Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And 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. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. James 3:1-12.
In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, Jesus warned us that we are defiled, not by the things we put in our bodies, but by the things that come from within. Mark 7: 20-23. In the Epistle reading from last week, James cautioned us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. James 1: 19. Today, St. James amplifies on the grave dangers of our speech, especially for preachers and teachers. We can almost hear the echo of Isaiah, who spoken of himself as lost, “a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips….” Isaiah 6:5.
St. James uses three powerful metaphors to describe the power our speech possesses. He compares it to a bridle which can take control of a powerful horse, a rudder which can set the course for a large ship, and a tiny spark that can consume an entire forest. He calls our tongues “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
James particularly abhors our duplicity. He notes the scandal of using our tongues to praise God and yet curse the children made in His image. In the following chapter, James describes this dangerous deceit as being “two souled” (dipsychos). James 4:8. Elsewhere, he calls this being “double-minded”. James 1:8. We find examples of this in Christians (perhaps ourselves) who use speech to malign, to gossip, to attack, to humiliate and to condemn. In recent events in the Middle East, we have all seen the consequences of hateful speech, and counted the costs associated with it.
Rather than such duplicity, James calls us into “the word of truth.” James 1:18. Such words (words of healing, encouragement, forgiveness and reconciliation) call us back from the brink, and back to a sacramental style of living. The Epistle to the Ephesians called this speaking “the truth in love.” Eph. 4:15.
We need to be aware of the toxic power of speech to separate us from God’s children and from the Source of all holiness. It’s worth noting that, in the Book of Genesis, God spoke the world into creation. We might wonder what sort of world we are speaking into existence. Those who follow Christ must immerse themselves in the vocabulary of grace and the grammar blessing.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis