Exegetical Exercise (James 3 1-12)

KKK members with burning cross, Denver, 1921
“and the tongue is a fire … a restless evil … with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God”
James 3:5, 8, 9

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, February 11 is James 3:1-12. Here are my notes on that passage:

First impressions: It’s a little worrisome for a teacher to be reminded that not many of us should be teachers (3:1). I wonder where this little argument comes from – like, have people been stirring up trouble with “unbridled” talk, or what?

Closer Reading: James brings up themes and ideas, and then circles back around to them over and over, expanding them. He has already mentioned the tongue and “bridling” it (1:26) – in connection with people who think they are religious (which, by the way, uses a word that literally means something like “the ritual worship of a god”). He has already brought up the image of something “restless” – the word translated “unstable” back in 1:8, in connection with the person who doubts and so doesn’t receive. He has already mentioned becoming “perfect” in 1:4 (NRSV translates it as “mature”), the fruit of trials and enduring them. All these themes echo, then, in this passage.

The “restless evil” of the tongue (glossa, could also be “tongue” in the sense of our “mother tongue,” language) echoes the restless waves that toss the doubter, and that drive the great ship in the image of verse 4.

The idea of the “perfect” (or “mature”) person who doesn’t make mistakes – literally, who doesn’t meet with stumbling or going astray – in 3:2 echoes with that person who has been facing trials and having their faith tested and enduring in 1:4.

The ability to bridle one’s tongue echoes the person who is really religious – and that would be that person in 1:26 who cares for widows and orphans in their distress, and keeps themselves unstained by the world (1:27), btw, as opposed to being stained by the tongue (3:6).

The image of stumbling or going astray in 3:2 might connect with the examples James uses in 3:2-4, the horse and the ship, both vehicles that could stumble (the horse) or go astray (the ship) if not properly directed. The verb can in other contexts be translated as “sin.”

Why is the tongue a fire? The “so great forest” that is ignited by the tongue, or can be, could be a large stack of firewood; or, same word, could be “matter, material, stuff” – always the stuff of the material world. The stuff of which our world is made, the stuff of which idols can be made. The notes in the Access Bible point out that 3:6-8 compare the tongue to the serpent in Eden … poisonous. I wonder whether, if no human being can tame the tongue (3:8), this means that God has to do it …

The problem is made explicit in 3:9-10: verbally blessing God, but cursing people made in God’s image. More echoes: of favoritism, of not treating real live human beings with loving care (2:1-4, 2:5-6) – which is a way of not living up to the law, which is going to expose people to judgment. 3:11 sounds like an image of a spring that has two kinds of water – fresh and brackish, like the blessing and cursing. But then, think about it … what would that fresh water taste like that came from a spring that was pouring forth brackish water at the same time. I think James makes that clear in 3:12. That “fresh” water is not so fresh after all; those “blessings” in 3:9 are not so blessing-y, either, I think we are supposed to conclude, if we turn around and call our neighbors names.

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