When Jesus says “shut up"
How many of you grew up in a household where you weren’t allowed to say “shut up?” How many of you adapted your language to a code word or something slightly less offensive than “shut up?” Heh heh. How many of you would be surprised to know that Jesus told Peter to shut up? And then Peter told Jesus to shut up, and then Jesus told Peter for the final time to shut all the way up.
Biblical scholar C. Clifton Black calls this the “most verbally abusive passage” in the Gospel of Mark. This isn’t the way we expect a Messiah to speak—shouldn’t we be hearing gracious and lofty words about a beautiful future? But, oh wait, Jesus is not a candidate running for the office of political messiah; he already is the Messiah and the savior of the world, and he’s trying his best to get the rest of us to understand what that means. And he’s going to speak in the language that we’re most likely to hear.
This Greek word that we’re translating to mean “shut up” shows up a few other times in the Gospel—it’s the word Jesus uses when casting out demons and stilling a wind storm. Jesus isn’t being ironic or making things a bigger deal than they should be. Jesus knows the power of speech to create and to heal, to teach what freedom really means. And sometimes the first step of learning is listening. You can’t listen and speak at the same time. How many of you have received that helpful reminder: you have two ears and one mouth for a reason: you should listen twice as much as you speak.
Jesus helps his disciples to understand that the stakes are life and death; it really is that serious. C. Clifton Black writes, “In no Gospel does Jesus say, ‘It is my responsibility to die for you, while you applaud my heroism.’ Instead, [Jesus essentially says] “The Son of Man is ordained by God to suffer, die, and be raised. And so are his followers. Are you coming?’”
We’re not just here to follow Jesus so that he can save our individual selves. Jesus is showing us how to participate in the liberation of the whole world. We’re not just enjoying our freedom but we are also called to set others free. Jesus’s words—even when he is saying “shut up”—are always about setting people free.
I don’t know about you, but almost every time I have said “shut up,” it’s for a much lesser reason, something for which I frequently have to ask forgiveness from my family or my children. I can’t pretend my words are always righteous: they’re not. I’m not trying to be Jesus; I’m aware that will never happen.
But do I want to be part of this liberation movement and show the world that I know God’s great love in Jesus Christ and I want to share God’s love and liberation with the world? Yes. Yes I do want that. This is where James, who wrote this helpful letter to the early followers of Jesus, would be telling me: if this is really what you say you want, then prove it; let your words and your actions prove it.
Perhaps you noticed that the New Testament readings for the past couple of weeks have come from James, and we hear from James again today, and we’ll hear from James again in the coming weeks. James is one of those books of the Bible that Lutherans are content to ignore; Martin Luther famously called James “the epistle of straw” because Luther was not a big fan of works righteousness. Luther himself had been afflicted with the fear of hell and the constant anxiety of wondering if he was pleasing to God. It was life-giving for him to learn that God’s grace already belongs to him, and he spent his life trying to help others to know God’s grace. He didn’t hear that life-giving grace in the book of James; what he heard was a lot more like death-dealing rules for righteousness, as if following the rules perfectly would save a person.
So Martin Luther may have been responding in his own way to his cultural climate, wishing to liberate people’s souls from the fear of hell. But also, you read some of his written works and learn that Luther applied his phenomenal mind to bullying speech and hateful nicknames for his intellectual and theological opponents…and it makes you wish he’d paid a little closer attention to what James was trying to say.
A couple of weeks ago, we read from the section in the book of James about being “do-ers of the Word” versus merely “hear-ers of the Word.” Rather than making those things polar opposites—doing versus hearing—Presbyterian pastor Austin Crenshaw Shelley notices in the term ‘hearers’ a reference to the Hebrew Shema, a foundational verse of Scripture from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Reverend Shelley writes, “Any rabbi friend or Hebrew lexicon will explain that they root for the Hebrew word shema, typically translated as ‘to hear,’ also carries a second, equally emphatic meaning: ‘to obey.’ This double meaning persists today, even in English translation. When I ask my children to ‘listen to me,’ I generally also expect them to do what I have asked. If they fail to obey, I might legitimately question whether they have heard.”
So hearing God’s Word should naturally lead to obeying God’s Word, and James helps us understand the many ways we disobey, including disobedience in the way we speak to other people and about other people. “The tongue is a fire,” James writes, and if James had the chance to look at social media, he’d probably add typing fingers and emojis as part of that same fire.
All of it comes from within: words reflect the state of the heart. Maybe you think you’re just fine, but let a stressful situation show you who you really are. Let a careless driver swerve in front of you and find out just how benevolent and Godly you actually are. Or a stubborn relative. Or even a persistent medical condition, like pain or depression. Do the harsh words you speak to yourself show up in your speech to other people? None of this is the abundant life that God intends for human flourishing.
