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You asked for a sermon on The Might of the Tongue


 Colossians 4:6


1]”Sticksand stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me!” They won’t? Someone else’s tongue can’t hurt us? Ask Captain Dreyfus. Albert Dreyfus was an officer in the French Army at the turn of the century. He was Jewish. The under‑the­-surface antisemitism which is never much beneath the surface broke through. The name Dreyfus was called was “traitor”. There was no foundation for the label; in his case the word was devoid of truth. Dreyfus was accused nonetheless. Then he was tried, shunted aside and shunned for years, then tried again. Eventually he was exonerated. But his exoneration meant little. By now his military career was in ruins, his life a shambles, his family devastated. In addition the “Dreyfus affair”, as it came to be known, unleashed a wave of lethal antisemitism throughout France . Not only did the one word “traitor” destroy him, it traumatized thousands of others as well. It was as if one stone only had been thrown into the water, yet the ripples were as unending as they were countless.



2] It is plain that a word, once uttered, is not merely a grammatical unit. The spoken word is an event. And in fact the Hebrew language honours this truth, for the Hebrew word DABAR means both “word” and “event”. Our Hebrew foreparents knew that the chief characteristic of God is that he speaks. They knew too that when God speaks something happens. It is not the case that God speaks, and then silence swallows up his word as though it had never been uttered, with the result that nothing significant has occurred. God speaks, we are told, and the universe with its inexhaustible complexity is fashioned out of nothing. God speaks, and the prophets themselves are “voice‑activated”. Elijah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah; these men are prophets whose entire existence is “voice‑activated” by the Holy One of Israel. Amos acquaints us with the irrefutable ground of his vocation: “The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?


Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, utters that Word which he himself is, and Lazarus is quickened from the dead. (We might as well add that the same thing happens every time the gospelis preached.) Jesus sends out his disciples to many different towns. They are to preach in hisname. If their word (his word) is not heeded in this or that town, says the master, “it shall be more tolerableon the day of judgement for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town”. In short, to disdain and dismiss those words which attest Jesus Christ and his kingdom is to guarantee one’s non‑survival in the coming judgement. DABAR: the word is an event.


It is difficult for us twentieth century-types to grasp this, because we think that speech and act are entirely distinct. Speaking is speaking and acting is acting. They are as unlike as sunbeams and creamed cheese. We have to work at thinking our way back into a Hebrew understanding where speaking and doing are one. Imagine yourself standing alongside the Grand Canyon ; standing alongside it, but not too close, for suddenly a word is uttered. In that instant the jagged outcroppings of rock are crumbled and the canyon floor is filled in as hills and valleys are levelled. Difficult to grasp? No! After all, we use ultrasound to pulverize kidney stones, don’t we? Our familiarity with ultrasound pulverizing kidney stones helps us understand the psalmist when he writes, “God utters his voice; the earth melts.” Word and event are one: DABAR.


3] If we think about this for a moment it’s obvious. One purpose of speech is to disseminate information. If I am told that Paris is the capital city of France or Lake Superior is the coldest of the Great Lakes or the sun is ninety‑two million miles from the earth, then more than speech has occurred: ignorance has been dispelled. That’s the event in this case: ignorance has been dispelled, and the foundation for greater learning has been put in place. More profoundly, another purpose of speech isn’t merely to disseminate information but also to be that vehicle which conveys us ourselves in our self­giving to another person. The words, “I love you”, don’t merely disseminate information; they are the vehicle which conveys the speaker herself in her self‑giving to another person. Word and act are one.


A moment’s reflection on the power of dysfunctional speech reminds us terrifyingly of what speech does. Sarcasm, for example. Sarcasm is contemptuous, biting speech whose aim is the opposite of what the words mean. The baseball hitter strikes out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. As he stumbles back to the dugout, head down, a fan shouts, “Well done, all‑star!” The words mean that the batter is a superior player who has just performed outstandingly. What the fan intends to say, however, is the exact opposite: the hitter is an incompetent who belongs in the lowest level of the minor leagues. And it is all said with deliberate intent to wound.


