I am teaching through the book of James in my adult Sunday School class at First Central Bible Church. This week, we are studying chapter 3:1-12, James instructions about managing our speech. During my preparation, I came across a parable I wrote in 1991.
Taming the Tongue (A parable based on James 3:2-12)
“And I don’t want to hear any or you roosters crowing before sunup!” the farmer screamed into the still night air. “And tell those lazy chickens that if they don’t lay twice as many eggs tomorrow that I’m having fried chicken for dinner. Is that clear? Good night!” With that, he slammed the door shut on the rattle-trap shed that was being used temporarily for a barn. He hurled it so hard that it threatened to rip off its hinges. Kicking it for emphasis, he stomped off to the farmhouse to see what was on the table for dinner. “Probably cold by this time,” he muttered under his breath disgustedly. “Stupid animals made me late for dinner again.” As he climbed the rickety steps on the porch, he wheeled around and shouted at the lean-to, “And you cows better start producing more milk, or I’m inviting the neighbors over for a barbecue next Sunday! You got that? Then do it, you bunch of worthless, lazy, grass guzzlers!”
The animals in the makeshift barn settle into an uneasy silence. Generally a talkative bunch, at least when the farmer wasn’t around, they were stunned by the farmer’s latest outburst and thinly veiled threats. Not knowing what to say, they nervously pawed at their food as an awkward hush descended on the place. The tension hung in the air like the morning fog on the meadow.
Lightning and Creampuff, the horses, pulled at some straw. Bertha and Hazel, the milk cows, anxiously pawed the ground and shuffled around. The three pigs, Gerty, Mertle, and Harriet sniffed the ground and grunted dejectedly. Dusty, the cat, watched a mouse halfheartedly and wondered what she would do for mile if the cows were turned into steak. Champ, the dog, curled up on the ground and tried to cover his ears with his paws. He was too exhausted to think. The normally excitable chickens and roosters fidgeted uncomfortably on their beds of straw, not knowing what to do and terrified what might happen if they let out one little peep.
Finally, Lightning broke the silence. “It’ll be all right, Bertha and Hazel,” he neighed softly. “Farmer Tate just had a bad day. You heard that he didn’t get the loan for the new barn, didn’t you? Got turned down flat,” the horse explained. “Calm down, you two. You know he didn’t mean what he said about the barbecue. Without you guys, he’d have no milk at all. He’d be in worse shape than he is now. And you chickens will be OK too. You know Mrs. Tate will protect you.”
“That may be easy for you to say,” whined Bertha. “He didn’t threaten to put you on a rotisserie. I’m so scared and shook up, I’ll probably give sour cream instead of milk in the morning.”
“Lightning’s right,” consoled Dusty. “Farmer Tate can’t afford to lose you and Hazel.” “And neither can I,” she thought to herself self-centeredly. “But I’m worried about the farmer. If he keeps going in the direction he’s heading, he’ll end up in big trouble.”
“Well, it’ll serve him right, if you ask me,” snapped Hazel with disdain.
“Oh, Bertha,” grunted Mertle. “Dusty, what do you mean? And Gerty, could you eat a little quieter? We’re having a conference here.”
“Oh, excuse me,” retorted her friend. But Gerty stopped what she was doing and sat down to listen.
Dusty licked her paw until she had everyone’s full attention. “Well, you know how he treats all of us,” she said coyly.
“Terrible,” all the animals chorused at once.
“Last week when he was plowing the north 40, he cursed and whipped me for not plowing in a straight line,” moaned Creampuff. “But it wasn’t my fault that he let go of the reins when he shouted at his kids in the next field.”
“And you heard how he shouted at Hazel and me about the milk,” added Bertha. “It’s like that every morning. He complains about the milk, the weather, his kids, breakfast, the news, everything. If he ever said ‘Thanks,’ I’d be more willing to put out for him, but he’s always so negative and critical.”
“He’s not always bad,” the chickens chirped loyally. “He gives us lots of grain.”
“And he mended by broken leg and nursed me back to health when the wagon ran over it,” added Gerty.
“You’re right. Even after receiving the bad news from the banker about not getting the loan,” explained Lightning, ‘he still stroked my mane.”
“You know, Lightning,” added Champ, “you’ve got something there. Farmer Tate’s as inconsistent as snow in July. When we went duck hunting the other day, he screamed at me for not finding the duck and then scratched my chin and told me I’m his best friend. Go figure.”
“That’s my point exactly and it concerns me,” Dusty broke in. “He’s so unpredictable. He can be charming and hospitable when the preacher comes over for Sunday dinner …”
“And cantankerous with the merchants in town,” interrupted Creampuff.
“But nice to the chickens,” crowed the rooster.
“While nagging his wife and kids,” meowed Dusty.
“You should have heard him at church last Sunday,” barked Champ. “I sat in the wagon and listened while he and the family were inside. He prayed so magnanimously and called everyone ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister.’ He acted so holy while he was inside the sanctuary.”
“But then he whipped Creampuff and me as we drove the wagon home,” neighed Lightning sadly. “I don’t know if we weren’t going fast enough or if someone spoke crossly to him or something else.”
“Exactly,” purred Dusty as she licked he paw. “You can’t trust him, because you never know what he’ll do or say …”
“Of which side of his personality you’ll see,” added Harriet with a grunt.
“When I was just a calf,” mooed Hazel thoughtfully, “there was a pond in the meadow fed by a fresh-water spring. It had the best, crystal clear water and it was so refreshing on a hot day. Then one day a coyote fell into it and drowned, polluting it. After that it was no longer fit to drink. You expected refreshment, but came away with a disgusting taste in your mouth.”
