“Watch Your Mouth!”

Pentecost 16

September 13, 2015


Text: James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38


          I remember when I was a child I would sometimes say something mean or rude or inappropriate, and either one of my parents or a teacher or another adult authority figure would say to me, “Watch your mouth!” I believe James was saying much the same thing to the followers of Jesus who were on the receiving end of his letter. In that letter he reminds us of how difficult it can be to control our tongues, and how much trouble they can get us into. I know this is true for me—I think of times in my life I have said stupid, hurtful, poorly thought out things—almost as if whatever was on my mind bypassed my inner censor and came flying out for the entire world to hear and be appalled. Even when my intentions have been honorable, what came out of my mouth came out badly, and I often ended up hurting someone.

          James describes the tongue as untamable, hard to control, a flame of fire set ablaze by the flames of hell that is a world of evil at work in us. Of course, we know the tongue is merely a muscle that gives us the ability to speak what is in our brains. It is capable both of blessing God and cursing human beings who are made in God’s image. James reminds us this is a contradiction that simply should not be allowed to happen. But it does—often, usually doing great harm.

          We also find an example of the need to watch one’s mouth in our Gospel lesson. It begins with Jesus asking his disciples who people said that he was (after all, there was no Gallup Poll or Quinnipiac University Poll in those days). They told him that some said John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others one of the prophets. Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ.” That is, Peter confessed his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, the One whom God sent to bring deliverance to his people.

          Mark’s Gospel tells us that when Peter said this, Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone about him. To us this may sound strange. We generally encourage one another to tell as many people as possible about Jesus, even though we often do not do this very well ourselves. But Jesus told them not to tell anyone about him because, as we will see in what follows, what they thought it meant for Jesus to be God’s Chosen One and what Jesus knew God actually meant were very different, and Jesus did not want the disciples to act on their mistaken beliefs or incite others to do likewise.

          Jesus started telling his disciples that he would suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed, and then rise from the dead after three days. When Peter heard Jesus say that, he started scolding Jesus. Why? Because what Jesus was saying sounded like crazy talk. Jews of that time expected the Messiah, the Christ, to be a great military and political leader who would kick out the occupying Roman Empire and restore Israel to greatness as a nation. Yet here was Jesus talking about rejection, suffering, and dying, which sounded like disgrace and defeat, not victory. The part about rising from the dead was probably incomprehensible to them, and I’m guessing it went right over the disciples’ heads.

          This turned out to be one of those times when Peter’s mouth got him in trouble. Now I’m pretty sure Peter wasn’t the only disciple who thought Jesus was talking crazy—but he was the one who was impulsive enough to say what he was thinking. Jesus’ reply to him sounds harsh: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” Now please understand that Jesus wasn’t necessarily calling Peter the devil. The word Satan in Hebrew actually means adversary, opponent. I believe Jesus was telling Peter that because he was thinking human thoughts rather than God’s thoughts, because he was not accepting God’s purpose for Jesus, he was opposing Jesus, opposing God’s purpose, getting in the way of what God wanted to do for the world through Jesus. “Get behind me” could be seen not only as an order to get out of God’s way, but as another statement of Jesus’ ongoing invitation to follow him. In the meantime, Peter needed to watch his mouth, because it was saying things that were contrary to God’s intentions.

          Although James was writing in particular about the spoken word, it seems to me his cautions about watching your mouth apply to communications in general. This is especially true today, with our ability to communicate instantly through text messaging, social media, and other technologically enhanced forms of written communication. I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook, and have noticed that some people habitually post things directed at other people that are destructive, hateful, hurtful, and often untrue. And it seems like today there are so many people, including many who profess to be Christian, who are all too happy to lambast people they disagree with. Yet James reminds us that the same mouth that blesses God should not also be cursing people who are made in God’s image. Nor should the brain that controls the mouth be producing both blessings and curses.  

Our communication, whether delivered orally, in written form, or electronically, needs to be pleasing to God. It needs to show respect not only to God, but to all God’s children. Communications that denigrate any person or group of people, that treat them as unimportant and deny their right to exist, even though they may act or think or believe differently than we do, is wrong. Such communications are much like the spark that starts a forest fire. They start small, but quickly grow. Today we could say that they often go viral, rapidly spreading to others and growing in influence and in the damage they do as these communications spiral out of control.  

This does not mean we cannot disagree with others. It does mean that we must treat others with dignity and respect even though we disagree with them. Indeed, I believe James tells us to treat other human beings, who are made in God’s likeness, with the same respect and honor we are to give God. In order to do this, we must exercise self-control in the things we say, regardless of the form. We also need to understand there is something in our human nature that resists self-control. We need to let God help us to exercise the self-control we need so that things we say and do please God. We also need God to provide us with the humility to recognize we don’t always get it right, and the willingness to seek forgiveness when that happens.

God help us to exercise godly self-control of how we communicate with others, in order that we may lives pleasing to God and show respect to all God’s children.


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