Thursday of Pentecost 16 – James 3:1-12

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist (a doctor specializing in the digestive tract and liver) published a now infamous study in the British medical journal the Lancet. In this article he purported to link the MMR vaccine to autism. Immediately, vaccination rates in England started to decline. A couple years later the article gained a readership in America and the same trend happened here.

The study was flawed. The Lancet should never have published it because the survey sample was so small, only 12 children. The methods were not scientific, and the conclusions not supported by the data. What was also not revealed was that Wakefield had recently invested in testing kit and in a vaccine which was a competitor to the widely used MMR vaccine. He stood to gain from this article. The article was eventually retracted, and Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine. But these facts were not immediately known, and the flawed study has had a tremendous impact, continuing to be cited by people opposed to vaccines to this day. Indeed, I even use this illustration in this devotion with some trepidation. I know that there are still adherents to Wakefield’s thesis out there. Some of them attend Christian churches and may even be reading these words.   

James speaks of the tongue, our words, having an outsized and frequently negative effect. He was not only talking about the ancient world. His observations still hold today. We are by virtue of our broken human natures prone to believing the worst. In an absence of sound information, rumor and inuendo will be believed. Sometimes even in the presence of sound information, we prefer the rumor and inuendo. That happens to everyone, including Christians.

At the end of this passage, James asks if a spring can produce both fresh and salty water. Can a fig tree produce olives, or a grape vine produce figs? In purely human terms, of course the answer is no. But we cannot only look at this in human terms. On Sundays I wear a black shirt with a little white tab at the collar. That white tab sits over my larynx. The symbolism is not difficult. I am a sinner, but the words of absolution and Gospel are pure and from God.  In this age of the internet, we are surrounded by misinformation, spin, propaganda, rumor, and outright lies. The truth is hard to discern. Pray for discernment and wisdom, but also immerse yourself in the Word of Truth. Listen to its call to the twin love of God and of one another. We will make mistakes, sometimes listen to the wrong information, but this exhortation to love both God and our fellow human being will never really lead us astray.

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