The child brings home his report card with a glaring “ID” in arithmetic. His mother can’t help noticing it and comments, “I see that you are another Einstein; my child is a genius!” The meaning the parent intends is the exact opposite of the meaning the words have, and the intent isto hurt the child. The child is hurt, stabbed in fact. My psychiatrist‑friends tell me that sarcasm destroys children, simply destroys them. The child understands the meaning of the words, yet also notes contempt and anger and rejection in the speaker’s voice and on her face; the child is wholly confused by the contradiction and knows at the same time that he has been stabbed in the heart. Sarcasm destroys children. (it doesn’t do much to help adults, either.)


Humorous speech is often a form of dysfunctional utterance. The purpose of humour, ostensibly, is to amuse. But often humour is used to ridicule or mock; sometimes humour is used to taunt and taunt and taunt until the taunted person explodes and lashes back. Whereupon the taunter, insisting that the purpose of his humour is never to upset, smirks self ‑righteously, “I always knew that fellow had a bad temper!”


Sometimes humour is used to cloak a dagger‑thrust. Person A, with malice in his heart, wants to say something nasty to person B, without exposing himself to retaliation from person B. If A simply spoke nastily, B might turn the tables on him and with superior verbal skill demolish A in a devastating counterthrust. A decides to cloak his dagger‑thrust in humour. If B replies sharply, A takes refuge in his humour saying, “I was only being funny; can’t you take a joke?” On the other hand, if B pretends to “take the joke” and says nothing, he knows that he has been stabbed and can’t do anything about it! When humour is used not to amuse but rather to leave a victim defenceless, speech has been used dysfunctionally; and used dysfunctionally with terrifying power.


The crudest, bluntest, baldest form of dysfunctional speech, of course, is the outright lie. A lie, by definition, corresponds to nothing substantive at all; nothing in actuality corresponds to the lie. A lie, therefore, is like a vacuum. A vacuum, by definition, is nothing. Yet a vacuum has immense power. A lie has immense power. The worst feature of a lie isn’t that misrepresentation has occurred (serious though this is); the worst feature of a lie is that the person telling it can no longer be trusted; forgiven, yes, but never trusted. What is lied about may be of little importance; the fact that someone can no longer be trusted couldn’t be more important.


The so‑called “white” lie, “white” in that the teller intends no malice but is simply taking an easy way out of a stickysituation; the so‑called white lie has the same end‑result:utter breakdown of trust. Many people have told me white lies thinking they were sparing my feelings. But why spare my feelingsat the price of forfeiting trust? The people we find lying to us we can forgive and engage politely thereafter. But it would be unreasonable to trust them.


It is little wonder that the apostle James speaks so severely of the tongue. While the biggest ship or horse can be directed by the smallest rudder or bit ‑‑ any man or woman being able to control the small bit or rudder ‑‑ no man or woman can direct his or her life by controlling the smallest tongue. The tongue, small as it is, escapes human control, with the result that the whole person careens dangerously and disastrously like a rudderless ship or a bitless horse. In only twelve verses James tells us that the tongue is a fire, is a stain which stains the entire body, is a match which ignites huge conflagrations, is itself set on fire from hell, is a restless evil, is as untameable as the wildest animal, is as full of deadly poison as a cobra. James gathers up all his teaching about the tongue by naming it “an unrighteous world”. The tongue is a world. “World”, for James, always means the culture and institutions of the universe organized without God and as such the antithesis of the kingdom of God . Think of it: the sum total of the universe’s culture and institutions, sunk in ungodliness, organized to oppose God’s kingdom ‑‑ all of this concentrated in three inches of flexible tissue. Little wonder that grace is needed; grace and grit. God’s grace is needed if we are to have the capacity and the desire to do something better; our grit, our determination, our resolve are needed if in fact we are going to do something better.


4] The men and women upon whom Jesus Christ first stamped himself knew what we must do. First, we must speak the truth. This is simple. I didn’t say easy; to speak the truth in a world of mendacity is never easy. I said simple. Jesus insists that the evil one is a liar and a murderer. This is no surprise; to be a liar is to be a murderer. We have already seen how the liar slays; the liar slays trust, therefore slays relationships, therefore slays people. We saw even earlier in the sermon that the prohibition forbidding the bearing of false witness is found in the prohibitions forbidding theft and adultery and murder. The lie slays. Liars are killers. Since God is one who eternally has life in himself; since God imparts life, sustains life, redeems life, fulfils life, his people must always choose life rather than death. Therefore we speak the truth.


