Today’s New Testament reading (James 3:1-12) is one of the most peculiar passages in the NT. There’s no mention of Jesus or his words -but who would disagree with these comments about loose speech. We looked closely at this epistle of James, the brother of Jesus, in our Bible Study during Lent. James tells us it is always important to consider the effects of what we say. Well of course, you might say! We know that! Traditionally, there’s been a tendency to dismiss James’s letter as a random mish-mash of platitudes, but recently, there has been a realisation that James blends together several related themes here about being a faithful disciple.
James is staking out a position here quite at odds with our contemporary enthusiasm for spontaneous outbursts – From Boris with his explosive vests, to Trump on twitter, – say what you want, seems to be the attitude, and don’t worry – if it doesn’t go down well, you can always change it, deny it, or label it as ‘fake news’ using ‘alternative facts’. Instead, James challenges Christians, especially Christian leaders, to express themselves carefully, as befits sisters and brothers made in the image of God. Christians should behave better than those around them – but they should not make too much of this!
James warn us against talking too much, especially against gossiping, but these aren’t the central issue in this passage. After all, James begins this session by warning, “Let no many of you become teachers;” and many teachers are not exactly immune from garrulousness and gossip-mongering. I remember sitting in a staff room with a teacher who prided himself on his use of language – especially when writing reports. One comment he was proud of was: ‘This boy has the uncanny ability to appear more intelligent than he really is!’ Another was: ‘I have not yet decided which planet this boy comes from!’ Witty indeed, and amusing: but incredibly wounding to the poor boy who received it.
Few should become teachers, says James, and those who do should watch what they say, because teachers will be held accountable, not only for their own stupidity but also for the errors their students assimilate and pass on. But although we all make mistakes, the more a mistake (or a hurtful word) is repeated, and the more authority with which it is delivered, the greater are its damaging effects. That’s how social media works. In this way, careless, casual speaking is particularly important for teachers (indeed, for any leader), but it applies to everyone. Careless talk costs lives, we were told in the War. Careless talk may no longer be treason, but it can be wounding, and gabbing and gossiping increases the odds of us speaking unwisely. The heart of the problem lies in the difficulty of controlling what we say. So often, it seems like a good idea at the time!
This concern that James expresses here to control the tongue, fits closely with his interests in the rest of the epistle, especially his insistence that faith should be followed by faithful action (1:22-25, 2:12, 2:18-26) That’s important in a week when Archbishop Justin seemed to many to be hypocritical when he criticised Amazon, only to find the CofE had shares in it. James repeatedly condemns uncontrolled speech, careless talking, talking for the sake of it. Many of James’ points are not distinctly Christian: commentators have long noted these teachings can be found in various wisdom traditions. It’s the sort of thing you can find in a Christmas cracker – a stitch in time, neither a borrower or lender be.
James had two main concerns as Bishop of Jerusalem: 2 concerns any pastor would have. One was community harmony, and the other was in growing disciples, whose lives should express discipleship through faith and action. Christians should act out their faith – they should behave different from others.
So when James stresses the importance of controlling the tongue – careful spoken communication — James emphasises that disciples should control every aspect of their lives, to demonstrate their faith; he sees the apparently trivial example of spoken words as one way this can be done. James acknowledges that everyone slips up in speaking, but he emphasises we should not shrug off such mistakes. A slip of the tongue may seem a small thing, but it can have vast consequences. James fires off a series of metaphors that underline his point: a small bridle directs the large, strong horse; a small rudder steers a great ship; a small flame can start a vast forest fire. These are all about how small items can control a greater force.
James regards the uncontrolled tongue as a particularly dangerous force. You should no more take spoken errors lightly than one should play with matches in the forest. At vs 7, James breaks off into a digression on the danger of the tongue. James tells us every sort of animal has been tamed, domesticated (not sure about including sea creatures?), but the tongue is like our own wild animal to be tamed, as wild animals are. He contrasts the tameness of the animal kingdom with the ferocity of the tongue – a wild, destructive force with unpredictable consequences.
In verse nine, James tells us: ‘With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those made in the likeness of God.’ James returns to the problem of divided loyalties. He has already told us in the first chapter that disciples should not be “double-minded” (or, more colloquially, “half-hearted”). Do you remember that line from cowboy films: White man speak with forked tongue? James’s is worried about people’s capacity for double-talk: each tree should consistently give only one sort of fruit, but he sees believers who both bless and curse, using the same tongue for both.
Saying one thing, and doing another has always been a problem among Christians, throughout the church’s history. James doesn’t have room for lukewarm faith — “That shouldn’t be!” he tells us in verse 10. James insists that the ideal of discipleship extends even to self-control with regard to casual speech. That goes double for leaders in the church, of course, but it applies to all those of us who call ourselves disciples!
This is a wonderful passage for meditation or Lectio Divina, where you read a small passage of scripture over and over, letting it sink in and praying about it. I commend it to you. Amen