The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series B: 2017-2018

By Jeremiah Sassaman

 

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Isaiah 50:4-9

Psalm 116:1-9

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

 

Driving from home to work, school, or play and back again can become so routine that we fail to recognize the changes that occur around us. Certainly, it can be said that life in general fits into this pattern, yet there is something unique about driving that seems to allow the mind and senses to miss the world as we zoom by. Maybe we are rightly focused on the road ahead. Maybe the hum of the tires and the vibrations of the engine lull us into a form of near complacency, existing only tangentially in and among the surrounding environments we traverse. It is hard to say.

 

Along the road between here and there, traveling from home through the countryside, I laughed to myself as I noticed something humorous that I had never taken the time to observe. Over the stretch of five rural miles between my house and my oldest daughter’s preschool this week, I counted three establishments catering to the care and appearance of canines. The dog groomer sits just two hundred yards away from a veterinarian. Two miles away, nearby to a school, a second pet grooming and training center had recently opened. I struck me as funny that along this stretch were no doctor offices or human groomers, and only the one school. I had a dozen or more thoughts run through my head.

 

The human tongue is defined by as, “the fleshy, movable, muscular organ, attached in most vertebrates to the floor of the mouth, that is the principal organ of taste, an aid in chewing and swallowing, and, in humans, an important organ of speech (tongue. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary. (2007). Retrieved September 2, 2018 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/tongue).” If used purely as an aid to eating, James might have had nothing to say about this slimy, bumpy piece of human anatomy. After all, aside from its uses, the tongue is not attractive. Sure, it helps us speak, and moisten envelopes if you have yet to move into the self-sealing world. These things aside, the tongue is rather gross. In fact, tongues in general, apart from the culinary delicacy of a well-preserved cow tongue souse, are avoided.

 

Humanity alone has a knack for taking something useful, regardless of its form or function, and finding ways in which to utilize it as a destructive tool. The human tongue is no exception. An organ of speech, the tongue of a teacher (a gift from God in Isaiah 50:4) allows one person to sustain the weary with a word. The simplicity with which the organ may be used evokes comfort and warmth. Yet with the words of James we become painfully aware that the tongue, unable to be tamed (James 3:8), can set ablaze a whole forest . . . and more. Such a powerful tool/organ for good, used as pure hell-fire. James utilizes several images to warn his fellow Christians about the dangers of a vitriolic tongue. Using a bridle or rudder to explain the ways in which the tongue controls the body, James warns that a loose tongue can steer the entire body onto the rocky shores of defeat. It is James’s condemnation of the tongue in vss. 7 and 8 that draws great concern for Christians seeking ecojustice in the world.

 

To be clear, the lessons for this day focus upon the human condition within the greater world. They focus on the power for good and evil that often coexists within the simplest of organs and tools; and it jeopardizes the health of the whole body. The tongue spews venom (Psalm 139:4) and fire that can burn down the temple of the body, and a village with it. Forests are set ablaze and consumed by the vicious sparks that the human heart ignites and hurls like pyroclastic expulsions from a volcanic caldera. But what shall we say of the innocent victims of the human voice? Certainly, we must recognize their sacrifice in the face of our conflagration.

 

The world is burning! Unlike to millions of species of life on earth, humanity cannot be tamed. Neither tongue nor temperament will be shackled. What is left is like something out of horror shows. The tongues of humanity have led to continued plunder of natural resources, increased pollution, and loss of biodiversity in every ecosystem. We see the taming of the world as something to be celebrated, much as humans in the ancient world did (Watson, Duane Frederick. 1993. “The Rhetoric of James 3:1-12 and a Classical Pattern of Argumentation.” Novum Testamentum 35, no. 1: 48-64). We have not changed. Even as humans gain a better understanding of the world around us and the needs of our fellow creatures, we tear down forests to build the next shopping mall, a larger church edifice, or a pet salon. We expand our homes, making them large enough for our stuff, and we pave the land in order that we might park our cars. And the human tongue defends it all in one way or another. We seek to radically change the “modern” culture around us for the better . . . in our opinion. But have we taken our radical change to the downtrodden, voiceless, and poor? Maybe, we each must ask ourselves as faithful, loving Christians, “Are we radical enough?”

 

The word tame derives from the Latin domare, meaning, “to subdue” (Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002). Humanity tames the earth, or at least uses every tool at its disposal to attempt submission. The beast and bird, reptile and sea creatures, all have been tamed. The word in James 3:7 imply the complete submission of creation to humanity. The four categories of creature lifted up by James are the same four categories of animal spoken of in Genesis. Every animal has been tamed. But again, our tongues and pride stop us there. I ask, what about the taming and destruction of every plant and fungus, watercourse or mountainside? What about the capture and “taming” of the Sun’s solar rays and the earth’s gravitational fields?

 

We take the ability to harness the world around us for granted, often with dangerous ramifications. Do we recognize that while our cars may be hybrids, whole factories were constructed upon hilltops and wetlands to produce them? Have we forgotten that the laborers who build the tools that interconnect our world are often working in unsafe and poisonous environments? Should we even deign to wonder about how organic foods and monoculture farming can impact the native wildlife in any particular field? Humanity has made many advancements. We have begun to “clean” up our act. And yet our tongues remain poisonous and wagging. We continue to “treat life as just another commodity to be traded” (Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. “To Be Pro-Life In Every Way.” Lutheran Forum Vol. 52, No. 3. Pgs. 3-9).

 

Regardless of all political, social and religious beliefs, humans tend to pretend, according to Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, as if we do not live at the expense of others (Wilson, pg. 6). This is how we become jaded or self-righteous about our accomplishments in subduing and taming creation. After all, no matter how well we treat the dog, have we ever stopped to wonder if he or she wants to be groomed? Had we left the animal in its own place centuries ago, might the world have fared better? We may never know the answer to those questions; and we ought not speak to quickly if we think that we do. Yes, change must occur, but not at the expense of destroying others with our tongues. Our world is vicious enough with illness and pain. We need not at to it with nasty rhetoric and vile thoughts. For we know not who lives in the forests we set ablaze.

Jesus tells us in Mark 8:34, that if we wish to be His followers we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses. Deny the ways of the world that tear us from God. Deny the evil poison that seeks to drip from our tongues. Seek not to tame the world around us, but to harmonize with it. To deny the desires of the flesh to control the waters and soil, air and space, you must deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow the Lord.

 

Jeremiah Sassaman     revsassaman@ptd.net

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