James 3:7-12 “7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.“
So many times I’ve seen this passage handled either by commentators or pastors as speaking chiefly to the ‘wild’ and ‘evil’ nature of the human tongue all the while missing James’s wider contextual concern of the heart. It is the the wickedness of our fallen hearts that makes the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” It does little good to encourage people to “tame their tongue” by pursuing pure speech if we don’t at one and the same time challenge them to recognize the state of their hearts, and their great need for the ‘wisdom’ of Christ to dwell and rule deep within them; leading them away from double-mindedness and Torah minimalism.
As Richard Bauckham has said in his own commentary on the wisdom-letter, “It is the mixed motives and divided loyalties of the ‘double-minded’ that are exposed by their double tongued speech...” James’ treatment of the tongue reflects for us as readers his greatest connection to the teachings of his brother Jesus. For Christ himself said, it is “out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Matt. 12:33-37; Lk 6:43-45)
It is only as we set James’ own wisdom teaching in its indebted relation to Jesus that we come to a fuller appreciation of what it means to tame the tongue by maintaining an undivided heart, and that we see that the renewal of the sinner’s heart to a trajectory of undivided loyalty is part and parcel of Jesus Messianic on-going ministry. Bauckham has suggested these indebted connections;
- Like the teaching of Jesus, that of James lacks the moderation, practical compromise, and alignment with social convention that are often characteristic of the Jewish wisdom tradition, focusing rather on the Torah’s demand for perfection, understood as extensively and intensively as possible.
- The teaching of James, like that of Jesus, is paraenesis for a counter-cultural community, in which solidarity, especially with the poor, should replace hierarchy and status, along with the competitive ambition and arrogance and the exploitation of the poor that characterize the dominant society.
- James writes with the imminent coming of Jesus in view.
- The God of James, as of Jesus is pre-eminently the giving, generous, merciful and compassionate one.
- When James writes to ‘the twelve tribes in the diaspora’ he addresses the Jewish Christian communities as the nucleus of the ongoing Messianic renewal of the people of Israel and, by evoking the hope of restoration, incorporates them in the Messianic program of redemption Jesus initiated when he appointed twelve apostles.
The taming of the tongue in our lives is deeply & inextricable connected to having an undivided heart where Jesus summation of the Law is embodied in all we do. As such, it is as much the work of Messiah Jesus to continueto renew and restore the people of true Israel before his imminent returning through his Spirit as it is their corporate call to identify with his work in that end. To tame our tongues is as much his labor in us as our Messiah, as it is our labor of love as a covenantally faithful community in which the social dynamic of his kingdom coming is already present as a sign and witness to those without him of what is to come. But his work must proceed or own for as James has so pointedly put the matter, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?“