“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.” Many sermons have been prefaced with these words from the psalm we heard today (19:14). Along with many readings we heard over this summer, this psalm belongs to the “wisdom” portion of the Bible, and reminds us that the manifestation of God’s glory in our world is three-fold. It is rooted in, 1) marvelling at the natural world, 2) meditating on the Law, and 3) embracing the Holy Wisdom in cultivating the living connection between ourselves, God, and others.
Regarding this third point, Jesus’ words from the past couple of weeks come to mind. Remember, two weeks ago: it’s the inner impulses of our hearts, and not our context, that first leads us away from God -- and these impulses often find their expression in our thoughts and words, before they affect our actions. Remember, also, last week: our hearts must be “tamed”, as people train their household canine companions, just as we read from James this week with respect to taming our tongues. The tongue is proportionally as small in our mouths as the bit of the bridle is in that of the horse, but it has the potential to exert an equally great effect on our relationships, as the reins do on the horse’s movement. The effect of our words is truly great, and what’s more, it is often irrevocable. As a child, I frequently heard my grandmother citing the Russian proverb, “A word is not like a sparrow: once it flies out, you will never retrieve it”. This is why the psalmist prayed to God for help in shaping his words and thoughts, and I’m fairly confident that most of us could also benefit from emulating this prayer.
For indeed, knowing when and how to speak -- and to guard and direct our thoughts -- is a matter of serious discernment. Yet, it is something we do more often than anything else in life, so staying in control requires great strength and perseverance (remember, life is a marathon, not a spirit, as I said a few weeks ago in light of the Olympics!). Sometimes, we are better off to rein in the tongue; at other times, we might be urged to remain silent knowing full well that the truth must come out. In this regard, sometimes even Jesus was rather unsuccessful at getting people to keep a secret! In fact, the so-called “Messianic Secret” is a prominent theme in the gospel of Mark, referring to the set of puzzling features that indicate Jesus' reluctance to allow the news of his activity and the fullness of his identity to be known. These include his commands to be silent as directed at demons (1:23-24, 34; 3:11-12), healed individuals (1:43-45; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and disciples and witnesses (8:30) at least “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead" (9:9); his attempts to escape the crowds (1:35) and remain hidden (7:24; 9:30-31); and speaking in parables. Disciples, despite their private tutoring, lack comprehension like most other people, except for a few notable outsiders, such as the Syrophoenician woman last week. However, even if he is not always fully understood, Jesus cannot remain unnoticed: how can he hide the 12 year-old’s resurrection from the large crowd of mourners already gathered at her house, as we read the end of June? And as we read last week, when it comes to the healing of the deaf man, the more he tells them not to do so, “the more zealously they proclaim it”.
So why is the author of Mark so interested in emphasizing the fact that people kept disobeying Jesus (i.e. God!) in their seeming inability to “bridle their tongues”? Maybe, since Jesus himself never explicitly stated that he was the Messiah, the early Christians had to defend this theological claim that they developed over the subsequent century, and so Mark had to make it seem that Jesus had in fact known, but preferred not to reveal that he was the Messiah. On the other hand, Jesus did speak quite authoritatively about the Kingdom of God, performed miracles even on Sabbath days, and challenged the overly literal interpretation of the Law (e.g., re. washing of hands, as we read last week). So I prefer the interpretation that the purpose of this badly kept secret is not to provide a fake support to a later theological claim, but 1) emphasize how irresistible Jesus’ news actually is, and 2) let us answer on our own his question, “Who do you think that I am?”
The answer will likely evolve over our lifetimes; but let’s just say that eventually we develop some kind of a -- maybe preliminary -- answer to this question, and feel eager to share this irresistible “secret”. Before we dive into sharing our understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him (maybe, first of all, in bridling our hearts, minds, and tongues?), and certainly before we begin to judge others, a word of caution from James may be in order: “all of us make many mistakes… and those who teach will be judged with greater strictness”. Words do come first, but actions also matter. If the mismatch between the two is too great, the judgement will come as a natural consequence of our attitudes and behaviours. Yes, in Jesus’ words, “those who are ashamed of me... of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”. But well before the end time, the warnings of the Wisdom Woman will apply equally well to our current lives, “those who hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and... eat the fruit of their way”. The fruit is that adverse effect on relationships -- with God and others.
Remember, a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about conceptualizing these as the universal love story… as the one that takes place in the gardens and vineyards of the Song of Songs. Well, in this marvelous poem, there’s a verse that employs yet another metaphor from the natural world. (So far we’ve had dogs and horses!) Song of Sg 2:15 implores to “catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.” Who are those sneaky little foxes that like to creep into the vineyard -- is it only the external hardships and disappointments that deprive our lives of the fullness of harvest? Or is it, first, our own attitudes, thoughts, actions, and of course, the words -- all this, as Jesus said, that “comes from within” -- that either gnaw at the vine, dig at the roots, and ruin, or have the power to nourish and cultivate our relationships? Jealousy, resentment, judgement; these are the garden pests. But, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”, and She is the one who will shape our words and meditations to reflect the full strength and redemptive power of God’s grace. Thanks be to God.