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179

CHAPTER XV.
THE MORAL CONTRADICTIONS IN THE RECKLESS TALKER.

"Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the likeness of God: out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter? Can a fig-tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs? neither can salt water yield sweet."—St. James iii. 9-12.

IN these concluding sentences of the paragraph respecting sins of the tongue St. James does two things—he shows the moral chaos to which the Christian who fails to control his tongue is reduced, and he thereby shows such a man how vain it is for him to hope that the worship which he offers to Almighty God can be pure and acceptable. He has made himself the channel of hellish influences. He cannot at pleasure make himself the channel of heavenly influences, or become the offerer of holy sacrifices. The fires of Pentecost will not rest where the fires of Gehenna are working, nor can one who has become the minister of Satan at the same time be a minister to offer praise to God.

When those who would have excused themselves for their lack of good works pleaded the correctness of their faith, St. James told them that such faith was 180 barren and dead, and incapable of saving them from condemnation. Similarly, the man who thinks himself to be religious, and does not bridle his tongue, was told that his religion is vain (i. 26). And in the passage before us St. James explains how that is. His religion or religious worship (θρησκεία) is a mockery and a contradiction. The offering is tainted; it comes from a polluted altar and a polluted priest. A man who curses his fellow men, and then blesses God, is like one who professes the profoundest respect for his sovereign, while he insults the royal family, throws mud at the royal portraits, and ostentatiously disregards the royal wishes. It is further proof of the evil character of the tongue that it is capable of lending itself to such chaotic activity. "Therewith bless we the Lord and Father," i.e. God in His might and in His love; "and therewith curse we men, which are made after the likeness of God." The heathen fable tells us the apparent contradiction of being able to blow both hot and cold with the same breath; and the son of Sirach points out that "if thou blow the spark, it shall burn; if thou spit upon it, it shall be quenched; and both these come out of thy mouth" (Ecclus. xxviii. 12). St. James, who may have had this passage in his mind, shows us that there is a real and a moral contradiction which goes far beyond either of these: "Out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing." Well may he add, with affectionate earnestness, "My brethren, these things ought not so to be."

Assuredly they ought not; and yet how common the contradiction has been, and still is, among those who seem to be, and who think themselves to be, religious people! There is perhaps no particular in which persons professing to have a desire to serve God are 181 more ready to invade His prerogatives than in venturing to denounce those who differ from themselves, and are supposed to be therefore under the ban of Heaven. "They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they do not subject themselves to the righteousness of God" (Rom. x. 2, 3). Hence they rashly and intemperately "curse whom the Lord hath not cursed, and defy whom the Lord hath not defied" (Num. xxiii. 8). There are still many who believe that not only in the psalms and hymns in which they bless the Lord, but also in the sermons and pamphlets in which they fulminate against their fellow-Christians, they are "offering service to God" (John xvi. 2). There are many questions which have to be carefully considered and answered before a Christian mouth, which has been consecrated to the praise of our Lord and Father, ought to venture to utter denunciations against others who worship the same God and are also His offspring and His image. Is it quite certain that the supposed evil is something which God abhors; that those whom we would denounce are responsible for it; that denunciation of them will do any good; that this is the proper time for such denunciation; that we are the proper persons to utter it? About every one of these questions the most fatal mistakes are constantly being made. The singing of Te Deums after massacres and dragonnades is perhaps no longer possible; but alternations between religious services and religious prosecutions, between writing pious books and publishing exasperating articles, are by no means extinct. For one case in which harm has been done because no one has come forward to denounce a wrongdoer, there are ten cases in which harm has been done 182 because some one has been indiscreetly, or inopportunely, or uncharitably, or unjustly denounced. "Praise is not seasonable (ὡραῖος) in the mouth of a sinner" (Ecclus. xv. 9); and whatever may have been the writer's meaning in the difficult passage in which it occurs, we may give it a meaning that will bring it into harmony with what St. James says here. The praise of God is not seasonable in the mouth of one who is ever sinning in reviling God's children.

The illustrations of the fountain and the fig-tree are among the touches which, if they do not indicate one who is familiar with Palestine, at any rate agree well with the fact that the writer of this Epistle was such. Springs tainted with salt or with sulphur are not rare, and it is stated that most of those on the eastern slope of the hill-country of Judæa are brackish. The fig-tree, the vine, and the olive were abundant throughout the whole country; and St. James, if he looked out of window as he was writing, would be likely enough to see all three. It is not improbable that in one or more of the illustrations he is following some ancient saying or proverb. Thus, Arrian, the pupil of Epictetus, writing less than a century later, asks, "How can a vine grow, not vinewise, but olivewise, or an olive, on the other hand, not olivewise, but vinewise? It is impossible, inconceivable." It is possible that our Lord Himself, when He used a similar illustration in connexion with the worst of all sins of the tongue, was adapting a proverb already in use. In speaking of "the blasphemy against the Spirit" He says, "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by its fruit. Ye offspring of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of 183 the heart the mouth speaketh. The good man out of his good treasure bringeth forth good things; and the evil man out of his evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. And I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment" (Matt. xii. 33-36). And previously, in the Sermon on the Mount, where He is speaking of deeds rather than of words, "By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit" (Matt. vii. 16-18).

