The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
It boasts of great things because the words that cross our lips can never be taken back — though we don’t often think of them that way. We’re so used to the constant stream of information and perpetual noise of TV and social media that when we speak we imagine the words disappearing, as short-lived as our attention spans. The sarcastic comment toward our loved ones may be bad but it doesn’t really have a lasting impact. The muttered insult at people who cut us off in traffic won’t really change anyone or anything. But the reality is that nothing we say will truly go unheard. Our words make up our reality. They linger on in our memory. They make us who we are and lead us toward who we will be.
But we don’t often speak as though that is the truth. Words have a power we don’t fully understand, a power that St. James refuses to downplay: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. . . . For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
James makes such an impassioned case against the human tongue because he knows that our words matter more, much more, than we think they do. Listen to what the Proverbs say:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” and
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
Our words matter. But it’s not only in the here and now that they weigh on our lives and the lives of others. We are told in Scripture that one day we will give an account for our words. For all of them. Jesus said that on the day of judgment we will stand before God himself, and he will weigh everything we have ever said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we think about that for a second, it should scare us. Every careless word we utter, every backhanded complement, every passive aggressive aside — we will give an account for it.
Where, then, does that leave us? If every word we say will be examined before God’s judgment seat, then what hope do we have that mercy awaits us?
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . . Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another . . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up . . . so that your words may give grace to those who hear . . . . [Be] kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
The Father has spoken one Word, the Word who took on flesh. The Word who has come to us full of grace and truth. This Word is Jesus Christ, the one through whom all things were made and through whom all things will be redeemed. He is the certain hope that we have because he offered himself up for us, that we might become one with God himself, his words becoming our words, his grace our grace.
It is only through Christ, living in us and among us today, that we can speak grace and truth to one another. Our human hearts are hard, quick to judge and quick to hate; yet Jesus remains with us, never leaving nor forsaking us, leading us on to better things. And as we travel with him, as we walk his road, we are changed. Christ Jesus shines into our hearts and our minds and our voices, revealing the depth behind every kind word, the consolation behind every sorrow. His story becomes our story, his life our life. As St. James says, “Draw near to him and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” May these words sustain us today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks. AMEN.