James 4:11-12 ESV
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
The famous Three Wise Monkeys have been an icon, of sorts, for a really long time. These smart monkeys come from a Japanese pictorial maxim, embodying the proverbial principle, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys, and the proverb including associations with being of good mind, speech, and action (Wikipedia). The three monkeys even have names ascribed to them, but the focus this morning is not on monkeys. Our focus is on the church.
James continues to write very practical instructions for the believing body of Christ. At this point in his letter, he addresses the destructive forces of slander and judgment. This is not some new command found only in New Testament letters. James is Jewish, and he is certainly writing to Jewish Christians in the church, so I’m sure he is pointing back to a familiar passage found in Leviticus chapter 19.
He and the other Jewish Christians would definitely be familiar with the Law, and Leviticus 19 is really very familiar to anyone who has studied the Bible. It starts off with instructions for Moses to pass onto the people. You might recall those famous words at the beginning of the chapter, which declare, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2)
This same chapter in Leviticus goes on to instruct God’s people in unlawful activity like: stealing from your neighbor, oppressing your neighbor, treating people fairly, and, yes, slandering your neighbor. The Law prohibited Israel from doing injustice in court, and holding a grudge. Of course, we also see the instructions for loving your neighbor, as well.
This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is not just an old, outdated, and ancient law. Even in the New Testament Church, slander is unacceptable. One of the main functions of the church is to build one another up, not tear each other down. The idea of slander can mean just what we think it means, as in saying unkind things about someone, particularly if those things are not true. But it can also be applied to the idea of questioning someone’s authority in the church. In contrast, to questioning someone else’s authority, James says it’s wrong to decided to place yourself in authority over them. Judging someone is assuming authority, and control over them. James says it’s inappropriate to do these things.
James brings the point home by reminding his readers that the one true living God is the lawgiver, and the judge. James doesn’t actually use the word humility in these two verses, but we can see the principle being applied, if we read between the lines. We are not God. We are not even the lawgiver, or the judge. We must humble ourselves, respect the leadership in the church, and treat each other lovingly.
Often times, the three wise monkeys are used to refer to those who deal with impropriety, by turning a blind eye. I don’t think this is what James meant. According to the Bible, there are times when actions, and behaviors need to be “judged.” It’s my humble opinion that James is talking more about petty slander, and the selfish jockeying for position that should not be occurring within the church. Remember we are to live differently than the world.