Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This Sunday’s passage involves one of the more peculiar passages in the New Testament.

September 13, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on James 3:1-12

This Sunday’s passage involves one of the more peculiar passages in the New Testament.

But that shouldn’t distract preachers from the clear, strong, timely emphasis on the importance of considering the effects of what we say. Whereas once, commentators routinely dismissed James’s hortatory rhetoric as a miscellaneous hodgepodge of wisdom traditions, renewed (and more theologically sympathetic) attention shows that James braids together several related concerns into a thoroughly-integrated exposition of the way of discipleship.

In this week’s epistle lesson, James stakes out a position quite at odds with contemporary enthusiasm for spontaneous outbursts of unfiltered passion. Instead, he challenges Christians, especially leaders, to express themselves carefully, as befits sisters and brothers made in the image of God.

It would be easy to assume that these verses simply warn us against talking too much, perhaps especially against gossiping. While James most likely would discourage both excessive talking and passing along rumors, these aren’t the central issue in this passage. After all, James begins this session by warning, “Let no many of you become teachers;” while teachers are not immune to garrulousness and gossip-mongering, neither are they peculiarly susceptible to these faults.

The danger of teachers’ speech lies in the perilous combination of teachers’ authority on one hand, and misused, damaging speech or erroneous claims on the other. Few should become teachers, and those who do become teachers should watch what they say, because teachers will be held liable not solely for their own follies but also for the errors that their students assimilate and pass on.

James makes it clear that he refers not to talking too much by explaining that we ought to talk carefully, since everyone is liable to slip up (ptaio, “stumble” or “err”). Everyone makes many mistakes, James says; if someone didn’t make any verbal gaffes, such a person would be perfect. But although everyone makes mistakes, communication amplifies the effects of these slip-ups. The more a mistake (or a hurtful word) is repeated, and the more authority with which it is clothed, the greater are its damaging effects. In this way, our general proclivity to speak casually, carelessly, bears particular importance for teachers (and other leaders), but applies just as truly to all people. While gabbing and gossiping may increase the odds of us speaking unwisely, the heart of the problem lies in the likelihood that we will slip up when we are speaking.

The concerns that James expresses here cohere closely with his interests in the rest of the epistle. He has several times noted the vacuity of professions of faith divorced from faithful action (1:22-25, 2:12, 2:18-26), and he repeatedly condemns intemperate speech (1:13, 19, 26 and he will return to this at 4:11, 4:13ff, and 5:9). In this extended reflection on the question of the ethics of communication, James draws on a pool of contemporary Hellenistic and Judaic conventions. Many of the epistle’s points could be affirmed without any distinctly Christian commitments; commentators have long noted parallels to these teachings in the moral exhortation of various wisdom traditions.

Although these counsels lack explicit Christological warrants, they reinforce James’s thematic interest in community harmony and in lives that express faithful integrity. Although James concentrates explicitly on control of the tongue — thus on spoken communication — we should note that his warnings apply just as much to the ways we communicate our ideas, our commitments, our very identities in our actions (not only just our words). James cares ardently that disciples shape every aspect of their lives so as to make manifest their faith; he sees the apparently trivial example of spoken words as especially compelling case in point.

While James acknowledges that everyone slips up in speaking, he presses the case that we should not shrug off such mistakes. The slips of the tongue that seem so slight, he reminds us, can cause great consequences. He fires off a series of metaphors that do not align precisely with his point, but that collectively emphasize the fact that small things have disproportionately great implications: a small bridle directs the large, strong horse; a small rudder steers a great ship; a small flame can start a vast forest fire.

Although James shifts from the small thing playing a positive role (a bridle, a rudder) to its playing a dangerous role (staining, burning), the trajectory of his rhetoric makes it clear that he regards the unbridled tongue as a hazardous, possibly virulent force. One should no more take spoken errors lightly than one should play with matches in the forest.

At this point, James breaks off into a digression on the pernicious qualities of the tongue, beginning with an obscure extension of the metaphor of the tongue as a flame. The details of the metaphor remain murky even with the most intricate explanations; apparently the source of the tongue’s evil tendencies is Gehenna (“Hell”) and the tongue then transmits its fiery power to “the cycle of nature.” Although other sources attest to the idea of a “wheel of fortune” and a “cycle of rebirth,” neither of those seems quite a propos in this context.

The rest of these verses involve puzzlements, too. It’s not obvious what the beginning of verse six has to do with the claim that follows immediately after, that the tongue is a “world of unrighteousness'” nor in turn does James make clear what the world of unrighteousness has to do with the tongue’s station among our members, nor with how the fiery tongue stains the whole body. James next asserts the apparently false claim that every sort of animal has been tamed (including sea creatures?), to contrast the docility of the animal kingdom with the ferocity of the tongue. In preaching on all of this, the safest conclusions will steer away from over-confidence about exactly what James is saying in the comparisons, and will stick with the manifest sense that he regards the tongue as a wild, destructive force with unpredictable consequences.

In verse nine, James returns to a clearer discussion of the problem of divided loyalties, as he introduced the problem in 1:8’s reference to the “double-minded” (or, more colloquially, “half-hearted”) believer. The verses that follow express James’s perplexity over people’s capacity for double-talk: He (like Matthew) senses that each tree should consistently give only one sort of fruit, but he sees believers who both bless and curse. James’s frustration should banish any lingering notion that the modern church has a monopoly on shallow discipleship!

Still, James doesn’t allow room for resignation to lukewarm faith — “That shouldn’t be!” (verse 10b). Consistently with his previous arguments, James insists that the ideal of discipleship extends even to self-control with regard to casual speech. And that goes double for leaders in the church!