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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The book of Proverbs ends with today’s reading, which is a poem about a woman of courage. The passage shows that the woman’s worth is acquired from her character of godly wisdom, which is beneficial both to her family, and to the community as a whole. Traditionally, this poem was recited by Jewish husbands and children when they sat down on a Friday night to share the Sabbath meal. Over the centuries, Christians too, have seen the poem as a model for godly women.

The woman presented here is a wealthy aristocrat, who runs a household estate with servants and conducts business affairs together with domestic affairs, and charity. A very busy lady.

The poem presents her as an example for women who want to develop a life of wisdom; but since the poem is essentially about wisdom, its lessons are for both men and women to follow. The passage teaches that honour and respect for God, will inspire people to be faithful stewards of the time and talents that God has given. 

It also teaches that wisdom is productive and beneficial for others and requires great dedication in life’s endeavours; that wisdom is best taught and lived in the home–in fact, the success of the home demands wisdom; and that wisdom is balanced living that gives attention to domestic responsibilities as well as business enterprises and charitable service. And I think that notion of balanced living implies a certain sense of humility, which is of course the main topic of our gospel passage today.

In last week’s gospel passage, we heard that while in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus told his disciples of his impending Passion and death. In today’s passage, we hear that Jesus passes through Galilee, on the long journey south, that will lead him to Jerusalem, which will be the stage where the final scenes of his suffering and death will be played out. 

And whereas at the beginning, his ministry within the region of Galilee was very public, this time we hear that he doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. The reason being, he wants to concentrate the remaining time he has with his disciples, on instructing them in how they are to behave, and what they are to do. 

He once again explains to them that he is to be betrayed and killed, and that three days after being killed he will rise again. But they still don’t understand, and on the way to the town of Capernaum, the disciples argue with each other about which one of them is the most important of his disciples. 

Knowing what they are arguing about, Jesus decides to teach them a lesson about humility. He tells them that if they want to be considered the most important of his disciples, they must be willing to put everybody else’s needs ahead of their own. They must be prepared to serve everybody else, rather than expecting others to serve them. To emphasise the point, Jesus takes a small child from the house where they are staying, wraps his arms around the child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

Now this gesture may not seem like a big deal to us, but its significance in this context cannot be overstated. In the ancient world, children were no doubt precious to their parents, but outside of their own family, they had no value or social status until they became adults. 

Therefore for a person outside of the family to welcome a child as an equal, they had to put aside all ideas of their own self-importance and adult status. This meant turning the social values and norms of the day on their head. By hugging the child in public, Jesus was showing how precious each and every life is in the sight of God, no matter how small, or insignificant.

I think it’s vitally important that we remember this, and that we learn from it in respect our own actions and behaviours. We live in a society that places so much emphasis and importance on one’s status; a society that makes value judgements about people based on their employment status, their financial status, their relationship status and housing status. 

We must make sure that we don’t fall into the trap that Jesus’ disciples did, when they struggled to accept that being a follower of the Messiah did not make them superior to anyone else. In fact, it meant the opposite for them in practice. They had to forget any notion of their own importance, and give priority to the needs of others, and that’s what we need to do as well.

But it is not only our actions and behaviours that we must be mindful of when thinking of humility. We must also take care with our words, for the reading from the Letter of James tells us of the dangers associated with our words or speech. 

On a number of occasions up to this point in the letter, James has demonstrated his concern with right speech, or the impact of wrong speech in one form or another. In 1:19 he encouraged people to be “slow to speak” and in 1:26 he said, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless”. He now concentrates these concerns in a brief, but well-crafted discussion, full of wonderful examples and metaphors, that address the problem of divisive bickering and verbal war in a community.

James begins this passage by noting the seriousness with which one should approach the tongue’s use. He singles out teachers, which in this case refers to those in a Christian community who are instructing others about the faith, as people whose speech is more likely to get them into trouble. This is simply because they have more opportunity to say the wrong thing to someone, since most of their time is spent instructing others. 

James notes that even though the tongue is only a small organ, it can have a big impact. To prove his point, he provides two examples of something small, which governs a much larger thing to which it is attached. The small bit directs the whole horse. A small rudder steers the whole ship.

James continues this line of thought by comparing the tongue to a flame, but here he begins to talk about the tongue’s destructiveness as well. The tongue is like a small flame that sets a whole forest on fire. He specifically uses metaphor, associating the tongue with fire. The whole body, even the whole of life, burns up by the lick of this hellish flame called the tongue.

James then compares the tongue to a wild animal. But whereas humanity has learned to tame the animals of the world—the beasts, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures—the tongue defies taming, being both restless and poisonous. 

Finally, James focuses on the inconsistency of both praising and cursing from the same mouth. He again illustrates the point, noting that a spring does not produce both fresh and salt water, and that fruit trees and vines do not produce fruit which is inconsistent with their nature. Thus the person who claims to be part of the community of faith should not produce cursing. Essentially what James is saying in this passage is that the tongue is powerfully destructive and difficult to control, but as Christians, we must learn to master it.

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