Comments, Observations, and Questions
As I’ve said before, the Epistle of James aims to help “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1) conduct themselves in consistently Christian ways in a difficult and deceptive world. Rather than spelling out the Gospel, this letter simply assumes that its readers believe in and love Jesus Christ. Thus, it focuses on the words and deeds that should spring from faith and love. In our passage today, James turns from a powerful treatment of the way Christians should treat the rich and the poor (though he will return to that subject with a passion in chapter 5), and focuses on loving speech.
This section of James expands and expounds on those words of James 1:19 and 20, about being quick to listen and slow to speak. A passage like I Corinthians 14 illustrates the chaos that can erupt in a church setting when people are too quick to speak. It was a veritable Tower of Babel in the Corinthian church. But things get even worse when teachers and preachers have tongues that are out of control. In this section, James addresses them/us particularly, though not exclusively. “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
A number of years ago I lost my voice. I couldn’t speak above a whisper, and I was quickly headed toward becoming completely mute. I was very frightened, because, of course, my voice was my work and my work was my life. (Yes, I know how unbalanced that was, and is.) My family physician sent me to a speech pathologist to see what was wrong and to prescribe a solution. I couldn’t imagine that anything could be done, but Elizabeth helped me regain my voice, my work, and my life.
In our text, James functions as a speech pathologist whose purpose was not to help preachers regain their voice, but to help them restrain their tongue. As I indicated above, his words about the dangers of pathological speech are not limited to preachers/teachers; his words in verse 2 about “we all” and “anyone” address all kinds of Christians. But James specifically targets teachers, because so much harm and so much good can be done by the words of those who claim to be teachers. As James concludes, too often blessing and cursing, sweetness and bitterness come from the same ordained mouth.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament Epistles reveals that the early church was troubled by all sorts of “false teachers.” You find references to them in nearly every epistle. Apparently teachers were held in high esteem in those exciting and dangerous times, and many people wanted the esteem and “double honor/pay” (I Tim. 5:17) that went with the position. Some of these self-appointed teachers caused trouble because of their false message. Think of the Judaizers addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians who insisted that observance of Jewish ceremonial law was a condition of salvation.
However, some of the false teachers were trouble makers not because of their message, but because of their motivation and method. Think of Paul’s words in Philippians about teachers who “preached Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me [Paul] while I am in chains.” If the next section of James (3:13-16) is aimed at the false teachers troubling the church in James’ day, then it appears that James is talking about the kind of teachers Paul faced in Philippi. Motivated by envy, selfish ambition, party spirit, and personal animosity, they used their tongues to divide the church, as happened in Corinth. “I follow Paul, I follow Cephas, I follow Apollos….” (I Cor. 1:12).
James 3:1 will be tough to preach. I mean, a sermon aimed at teachers who divide the church can itself divide the church. Condemnation of those whose motivations are questionable can call into question your own motivation. So here is a way to approach this text. Let’s use it first of all as a mirror into which we preachers gaze intently, in order to discern if we ourselves are guilty of using our preacher tongue to damage the church. In other words, let’s allow the “living and abiding sword” to pierce our defenses and skewer our delusions and cut out our envy, selfish ambition, party spirit, and personal animosity. Such self-examination will make our sermons on this text more authentic. After all, isn’t it true that passion in preaching comes from feeling the point of the text in your own heart? If you haven’t seen yourself in the text in some way or the other, you’ll be talking down to your congregation, rather than identifying with them. That will make them defensive and they will parry the thrusts of “the living and abiding sword.”
Speaking of defensiveness, that’s probably what accounts for James’s passionate and eloquent riff on the dangers of the tongue. James can anticipate his readers saying something like this: “Sure, I know that I don’t always use my tongue as well as I should. But, come on, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just words. And you know what they say. ‘Stick and stones… but words can never hurt me.’ Besides, nobody is perfect. So give me a break. You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.” Knowing that people would resist his strong words about the danger of speech pathology, James goes into full attack mode.
In verse 2, Paul says in effect, “OK. You’re right. No one is perfect. We all sin in many ways. But that doesn’t give us a free pass on this tongue business. In fact, the tongue is so formidable a problem that if you could tame that, you’d arrive at perfection.” What Luther called “that little bit of flesh between the jaws” is in fact the hardest part of your body to control. And control it we must, because it can do a world of damage to the church and the world.
