Commentary on James 3:1-12
Metaphors abound in James 3:1-12, and these can often obscure the point that James is trying to make in this passage, a point not about speech in general or even about teaching, despite the way he begins this chapter.
Rather, in James 3 the focus is on how faithful Christians speak about other human beings made in God’s own image (James 3:9), calling us to account for abusive language. However, to get to this argument, James begins with a meditation on human speech and on the potentially destructive power of the human tongue.
In the opening verses of chapter 3, James counsels the community that not many of them should become teachers. That same Greek sentence can read “do not become many teachers,” that is, do not turn into a community that thinks you all can or should teach. His rationale: teachers, himself included, will be judged more harshly than anyone else. Although James does not specify by whom teachers will be judged in 3:1, in other part of this letter, he intimates that God will judge the community (James 4:12; 5:9).
James’ warning concerns one specific aspect of teaching: how teachers speak, that is, the control teachers have over what they say (3:2). Teachers of James’ day gave public discourses to which students and other hearers gathered round. Imagine how easily someone might be led astray by a misplaced or unintended word within that discourse. Yet, who could imagine a teacher than never once misspoke, never once chose an unfortunate word or phrase! Today’s passage invites meditation on the singular importance of teachers in our lives, and particularly the impact of a teacher’s word on the life of those who hear her.
James continues his discussion by turning to two metaphors: a horse’s bit and a ship’s rudder (3:3-4). He makes a similar point for each of these. Rudders represent a very small portion of a ship, and bits are not much larger than a horse’s hoof. Yet, each of these small items controls the direction of the much bigger body to which they are attached. Here, too, James speaks about the tongue, in this instant as a driver that controls the direction of a person.
What does it mean to think of one’s tongue as that which controls one’s whole being? Or perhaps, in today’s vernacular, what does it mean to think of one’s entire being as controlled by what we post on social media? Preachers of this text might consider how our words, spoken or digital, affect our lives, both in the wider society and within the community of faith.
James shifts metaphors again, this time comparing the tongue to a flame that lights a forest on fire. Here, James even charges that through the tongue, the unjust world enters the faith community, that the tongue can set fire even to the cycle of nature itself until it is consumed in Gehenna. Throughout this letter, James registers serious concerns about the taint of “the world,” even warning that friendship with the world signals enmity of God (4:3).
Pure and undefiled religion, to James, remains unstained by the world (1:27). Thus, argues James, the tongue has the capability of destroying one’s religious practice and that of one’s community. Here, James invites meditation on destructive “speech,” more broadly defined. One might, for instance, think critically about racist speech, vitriol against immigrants, or the practice of “trolling” on social media.
In 3:7-12, James reaches the climax of this part of his letter. Why does James consider the tongue a “restless evil full of deadly poison” (3:8)? Consider, says James, how we the church speak. We bless God and with the same tongues we curse one another (3:9).
This behavior James compares to gathering olives from a fig tree, or brackish and sweet water from the same spring (3:11-12). James, here, invites consideration of how we speak to one another as members of the church. What kinds of output do our mouths produce? James invites a consideration of speaking to one another as informed by the ways we speak to God. For, as James reminds us, we are each made in God’s image (3:9). James also invites us to consider the importance of silence, silence not only as a means to listen for God but also as a spiritual practice of bridling our tongues.