James 3:1-12 (NRSV)
Chapter 3Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Verse 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Verse 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Verse 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. Verse 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! Verse 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. Verse 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, Verse 8but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. Verse 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. Verse 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Verse 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Verse 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
James is not much convinced that our tongues—our words—can be trusted. He uses powerful metaphor to describe the tongue as a fire, a stain, as full of poison. Sure, he says, we may bless God with it, but we just as easily use it to curse each other, persons who like us are made in the image of God. Certainly, this ought not to be so. Yet, it is. And we know in our experience that it is true.
Where is there hope for our wayward, cursing, burning words? James tells us there are some seemingly small things that can have powerful influence—the small rudder steers the cargo ship; the small bit guides the draft horse. Is he hinting at the seemingly small story of Jesus as having power to steer and correct our words, pointing to the gospel as the guide to our mistake-prone (or worse) speaking and living? One hopes so.
Come Holy Spirit, steer us and guide us by the good news of Christ. Empty our tongues of brackish, cursing words, and teach us fresh and blessing speech. Amen.