'Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.' James 1
That verse from St. James has a contemporary resonance to it. It reads like the kind of advice found given on problem pages and TV chat shows. James's Epistle is noted for its practicality as is evidenced by the oft-quoted verse at the end of today's reading.
'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world'
For this reason James has attracted controversy. He appeals to those whose religion is practical and undogmatic, the kind of faith that has always drawn the English. Others like Luther, full of doctrinal zeal, disliking his works theology, dismissed his writing as an 'epistle of straw.' Luther wanted to remove him from the Canon of Scripture, but he remains in the New Testament, his earthiness balancing the flightiness of other writers.
I leave it to you to form your own opinions about James, save to share some thoughts about my chosen text. It has three parts for our reflection.
- Be quick to listen. Listening is hard to do. Ours is an age of clamouring to be heard. Serious thinking about the great issues of the day is reduced to cursory sound bites. We fight to be heard. Listening seems to get in the way of this. People of faith begin by listening to God, quietly seeking to discern his will. For Israel in today's OT reading, Moses reminded the people that their task was to listen to the Law. The Gospel enables us to listen to Jesus' teaching so that we can discern what it is that defiles us and seek amends. 'Listen to me, all of you and understand', he says.
As well as listening to God, there is also the attentive listening to others, which lies at the heart of Christian pastoral ministry. We all like to tell our story. Only after we have we listened comes the possibility of connecting with the Christian story. Listen to God and listen to others James tell us.
- Slow to speak. An ancient maxim was that the task of a bishop should be to keep silent. The temptation for Church leaders today is to speak out on every matter whilst not always being well informed, hence all those rather bland, grey Anglican reports, that in trying to say everything end up saying nothing at all. Prayerful listening teaches us when to speak and what to say. James praises the virtue of the bridled tongue in the Christian life. Gossip is a sign of liveliness in any community, but it can also be very destructive and hurtful.
- Slow to anger. Christians have long struggled with anger. God was often angry, wrathful but his people were not meant to be. Repressed anger leads to depression. There has been an unhealthy tradition of denying anger and seeing the resultant depression as a symptomatic of a lack of faith. The trouble is that no amount of excessive chorus singing quite solves the problem. I f we are angry we need God's healing of that anger. James's encouragement to listen before speaking and to speak before venting our anger is helpful. If we listen to God in our prayers and in our reading of the Bible we often discover to root of our anger. God can take it if we express that anger to him in a swearing prayer! The slow speaking to another, the gentle seeking of reconciliation can be therapeutic too. There is the legitimate expression of righteous anger. If we have listened and been slow to speak and slow to anger, then the expression of it is less likely to be sinful and destructive.
We can see that great wisdom lies behind James's very practical teaching. Discerning when to listen, when to speak and what to do with our anger is integral to Christian prayer and action. Our worship Sunday by Sunday helps us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. Just how is expressed in the old adage, 'before the service listen to God, during the service speak to God, after the service speak to your neighbour.' By God's grace may we take that to heart and give it good effect through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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Last updated 31/8/2003 13:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd