with a charism. However, they should not speak out all the time and about everything. They should bear in mind that they will receive a stricter judgement.

2 For we all trip up in many ways. Someone who does not trip up in speech has reached perfection and is able to keep the whole body on a tight rein.
Now St James gives the reasons why we should be careful about passing judgement. Those who intervene as ‘masters’, are used to speak out. However, matter-of-factly, they may trip up in speech. In fact, all of us trip up in many things. As we all trip up, those who do not trip up in speech may be considered to be perfect. Here St James is probably quoting Proverbs 10:19: “A flood of words is never without fault; whoever controls the lips is wise”. The underlying idea is: whoever presents himself as a ‘master’ within the Christian community, must not trip up in speech, must not be wrong, must not presume to be always right, must not be a know-all.

3 Once we put a bit in the horse’s mouth, to make it do what we want, we have the whole animal under our control. 4 Or think of ships: no matter how big they are, even if a gale is driving them, they are directed by a tiny rudder wherever the whim of the helmsman decides.
These examples convey the idea that he who is able to keep a tight rein on what is petty, will be able to keep a tight rein on what is more important too. He who has the horse’s mouth under control through a bit, will have the whole animal under control. He who holds the rudder firmly, is able to direct a big ship.

5 So the tongue is only a tiny part of the body, but its boasts are great. Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest;
In a similar way, the tongue is a small member through which the whole body may be kept under control. Thus, the teacher who speaks out will be perfect. However, the tongue may also be dangerous, given that it is similar to a small flame that can set fire to a huge forest.

6 the tongue is a flame too. Among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a whole wicked world: it infects the whole body; catching fire itself from hell, it sets fire to the whole wheel of creation.
The tongue is a flame too, like the whole wicked world, because by its slander and lies it makes community life impossible. It is a small member among all the parts of the body, but it is able to set fire to the whole wheel of creation (‘life’). Nobody can stop the fire set by the tongue, because it is from hell and unquenchable.

7 Wild animals and birds, reptiles and fish of every kind can all be tamed, and have been tamed, by humans; 8 but nobody can tame the tongue – it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison.
Man is able to tame every kind of animals (subdivided into four groups: wild animals, birds, reptiles and fish). But no man is able to tame the tongue, which is similar to a poisonous snake which will not keep still.

9 We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse people who are made in God’s image: 10 the blessing and curse come out of the same mouth. My brothers, this must be wrong – 11 does any water supply give a flow of fresh water and salt water out of the same pipe? 12 Can a fig tree yield olives, my brothers, or a vine yield figs? No more can sea water yield fresh water.
We make use of the tongue to bless the Lord and Father in the liturgical assembly and in personal prayer. Out of the same mouth comes the curse, though. We curse man who was made in God’s image, not just a ‘creature’. Therefore St James warns us: that must not happen. (13:10) Then St James draws some examples from the natural world, which cannot be double-faced: a water supply cannot give a flow of fresh water and salt water at the same time; a fig tree cannot yield olives; a vine cannot yield figs; a fresh water spring cannot give sea water.


Conclusions

Let us quote some relevant sentences by Pope Francis on this matter:
“When I blacken somebody, when I criticize unjustly, when I ‘fleece’ a brother by my tongue, I am slandering him. Words can kill too. Let us be careful about this.”
“He who sins like this, is a superficial man, who cares very little about the Word of the Gospel: at the end of the day, he is indifferent to his neighbour’s sorrows. He is a Christian who is not really a Christian, a ‘drawing-room’ Christian, a ‘patisserie’ Christian.”
“The more a Christian is detached from the Word and from prayer, the more he is influenced by careerism, superficiality, ambition, pride, jealousy, envy. All that should be left out of the Church.”
“The theologian Bernard Haring was right, when at the times of Vatican II he was speaking of ‘clericas invidia’ (‘clerical envy’), as well as Dante who defined envy ‘the whore of the courts’. Satan is the first slanderer of history; since then, his activity has been restless. He never went on holiday; and his ‘production cycle’ has always worked well. He is an obstacle to unity. Everywhere, not only within the Church. ‘It is him who divides, who breaks relations, who insinuates prejudices… this is the work of the devil’.”
“To gossip is a form of terrorism, because those who gossip are similar to terrorists who throw a bomb and then flee: destroying everything by their tongue, enemies of peace. They are very cunning. They are not suicidal terrorists, no, they preserve themselves well.”
“Every time you are tempted to say something divisive or to slander, bite your tongue! I assure you that if you exercise like this, at first your tongue will swell greatly. Because dividing is the devil’s job…”

Oratio

And Pope Francis advises all those who cannot renounce saying the last word, to say the following prayer, and to share it with all those who are afflicted by the same problem:
“Lord who gave me life, give me the grace to be able to pacify, to reconcile others. You poured Your blood… Make me able not to care if my tongue swells when I bite it before slandering others.”

Contemplatio

My tongue too is a wild beast that cannot be tamed. How great is the evil that may be made to myself as well as to the People of God!
To praise and to curse: this is a tormenting and killing contradiction.
We have been given the task (in fact, it is a gift) to take care of the life of the People of God, starting from the community we are part of and in which we fulfil our consecration. This must be done not just in theory but in concrete terms, through the common union with the other members, whose “fons and culmen” (‘font and summit’) is the Eucharist: ‘communion with the Lord’ and with His body, of which we are the members.
Then, how can we let our tongues, through gossip and slander, divide us from the rest? How can we let our tongues whisper in somebody else’s ears words which slander a third party? Don’t we understand that by destroying communion we destroy also ourselves, who are the “living members” of that communion?
It is really necessary to beg the Lord that He may enable us to speak always in a responsible manner.