Can it be the case that while physical contradictions are not permitted in the lower classes of unconscious objects, moral contradictions of a very monstrous kind are allowed in the highest of all earthly creatures? The "double-minded man," who prays and doubts, receives nothing from the Lord, because his petition is only in form a prayer; it lacks the essential characteristic of prayer, which is faith. But the double-tongued man, who blesses God and curses men, what does he receive? Just as the double-minded man is judged by his doubts, and not by his forms of prayer, so the double-tongued man is judged by his curses, and not by his forms of praise. In each case one or the other of the two contradictories is not real. If there is prayer, there are no doubts; and if there are doubts, there is no prayer—no prayer that will avail with God. So also in the other case: if God is sincerely and heartily blessed, there will be no cursing of His children; and if there is such cursing, God cannot acceptably be blessed; the very words 184 of praise, coming from such lips, will be an offence to Him.

But it may be urged, our Lord Himself has set us an example of strong denunciation in the woes which He pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees; and again, St. Paul cursed Hymenæus and Alexander (1 Tim. i. 20), the incestuous person at Corinth (1 Cor. v. 5), and Elymas the sorcerer (Acts xiii. 10). Most true. But firstly, these curses were uttered by those who could not err in such things. Christ "knew what was in man," and could read the hearts of all; and the fact that St. Paul's curses were supernaturally fulfilled proves that he was acting under Divine guidance in what he said. And secondly, these stern utterances had their source in love; not, as human curses commonly have, in hate. It was in order that those on whom they were pronounced might be warned, and schooled to better things, that they were uttered; and we know that in the case of the sinner at Corinth the severe remedy had this effect; the curse was really a blessing. When we have infallible guidance, and when we are able by supernatural results to prove that we possess it, it will be time enough to begin to deal in curses. And let us remember the proportion which such things bear to the rest of Christ's words and of St. Paul's words, so far as they have been preserved for us. Christ wrought numberless miracles of mercy: besides those which are recorded in detail, we are frequently told that "He healed many that were sick with divers diseases, and cast out many devils" (Mark i. 34); that "He had healed many" (iii. 10); that "wheresoever He entered, into villages, or into cities, or into the country, they laid the sick in the market-places, and besought Him that they might touch if it were but 185 the border of His garment; and as many as touched Him were made whole" (vi. 56); and so forth (John xxi. 25). But He wrought only one miracle of judgment, and that was upon a tree, which could teach the necessary lesson without feeling the punishment (Mark xi. 12-23). All this applies with much force to those who believe themselves to be called upon to denounce and curse all such as seem to them to be enemies of God and His truth: but with how much more force to those who in moments of anger and irritation deal in execrations on their own account, and curse a fellow-Christian, not because he seems to them to have offended God, but because he has offended themselves! That such persons should suppose that their polluted mouths can offer acceptable praises to the Lord and Father, is indeed a moral contradiction of the most startling kind. And are such cases rare? Is it so uncommon a thing for a man to attend church regularly, and join with apparent devotion in the services, and yet think little of the grievous words which he allows himself to utter when his temper is severely tried? How amazed and offended he would be if he were invited to eat at a table which had been used for some disgusting purpose, and had never since been cleansed! And yet he does not hesitate to "defile his whole body" with his unbridled tongue, and then offer praise to God from this polluted source!

Nor is this the only contradiction in which such a one is involved. How strange that the being who is lord and master of all the animal creation should be unable to govern himself! How strange that man's chief mark of superiority over the brutes should be the power of speech, and that he should use this power in such a way as to make it the instrument of his own 186 degradation, until he becomes lower than the brutes! They, whether tamed or untamed, unconsciously declare the glory of God; while he, with his noble powers of consciously and loyally praising Him, by his untamed tongue reviles those who are made after the image of God, and thus turns his own praises into blasphemies. Thus does man's rebellion reverse the order of nature and frustrate the will of God.