What follows in verses 3-6 is a clinic on the use of analogies. Indeed, James is full of such colorful and convicting language, which is part of the reason scholars say he has the best Greek in the New Testament. We preachers can learn a lesson from this Jewish writer who had mastered Greek to this extent. Then again, he had a good teacher, an Older Brother whose messages were filled with metaphor, simile, and story.
James pictures a powerful horse directed by a little bit and bridle (the same word as in James 1:26 where it is translated “keep a tight rein on his tongue”), a great sailing ship driven by strong winds but steered by a little rudder, and a terrifying forest fire that devours everything in its path even though it was started by a single spark. Like the bit and the rudder and the spark, the tongue is a small thing. But it can do great things, for good or ill. So, control that thing.
To drive his point home, James increases the force of his language. The tongue is a fire, a wild untamable beast. Notice that the tongue is not just like a fire or a wild beast. It is a fire and a beast, so don’t minimize its potential for harm. Verse 6 is a particularly difficult text to interpret, but it is clearly a powerful warning about the danger of the tongue. Note the escalating order of the alarm. It is a “world of evil.” It “corrupts the whole person.” It “sets the whole course of life (“wheel of nature” in other translations) on fire.” It is “itself set on fire by hell (Gehenna in the Greek).”
Commentators cannot agree on what the “wheel of nature” is, but the reference to Gehenna is particularly potent, since Gehenna was the garbage dump of Jerusalem where the fire never went out. James is saying a powerful thing. Gehenna is where the sins of the tongue come from—from the garbage dump of the universe where that serpent with forked tongue hisses out his lies to deceive, if possible, even the elect, including those preachers. James wanted to make sure that no one could dismiss his warning about the dangers of the tongue.
And he wanted to make sure that no one would think that controlling the tongue would be an easy matter. We humans have learned to tame “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea.” But no one “can tame the tongue….” That’s not exactly a motivational ending to a powerful sermon. “You must stop sinning. But you can’t. Amen.” What a downer!
But James isn’t done being down yet. He must still ponder the mystery of sin, specifically the” mystery of inconsistency.” That’s the particular sin he addresses in his epistle over and over. It is the bugaboo of all honest efforts to follow Christ faithfully. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” Yes, we do. We sing God’s praises in church, and then we curse Brother Bruce whose Escalade cuts us off as we emerge from the parking lot. We preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, and then we badmouth a neighboring preacher who has made a foolish decision in leading his church. And we barely think about the inconsistency of that.
To help us taste the wrong of that, James again resorts to metaphors: fresh water and salt water, fig trees and olives, grapevines and figs. The analogies focus on things that are impossible; it simply isn’t possible for grapevines to produce figs. It’s against the laws of nature. It ought to be that impossible for a person to use her tongue to both bless and curse; it’s against the laws of grace. But, alas, it is not impossible. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” What a mystery! What an impossible mess! “No human being can tame the tongue,” so what’s the use of even reading such a discouraging passage, let alone trying to preach on it?
What is a Christian preacher to do? Well, preach Christ, of course. James doesn’t give us much to work with on that score, except his passionate call to repentance in James 4. Humbling ourselves as completely as he commands there is a big step in the direction of redemption. Paul’s words in Romans 7 take us the rest of the way. “I do not understand what I do [or say]. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As a remedy for a tongue that blesses and curses, there is “the word of faith: That if you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8 and 9) This powerful attack on the sins of the tongue can become the launching pad for a passionate invitation to come to the Word made flesh, who alone can forgive our sins and tame our tongues.
We’ve just finished the high season for wildfires in the American West. At one time, there were dozens of blazes consuming thousands of acres of tinder dry vegetation. Many of the fires were started by lightning, but more than a few were human in origin, a terrible perversion of the old campfire song, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going….” But it took thousands of firefighters to put the fires out, and a few of them lost their lives in the effort. As we preach on the destructive power of the tongue, we would do well to point to these wildfires in nature as a way of reminding our tongue wagging congregations that the “harmless” fun of gossip can devastate an entire community.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 13, 2015
James 3:1-12 Commentary