Commentary on James 3:1-12
For the last two weeks, the lectionary selections in James have highlighted the critical distance between the head and the heart, between the idea of Jesus and his radical care for the other and the actions born out of the idea once it roots in our soul.
In between the head and heart is a stumbling block lurking in the shadows: the tongue.
Rather than a collection of proverbial exhortation, this pericope stands on its own as an organized, clever essay about the dangers of our out-of-control speech.
Like many people, I journeyed through The Good Place for four glorious seasons. Don’t worry, I am not about to drop a spoiler (well, just a minor, early one). Continue at your own risk…
Early in the show we meet Buddhist monk Jianyu in the Good Place, along with other winners you’d expect to have made it into paradise: a philanthropist, an ethicist, an angel … good people. Jianyu, who has taken a vow of silence even in eternity, exists within each scene as one who is wise, peaceful, all-knowing. All without saying a word. It isn’t until the vow breaks and the tongue is unbridled that we realize we have another person altogether in the plot (Jason Mendoza, just another dirtbag like the rest of the crew), one very much without the wisdom of a Buddhist monk. How did he pull off the charade for so long? A completely bridled tongue.
How much wiser and more Christlike might we all be if we were to listen more and talk less?
This wisdom appears earlier in James (1:19) as a prelude to this essay on speech. How much harm is done by quick, inattentive, careless speech? As an enneagram 1, I can create a montage in a moment’s notice of all the times I let my unbridled tongue get me into trouble and embarrassment. I’ll spare you the details but perhaps, fellow preacher, you’ve been there too. Bridling the tongue is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and a strong heart to listen in order to hear another, to tune into the Spirit’s whispers through them and in the space between people, rather than to listen only for a gap to insert yourself in an unbridled fashion.
Our American society hasn’t the faintest idea how to listen. So much of American Christianity is a shouting match. Foolishness abides. Fires are set, and what is the cost?
James does not have much hope that anyone will ever be holy enough to tame their tongue, to bridle their speech. Nevertheless, it seems he is passionately exhorting his community to at least try. Might we do the same?
As a White person trying to exorcise the demon of white supremacy from my being, I am aware of how the mouth can betray. The dilemma is named in verse 9, “ With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Just as James earlier warned of double-mindedness, so too must we be aware of being double-tongued. All are made in the likeness of God. So beware of any preacher or Christian who praises the Lord on Sunday and spills forth ugly microaggressions, or worse, blatant hate speech on Monday. This double-mindedness or rather “double-tongue-edness” is sin. It is evil. It is brackish water. Hell on earth is enacted when the church is ruddered by loud, evil, unbridled tongues with platforms that reach millions and set the world on fire with hate.
Finally, this next section may not make it into the content of your sermon, but fellow preacher, I feel the need to highlight the particular caution James has for those of us who teach others on a regular basis. “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The words we speak from the pulpit, from our social media platforms, and in passing have great influence. Are we healing with them or harming? Words have the power to harm and to heal always, but all the more from the mouths of church leaders and authorities. To be called to preach is to play with fire, Holy Spirit fire and the sort of unholy fire James speaks of here.
Our speech moves the Body of Christ, toward more just and holy ways of being or into idolatry, what James calls friendship with the world. How can we approach this weekly task in ways that allow us to do so as our best selves, being quick to listen to the Word of God and for the Word of God and slow to allow the sermon to emerge from that spacious listening for the Holy Fire of God to lead us and light us up?