James 3:1-12 New Revised Standard Version
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
The tongue is a dangerous organ. If we’re not careful our tongues can do a lot of damage. By that, I mean, the words we speak. Growing up I learned the adage that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I will confess that it never gave me much comfort. Of course, if I’m honest I could give as well as take in this matter. As I look back across my life, I’m horrified by things I’ve said, whether jokes or just mean statements. To my embarrassment, it is often my family who have borne the brunt of my statements. I wish I could say I no longer say things that hurt, but that would be dishonest. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age when in reaction to calls for sensitivity people seem to feel empowered to say whatever, whenever, they want. If it hurts, all the better. The saddest thing is that many Christians feel empowered to engage in such efforts. Apparently, they have never read the Letter of James (or they have taken to heart Luther’s dictum that it is an epistle of straw).
James clues us in on the target of his message—the teachers. He tells them those who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Mistakes will happen, but mistakes made when speaking can have unfortunate consequences. It would seem that James is not too confident that teachers and preachers can keep their speech appropriate. But, if they can bridle the tongue they can keep the whole body in check. The tongue might be small, but it is mighty. We’ve seen this play out through history. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but demagogues have always taken the cake when it comes to such things. Eloquence can be used for good or for ill. We think of great orators who have called forth the people to do great things. Think of Franklin Roosevelt whose messages whether in person or on the radio gave a nation confidence that it could conquer the depression and its enemies overseas. But Hitler was quite the speaker as well and look what happened with him.
So, the tongue is small, but like the rudder of a large ship, it can steer the body and the community where it desires. So be careful with what you say. In the second half of verse 5, which in the NRSV opens a new paragraph, James speaks of a forest fire set by a small fire. Growing up in the west, where forest fires were common, the message of Smokey the Bear was simple: Only you can prevent forest fires. A campfire might look as if it’s out, but a small ember can, with a bit of breeze stir and if something flammable is near can quickly grow. The same with a cigarette butt thrown out of a car window into a bit of dry grass. Most of the fires I grew up with were challenging but rarely got too far out of hand. But things have changed with drought and increased heat, the forests are dry and brittle and can easily catch fire and spread. I no longer live out west, but I understand the dangers. That, says James, is the power of the tongue. This fire, says James, has been set by hell itself.
James isn’t finished illustrating his point regarding the power of the tongue. It is like a rudder that directs a ship. It is like a spark that lights a forest fire. Finally, James draws on the image of a domesticated animal. According to James any animal, bird, or reptile can be tamed, but the same is not true of the tongue. This brings us full circle to the opening illustration of a horse that is kept in check with a bridle in its mouth. In that opening illustration, James suggested that the people of God need to bridle their tongues so that their bodies can be brought under control. Here, in this final image, we are reminded that animals can be tamed/domesticated, so why not the tongue?
As for the tongue, not only is it seemingly untamable, but it is also “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Remember that it is also like a fire set by hell. This seems to be parallel that image. Now for a more definitive word about the tongue. It can be used to bless God. Yes, we can use it in the church to sing songs of praise and offer prayers to God. However, it can also be used to curse those who are made in the image of God. How true is this! How often do we go from church, having sung God’s praises, and then afterward cursed our neighbor or even a family member?
Part of the message here concerns self-control. It is a message that would seem to be appropriate for our age. Especially in an age of social media where we can “speak our minds” without having to face the persons we are speaking of; this becomes even more imperative. We have seen all manner of hate speech, bullying, and misinformation being spread with few if any consequences. This is often dangerous. I’m thinking here of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through various channels, we’ve heard vaccines misrepresented, even as unproven and often dangerous remedies are bandied about. For those who get their news and information from social media, this can prove deadly to themselves and to others. When it comes to hateful speech, we might want to ask ourselves if we would say the same thing to a persons’ face. As James puts it, from the same mouth can come blessings and curses, but this should not be so. Indeed!
What is said here reiterates what we heard James share in chapter 1: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (Jms. 1:26). It is true that none of us is perfect, and we will find ourselves cursing those whom God has created in God’s likeness, but unless we wish to indulge in a worthless religion, James’ word of wisdom is to bridle the tongue. That is, engage in a bit of self-control. That especially goes for those called to teach. So, remember James the question James asks of his readers (us): “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (vs. 11). The answer is, of course, no. Just to make sure we get the point, does a fig tree produce olives, or does a grapevine produce figs? The answer is, of course, no to both! So, watch what you say! Words do hurt and they destroy. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Prov. 10:19).