“That may be a good story,” muttered Harriet snippily, “but we’re talking about the farmer, not reminiscing about childhood memories.”
“Well so am I,” mooed Hazel defensively. “At least I was until you rudely interrupted. Anyway, Farmer Tate is like that pond, except that he has both fresh water and stale, brackish water coming out of the same source. One minute it refreshes and the next you’re choking and gagging. You never know which to expect and are unprepared to react.”
“That’s a remarkable description, Hazel,” intoned Gerty. “Of better yet, a tree that has both delicious apples and rotten ones on the same branch. You have to look closely because you can’t tell them apart.”
“Can you imagine that?” grunted Mertle inquisitively. “How can you get two different things from the same source? That doesn’t make any sense at all. Why does he offer both praise and cursing at the same time, like he did with Champ?”
“That is a conundrum,” chirped one of the chickens. (They always liked to use big words and appear smarter than the rest of the animals.) “The bigger problem, though, is that you cannot trust him because you don’t which will come first, the pleasant of the poison. His credibility has been shattered like a broken flower pot. It’s almost impossible to glue it back together and even when you do, some of the pieces are missing.”
“Dusty, you’ve brought up an interesting point,” barked Champ. “Not bad, for a cat. It’s funny that he has tamed and controlled us but he cannot master something as small as his own tongue. He’s broken wild horses but his words run like last year’s stampede. Talk about weird. But what can we do about it?”
“One thing for certain, he needs to know that small things can lead someone into trouble if they are not controlled properly,” explained the cat.
“You mean like the bit in my mouth,” blurted out Creampuff. “When he cursed me for not plowing in a straight line, it was because he didn’t control the bit properly. He either held it so tight that it cut my lips or it was so loose and he let me go in my own direction. But then he got upset when I did. Boy, would I like to saddle him and put a bit in his mouth.”
The animals all neighed, mooed, chirped, crowed, barked, meowed, and grunted in uproarious laughter. “Quiet!” grunted Mertle as loud as she could. “He’ll hear us.”
After a pause as they all settled down, Champ said knowingly, “I see what you mean. When we went duck hunting, I missed the bird because he didn’t steer the boat close enough to where I could find it. I had to swim so far out of the way around the blind that I never did find that duck.”
“What he doesn’t realize,” mewed Dusty smugly, (cats have a way of being smug once they know they’re in control), “is that because of its power to lead and direct, the tongue needs to be controlled. He tongue, while a small part of his body, is leading him into trouble and making his life much more difficult that it should be. Life is hard enough, but it’s even tougher when the little things are out of control.”
“Well put, kitten,” intoned Hazel. “Here, have some milk.” Dusty wandered over to the cows for a drink from her bowl.
“In addition,” chimed in Lightning, “he needs to realize that his tongue has the power for destruction and therefore should be caged or corralled. He’d be better off if he could put a sentry or fence in front of his mouth to insure that he doesn’t hurt anyone.”
“That sounds profound,” muttered Mertle. “But what does that have to do with us?”
“Do you remember why we’re in this wobbly old shed?” demanded Lightning indignantly. “Farmer Tate dropped a careless match while lighting a sparkler on the fourth of July and burned down the barn. That spark ignited a large blaze and destroyed our home in seconds.”
“I get it,” neighed Creampuff in agreement. “And you’re saying that his words have the same effect.”
“That’s right. You know the real reason he didn’t get that loan today?” gossiped Lightning. “The banker’s hose, the merchant’s dog, and I were talking while he was in the bank. They told me that he has offended and alienated everyone in town and no one wants to do business with him anymore. His words and cantankerous personality have burned down his credibility and torched what remained of his friendships. No one trust him because they don’t know if he’ll be a loyal neighbor or a critical, complaining nag. It’s as if his whole life is on fire …”
“And he doesn’t even feel the heat from the flames or smell the smoke,” muttered Harriet.
“Exactly,” neighed Lightning emphatically.
“Do you remember the sheep over at Farmer Tuttle’s that dies from a snake bite?” asked Champ quizzically. “While that snake only made a small bit, it left behind a huge amount of poison.”
“So what,” interrupted Harriet. “We’re talking about Farmer Tate’s words, not stupid sheep. What are you getting at?”
“Well,” continued the dog, “Have you ever noticed the farmer’s wife and children? They’re always so sad and seldom smile. If his kids don’t feed us exactly right or do their chores the precise moment he wants it done, he rants and raves at them for being stupid and lazy. They can never please him. In the same way that the Tuttle’s sheep died from snake poison, Farmer Tate’s children are suffering from verbal snake bites. They drag their heads and don’t believe they’re ever amount to much. Mrs. Tate is always discoursed and depressed. She looks like her every day is cloudy with no hope of sunshine.”
“I get it,” Harriet said. “His words are poisoning his closest relationships. Like the friends that he’s alienated, his family is being pushed away and hurt in the process.”
The animals all nodded in agreement. Feeling sad and discouraged about the situation, they looked at the ground disconsolately.
“It all seems so sad and unnecessary,” Dusty purred after a brief silence. “If he continues in the same direction, he will wind up a lonely, old man. Bitter, friendless, and lonely. The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If only there was a way we could help him.”
“Too bad he doesn’t listen to the preacher while he’s in church instead of worrying about how to impress people,” whimpered Champ.
Lightning agreed. “You’re right, it is sad. But he won’t listen to us. That’s for sure. Maybe someone else can get through to him. Guys, it’s getting late, and we need to get some sleep and get prepared for another day.”
With that pronouncement, the animals settle down for a fitful night of sleep, anxiously wondering what Farmer Tate would say tomorrow.