James 3English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,[c] these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
This diatribe about the tongue is written in decent Greek but its content comes from the Jewish wisdom tradition with its keen awareness of the contradictions of human behaviour. Its reference is general but its langauge very specific. It refers to the human capacity for speech but it says “the tongue” which makes its audience uncomfortably aware of that organ and how they may have used it.
The main point made about about the tongue is its uncontrollability. A person who manages to control his speech will be easily able to control other aspects of behaviour. On the other hand, small as it is the tongue controls a person as a rudder controls a ship or a bit a horse. The whole course of life can be set on fire by a person’s words and the words themselves are ignited by the fire of Gehenna, the Jerusalem rubbish tip that came to symbolise hell. The words provide an image of the rapidly spreading evil generated by uncontrolled speech.
The secondary point made about the tongue is its unnatural double nature, bringer of blessings and curses, kindness and malice. James feels it goes against God’s goodness but is also capable of expressing that goodness. In this way it represents the contradictory nature of humanity, neither good not utterly evil. We might interpret him as saying that because the power of speech is so close to the nature of the human ape, it is very difficult for the ape to control it. Speech-control is self-control.
I am a person of ready speech; it is one of my gifts, and I have used it to speak of God and goodness; but I have also used it to denigrate others and to promote myself. I am aware that I am tempted in this way and need to exercise a discipline, which is not always successful.
I have also worked in churches for most of my life, and have seen time and again how careless or malicious speech can destroy friendship and common purpose. I am also increasingly concerned that a large proportion of popular journalism and the content of social media, is little more than a continuous drip of malicious drivel.
So I see the truth and relevance of this passage. Yet I have never heard nor given a sermon based on it. I wonder why.