The writer of this Epistle has been accused of exaggeration. It has been urged that in this strongly worded paragraph he himself is guilty of that unchastened language which he is so eager to condemn; that the case is over-stated, and that the highly coloured picture is a caricature. Is there any thoughtful person of large experience that can honestly assent to this verdict? Who has not seen what mischief may be done by a single utterance of mockery, or enmity, or bravado; what confusion is wrought by exaggeration, innuendo, and falsehood; what suffering is inflicted by slanderous suggestions and statements; what careers of sin have been begun by impure stories and filthy jests? All these effects may follow, be it remembered, from a single utterance in each case, may spread to multitudes, may last for years. One reckless word may blight a whole life. "Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not so many as have fallen by the tongue" (Ecclus. xxviii. 18). And there are persons who habitually pour forth such things, who never pass a day without uttering what is unkind, or false, or impure. When we look around us, and see the moral ruin which in every class of society can be traced to reckless language—lives embittered, and blighted, and brutalized by words spoken and heard—can we wonder at the severe words of St. James, whose 187 experience was not very different from our own? Violent and uncharitable language had become one of the besetting sins of the Jews, and no doubt Jewish Christians were by no means free from it. "Curse the whisperer and the double-tongued," says the son of Sirach, "for such have destroyed many that were at peace" (Ecclus. xxviii. 13). To which the Syriac Version adds a clause not given in the Greek, nor in our Bibles: "Also the third tongue, let it be cursed; for it has laid low many corpses." This expression, "third tongue," seems to have come into use among the Jews in the period between the Old and New Testament. It means a slanderous tongue, and it is called "third" because it is fatal to three sets of people—to the person who utters the slander, to those who listen to it, and to those about whom it is uttered. "A third tongue hath tossed many to and fro, and driven them from nation to nation; and strong cities hath it pulled down, and houses of great men hath it overthrown" (Ecclus. xxviii. 14); where not only the Syriac, but the Greek, has the interesting expression "third tongue," a fact obscured in our version.

The "third tongue" is as common and as destructive now as when the son of Sirach denounced it, or St. James wrote against it with still greater authority; and we all of us can do a great deal to check the mischief, not merely by taking care that we keep our own tongues from originating evil, but by refusing to repeat, or if possible even to listen to, what the third tongue says. Our unwillingness to hear may be a discouragement to the speaker, and our refusal to repeat will at least lessen the evil of his tale. We shall have saved ourselves from becoming links in the chain of destruction.

188 There is one kind of sinful language to which the severe sayings of St. James specially apply, although the context seems to show that it was not specially in his mind—impure language. The foul tongue is indeed a "world of iniquity, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell." In no other case is the self-pollution of the speaker so manifest, or the injury to the listener so probable, so all but inevitable. Foul stories and impure jests and innuendoes, even more clearly than oaths and curses, befoul the souls of those who utter them, while they lead the hearers into sin. Such things rob all who are concerned in them, either as speakers or listeners, of two things which are the chief safeguards of virtue—the fear of God, and the fear of sin. They create an atmosphere in which men sin with a light heart, because the grossest sins are made to look not only attractive and easy, but amusing. What can be made to seem laughable is supposed to be not very serious. There is no more devilish act that a human being can perform than that of inducing others to believe that what is morally hideous and deadly is "pleasant to the eye and good for food." And this devil's work is sometimes done merely to raise a laugh, merely for something to say. Does any one seriously maintain that the language of St. James is at all too strong for such things as these? We hardly need his authority for the belief that a filthy tongue pollutes a man's whole being, and owes its inspiration to the evil one.

It is of angry, ill-tempered, unkind words that we do not believe this so readily. Words that are not false or calumnious, not running out into blasphemies and curses, and certainly not tainted with anything 189 like impurity, do not always strike us as being as harmful as they really are, not only to others, whom they irritate or sadden, but to ourselves, who allow our characters to be darkened by them. The captious word, that makes everything a subject for blame; the discontented word, that would show that the speaker is always being ill-treated; the biting word, that is meant to inflict pain; the sullen word, that throws a gloom over all who hear it; the provoking word, that seeks to stir up strife—of all these we are most of us apt to think too lightly, and need the stern warnings of St. James to remind us of their true nature and of their certain consequences. As regards others, such things wound tender hearts, add needlessly and enormously to the unhappiness of mankind, turn sweet affections sour, stifle good impulses, create and foster bad feelings, embitter in its smallest details the whole round of daily life. As regards ourselves, indulgence in such language weakens and warps our characters, blunts our sympathies, deadens our love for man, and therefore our love for God. "In particular it makes prayer either impossible or half useless. Whether we know it or not, the prayer that comes from a heart indulging in evil temper is hardly a prayer at all. We cannot really be face to face with God; we cannot really approach God as a Father; we cannot really feel like children kneeling at His feet; we cannot really be simply affectionate and truthful in what we say to Him, if irritation, discontent, or gloom, or anger, is busy at our breasts. An undisciplined temper shuts out the face of God from us. We may see His holy Law, but we cannot see Himself. We may think of Him as our Creator, our Judge, our Ruler, but we cannot think of Him as our Father, 190 nor approach Him with love."6868   Sermons preached in Rugby School Chapel, by the Rev. Frederick Temple, D.D. (Macmillan, 1867), pp. 324, 325. "Salt water cannot yield sweet."

It was once pleaded on behalf of a man who had been criticized and condemned as unsatisfactory, that he was "a good man, all but his temper." "All but his temper!" was the not unreasonable reply; "as if temper were not nine tenths of religion." "If any man stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man."


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