My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. . . . 26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (NIV)
James spends a good deal of time concentrating on how we speak. William Baker wrote his dissertation on the topic of “Personal Speech-Ethics in the Epistle of James,” and its length is testimony to the importance of this topic for James. While in a meeting this morning, I began to wonder: What kind of God requires us to control our tongue? What in God’s nature would see this as an important thing? What does James’ instructions on speech reveal about God’s character? What about our own character?
I think that James’ ethics, even his speech-ethics say something about his theology (contra those ‘Dibelians’ who dismiss James as having “no theology”). That theology and even anthropology could be inferred from James’ speech-ethics is perhaps evident in his statement “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (I love the awkward drama of the KJV: “. . . these things ought not so to be.”) James acknowledges that we have been made in God’s image. Our lives are to reflect God’s image, and we are to acknowledge God’s image in others when we speak to them. This connection between God’s image and ethics is not new to James. Indeed, God commanded Noah:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man (Gen 9:6).
We are not to curse other humans for the same reason that we are not to murder them — all are created in God’s image. There’s a certain resonance here with Jesus’ injunction in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:21-22).
Here murder and improper speech are grouped together. (Note also the use of γέεννα in Matt 5:22 & Jas 3:6.) By stating that humanity’s status as the image of God is grounds for us not to “curse” one another, James closely associates this “cursing” with murder (as in Gen 9:6). Jesus similarly heightened the command against murder to include the prohibition of hateful speech (or even silent hate harbored in one’s soul against another). In both instances Jesus and James are addressing the contradictions of the double-minded. One form of double-mindedness says that everything is OK with my hatred or poisoned speech as long as I don’t actually kill anyone. Another form of double-mindedness says that it’s OK to degrade people as long as I praise God every Sunday morning (after all, my praising God surely outweighs the degradation and death that I spoke into x, y or z’s life.) Of course, no one consciously thinks such thoughts, but by the time we get done angrily chewing out x, y or z, we’ve done it without thinking.
James 3 and Genesis 6 note that man is made in God’s image. The first image of God was given dominion over all creation. He named the animals, tended the garden, and was even given a companion co-created in the image of God. But one day they would both be done in by the forked tongue of a serpent. Shamed by his sin, Adam’s own tongue lashed out against Eve. Then their son – made in their fractured image – murdered his brother. Ever since, fractured images of God have tried to dominate creation – only to be dominated by their own serpentine tongue.
The last and final image of God beamed the likeness of the Father of lights – the Father who gives only good gifts without reproach. This image, bright though he was, was extinguished with hatred, mockery and murder, but he rose victorious and crushed the serpent’s head. He calls us to bare the same image of the Father of lights. He calls us to bring good gifts to this world without reproach. He calls us to reflect to others the singular love that the Father has for us. To speak in hatred is to create an incompatable dissonance with the image we are are recreated to bare.
For James the importance of this Genesis imagery is perhaps evident in his choice of words in a few spots throughout his tract. By his will and the word of truth, we are “the firstfruits of his creation” (ἀπαρχήν τινα τῶν αὐτοῦ κτισμάτων; 1:18), but the man who knows the law, but does not do it is like a man who forgets “his natural face” (lit. “the face of his genesis” τὸ πρόσωπον τῆς γενέσεως αὐτοῦ; 1:22), and the slanderous tongue sets on fire “the cycle of nature” (lit. “the cycle of genesis” τὸν τροχὸν τῆς γενέσεως; 3:6).
Humanity as the firstfruits was created as the pinnacle, the best of God’s creation—created in his image (3:9) and given dominion over “every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature” (3:8). As beings made in God’s likeness, James calls his readers to imitate God. Sophie Laws has observed two themes in the Epistle of James, “the oneness of the character and activity of God, and the condemned duplicity, desired wholeness, of man.”* James explicitly states that it is because we are made in the image of God, that we are not to slander our brothers and sisters (3:9). And while it is not explicitly stated, the contrasting statements of God’s integrity and man’s duplicity show that for man to live an ethical life, he must imitate God. The Creator is the one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:18), and we as his likeness, should have neither double-minds or forked tongues.