Jesus tells his disciples that his followers will be the ones who lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. Now I do not believe that Jesus is calling us to be lemmings just marching off to our deaths: that doesn’t make any sense. Jesus is calling us to give up the false life that tells us we don’t matter, die to the idea that success depends on how much money we make or how influential we can be, stop living by the lies that harass us to be stronger or do more or earn our salvation—tell all that stuff to shut up. Lose that life.
And welcome a life of freedom in Christ: the freedom to be fully who you are, to be who God created you to be, free to create and explore and try new things and heal, free to stop caring what other people think of you and care more about what Jesus thinks of you. And Jesus loves you just as you are.
Words have the power to liberate or to oppress, to bring life or death. One place where words matter is for people struggling with mental health. People with mental illnesses like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder can be terribly harmed by well-meaning people who say hurtful things like “pray more,” “be strong,” “just trust in God,” “look on the bright side…” Those phrases in themselves don’t appear harmful, but these words turn deadly when thrown like additional baggage on top of the already overwhelming burden of depression.
Rachel Lam, a professor of psychology, identifies herself as a Christian, biracial Chinese woman who has struggled with depression and suicidality—she says depression is a treatable illness and suicidality is a symptom of that illness. During depressive episodes, she said she “felt ashamed for not being stronger or having more faith.” She was helped by medication and therapy, coming to understand her mental and emotional anguish. One of her psychiatrists also had a Chinese background and was able to understand the cultural nuances at work against her, “such as equating mental or emotional struggle to weakness, and weakness bringing shame to one’s family.” Lam writes, “He understood my challenges and fears in a way that I realized my prior therapists had not. He was also Christian. ‘Don’t let people tell you that you can pray this away,’ he told me. ‘Would anyone ever tell a cancer patient that he needs to pray harder to cure his cancer? Depression is the same.’” (Sidenote: people with cancer probably have heard this, which is terrible and just as much untrue.)
Lam also describes a time when her depression flared up and her suicidality returned, which led to a hospital stay in a psychiatric ward and made her feel even more ashamed and like a failure. Lam writes this:
“When I returned from the hospital after eight days of medication changes and daily therapy, I was caught off guard in an amazing way by my stepmother. ‘Take your time,’ she told me. ‘Don’t do too much.’ Though she worked full-time, cared for my disabled father, and already had two adult children living with her before my husband, daughter, and broken-me started living there, she was telling me to take it easy. I can see myself then: wide-eyed, partially relieved, but also anxious. Could I take it easy? Was that really an option?”
Weeks of recovery followed, sometimes spending all day in bed, sometimes crying, sometimes getting up to make a meal or walk her child to school. She writes,
“I kept waiting for my stepmother to tell me to find a job, or go to church, or try something new. I thought, ‘I should be getting better by now…What am I doing wrong?’ But I never heard these words or anything like them from her. She was patient and so very understanding. She told me, specifically, not to go back to work too soon and especially not full time. ‘You need time, your brain chemistry is not balanced. You can’t rush, do only what you can,’ she told me. ‘Cry when you need to.’ She encouraged me to heal and never told me to be stronger.”
Lam said she was curious, and it turned out that her stepmother had lost a friend to depression and suicide, which led her stepmother to learn more about depression and various treatments. Lam writes, “She did not know that I would ever end up at her house, in a similar mental state. I hardly ever discussed my depression with my Chinese family because I feared their responses would exacerbate my shame. But in opening up to my stepmother, I realized that God brought us together when we both needed one another. God prepared her for me—she was the angel I never prayed for.”
Now Lam is an advocate for people suffering from mental illness, and she prays that “we turn away from the dangerous belief that mental illness is something that can be prayed away. Keep praying, but stop telling us to pray in an effort to rid ourselves of mental illness because it gives more power to our shame.” And she suggests taking action that helps, writing, “We need grace, patience, and understanding; we need someone to sit with us in our darkness, to hold space for us; we need acceptance for every emotional state we find ourselves in. Ultimately, we need real human people to show us the love-in-action that God desires for us.”
Aha. There it is. Words that bring life. Words that convey the love of God in action; grace with skin on it. I tell this story because Lam’s stepmother could be any of us—we don’t have to become mental health professionals before sharing life-giving grace with someone who is struggling. Sure, it can be scary to hear from a loved one that they have considered suicide, but medical studies show that talking about suicide does not induce suicidal behavior. Talking about these tough things may very well be the thing that diminishes the power of shame to harm someone whose life is at risk. This is the kind of speech that gives life. Listening and affirming and loving someone—this is what gives life.
We are living through incredible stress right now as we navigate an ongoing pandemic, and there may very well be more people thinking about ending their life or imagining that the world would be better off without them. To the forces of evil that would harm human life, Jesus would say “shut up.”
And then to the person who is hurting, Jesus would say, “Tell me what’s going on. You are loved, no matter what. I’m here for you. I understand. I’m not leaving.” And then I bet Jesus would actually sit there for as long as it takes, with the wisdom of presence, with the tongue of a teacher who knows how to sustain the weary with a word. That word is grace, and that grace is for you.