Control Your Tongue!
If we can control what we say, we can control
our whole body, James declares. The wisdom text Sirach declares
that everyone has slipped with their tongue at some time, it is
a common wisdom motif that it is impossible to control our tongues.
But in verse 2 James argues that we must strive for perfection,
that the control of our tongue is the control of our very selves.
Using examples as common in the first century (Moo 154)
as they are today, James describes how to control a horse, a ship,
and fire. The implication is that our tongue can, indeed, be controlled.
And if we do not take control, the image of fire turns our attention
quickly to the eternal consequences of chaos. In verse 6 the untamed
tongue stains the whole body; it destroys creation like a fire destroys
a forest. Notice the creation allusions that James has included
in verse 6 with the phrase cycle of nature or wheel
of birth, the created animals in verse 7, and then the creation
in God’s likeness in verse 9. Compare this with Genesis 1:26.
In contrast to the image of creation, verse 6 turns from the earthly
forest fire to the eternal fires of Gehenna. Translated
hell in the NRSV, Gehenna is the valley where
garbage is dumped and burned on the south side of Jerusalem. In
apocalyptic literature the term is used as a metaphor for evil,
and for the devil living in this most evil place (Wall 169).
For James, an unbridled tongue, inflamed by the power of evil, will
in turn destroy the whole of creation (Wall 173).
Verses 1-8 set up a broad comparison between the unbridled tongue
and the controlled tongue, which brings about perfection. Verses
9-12 make the duplicity more apparent and more clearly ridiculous.
In verse 9 James points out that we can’t bless God at the
same time as we curse God’s creation. Note the use of restless
evil in verse 8. The Greek akatastatos came up earlier
in James 1:8, where it is translated unstable and describes
the double-minded person. In verse 10 again we have the image of
double-mindedness in the one who uses their mouth for both blessing
and cursing. James is straightforward: My brothers and sisters,
this ought not to be so.
While this entire passage has meaning for all our brothers and
sisters, some scholars believe that the use of we in verse
9 signals a switch to a specific incident in the community (Wall 173).
If so, this is probably connected to the reference to teachers in
verse 1. We can imagine James addressing a teacher causing discord
in the community. James response is not to address the theology
or orthodoxy of the teaching, but rather to notice the results of
the teaching. Blessing and cursing are cannot come from the same
mouth. Peace and discord cannot come from the same teaching. James'
message once again emphasizes the works that we do, not the theology
that informs our works.
To whom is this message offered? Some scholars identify verse 1
as introductory for the entire chapter (Wall 173).
Teachers, then, are called to be stricter in their use
of language; it is teachers, especially, who must watch what they
say. Wall argues this passage is written to condemn the one teacher
creating discord in the congregation (Wall 173).
However James refers again to sinful speech in 4:1 and 4:11; in
these instances he is clearly addressing the community at large.
Perhaps this is evidence that the lessons in chapter 3 on the wise
use of the tongue are meant for all of us as well (Moo 148).
In either case, it is interesting that James uses the first person
plural, we, in 3:1, identifying himself as one of the teachers
of the community.
Certainly the over arching goal for James is perfection,
of himself and other teachers here in chapter three, but certainly
of the community overall. James 3:2 refers to everyone
or anyone who controls their speech: the result of that
control is perfection. As we have seen in earlier texts, perfection
for James is found in self-control, in our works of the law. It
is perhaps unattainable, but it is indeed the goal we should set
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James in The Pillar
New Testament Commentary, DA Carson, general editor. (Grand
Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).
Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without
Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. With Study Guide
by Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).
Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James
(Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).