3 My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. 2 We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. 3 When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
4 Consider ships: they are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. 5 In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.
Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire. 6 The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
7 People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8 No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.
The tongue is a small but lethal organ. We all know it. None of us, I suspect, have escaped the deliciousness of the moment when we can pass on personal news or rumor of others to their friends or neighbors or relatives. Or, in this election season, we easily lose our grip and spew fear rather than fact, vitriol rather than vision, ridicule rather than reason, refuse rather than restraint. Media outlets become sewers filled with the “world of evil at work us” (v.6). James’ powerful analogies in this passage display the destructive power of the tongue in vivid, visceral, and unforgettable ways!
One of the great leaders of the early church bore himself the name of “Golden Tongue” and he paid great heed to the powers for good and evil of the tongue. Here is a sample of his, John Chrysostom’s, teaching:
“For there is no organ so convenient for him for our deception and our destruction as an unchastened tongue and an unchecked utterance. Hence come many slips on our part: hence many serious accusations against us. And the ease of these falls through the tongue a certain one showed, when he said, ‘Many fell by the sword, but not so many as by the tongue.’ Sirach 28:22 Now the gravity of the fall the same person shows us again when he says: ‘To slip upon a pavement is better than to slip with the tongue.’ Sirach 20:18 And what he speaks of is of this kind. Better it is, says he, that the body should fall and be crushed, than that such a word should go forth as destroys the soul; and he does not speak of falls merely; he also admonishes us that much forethought should be exercised, so that we should not be tripped up, thus saying ‘Make a door and bars for your mouth,’ Sirach 20:25 not that we should prepare doors and bars, but that with much security, we should shut the tongue off from outrageous words . . .” (http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070122021305AA72MOO)
Or again, more briefly, "Let us always guard our tongue; not that it should always be silent, but that it should speak at the proper time." (http://misalvador777.tripod.com/catholictreasurechest/id139.html)
Knowing this, most of us from bitter, regretful experience, is in itself, however, disempowering. As James notes, “No one can tame the tongue” (v.8). The problem and temptation the tongue presents cannot be overcome by our own strength or the dint of our moral efforts. And yet James counsels us to grow into a maturity where we can bridle and control our tongues, some of us enough even to become teachers (3:1ff.)
Here we encounter, as everywhere in the New Testament, the paradox of grace, best captured in Paul’s desperate cry at the end of Romans 7:
“21 So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me. 22 I gladly agree with the Law on the inside, 23 but I see a different law at work in my body. It wages a war against the law of my mind and takes me prisoner with the law of sin that is in my body. 24 I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse? 25 Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I’m a slave to God’s Law in my mind, but I’m a slave to sin’s law in my body.”
We do not and cannot do what we should. We are captive to another power – the “very flames of hell” (v.6) according to James. On that score we are helpless and hopeless. Yet, “through Jesus Christ our Lord” we find freedom from our bondage and fresh power to grow to that maturity in which our tongues become our instrument for blessing God alone. James, implicitly, recalls us to grace that alone can release and remake us into the creatures God always meant us to be. Self-help will be of no avail here; no amount of moral strength can take us where we want to go. Only the grace, the self-giving love of the Lord Jesus, poured out for us, can be help, can save us from our desperate straits. Thanks be to God.