It is important that we speak the truth, important as well that we speak. In the church we hear endlessly of the sin of speaking when we shouldn’t, yet we hear nothing of the sin of remaining silent when we should speak. Everything that James says about the tongue’s hyperactivity applies as well to the tongue’s inertia. After all, when the truth is known but not spoken, then falsehood triumphs. I have come home from church‑court meetings sick and heartbroken at the silence of clergy who knew in their hearts what the truth was but who remained silent at critical times. Next day they have phoned me and said, “Victor, we have read the stuff you write; we agree with what you said last night; we are with you all the way.” But silent at the critical moment, so fearful that they phoned me next morning lest they be seen talking to me. Silence, let us remember, is a form of speech. When a false statement is met with silence, the silence is a left-handed way of expressing agreement with the statement, however false.


James insists that the tongue is an unrighteous world. It is. Silence is an unrighteous world too. The unrighteous world is the only world the world knows. But Christians do not aspire to ape the world; we aspire to that kingdom which cannot be shaken and which unfailingly contradicts the world. Therefore we speak the truth, giving equal weight to both “truth” and “speak”.


In the second place we are to speak the truth in love. “Truth” describes the content of what we say; “love” describes our motive for saying it. Our motive is never to bludgeon (truth can be used as a hammer, all of us know). Our motive is never to mislead (truth can mislead whenever what is said is true but not the whole truth). Since love “builds up”, according to the apostle Paul, our motive in truth‑telling must be edification alone. And if the truth wounds temporarily, it must only be a surgical wound, a last‑resort necessity to promote life.


Lastly our truth-telling must “fit the occasion”, says the apostle, “so that it may impart grace to those who hear”. There is always the fitting occasion for saying what we have to say; there is always an appropriate context for saying what we have to say. Only as the truth is spoken and heard in the appropriate context does it impart grace; only here will it reflect the word of the God who comes to save rather than destroy.


5] The God who comes to save; the God who comes to bind saved people to himself, inviting them to bind themselves to him; he will always be their God, he promises them, even as he invites them to promise him their lifelong love and loyalty, gratitude and obedience. All of this recalls the covenant. The covenant, biblically, is God’s declaration


that he wants a holy people so badly he will give himself, holding nothing back, at whatever cost to him, to free and woo and win a people for himself. That people which he has freed and wooed and won through blood-shed grace; so grateful are they that they abandon themselves to him and henceforth live in eager, cheerful obedience to him, reflecting in all of this his own lifegiving goodness. This is the covenant.


In scripture the covenant is celebrated with salt. The offerings which God’s people bring to worship are sprinkled with salt. The incense which is burned in the temple is seasoned with salt. Not surprisingly the Hebrew bible speaks of God’s covenant with his people as “a covenant of salt”. (Numbers 18:19 ; 2nd Chronicles 13:5) When an Israelite baby is newly born it is rubbed with salt, a sign that this child, born into the covenant people, must be nurtured so as to grow up reflecting the lifegiving goodness of God himself.


With this much salt before us we can grasp immediately what Paul means when he tells the Christians in Colosse that their speech is to be “gracious, seasoned with salt”. Salty speech is speech which befits the people of the salt-covenant. The speech of God’s covenant people is to embody the lifegiving goodness, death‑defeating goodness, of the God who comes only to save. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt ……


Eight hundred years before Paul many people complained to the prophet Elisha that the spring-water in the city of Jericho was rendering the people of Jericho infertile, unfruitful. Elisha poured salt into the spring and declared, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come forth from it”.


According to Elisha’s descendant, Paul, we who are God’s covenant people are to speak in such a way that our speech brings forth not death, not even something which betokens life yet finally emerges dead; our speech is to embody the lifegiving goodness of him who is the world’s only saviour and therefore its only hope.



                                                                                         Victor A. Shepherd  

February 1993


Exodus 20:16*
Numbers 18:19
2 Kings 2:19-22
2 Chronicles 13:5
Psalm 46:6b
Isaiah 55:1
Jeremiah 1:9
Amos 3:8
Ephesians 4:15
Colossians 4:6*
James 3:1-12 *