We are studying James 3:1-12 for Sunday, August 23. Once again, we studied this particular text in James a couple of years ago. After I reinvented the wheel this time around, I realized that I didn’t have a lot to add to the notes I made at that time, but here is the little that I do have:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: There’s a longer discussion of the book of James here.
This particular part of the book never shows up in the lectionary, so it’s one of those things you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary.
The metaphors of bit and rudder undoubtedly bring different things to OUR minds than they would have to ancient readers’. [Here is Wikipedia on horse bits; here’s an interesting article on the evolution of horse training; and here is Wikipedia again on rudders, including ancient ones.] So we probably shouldn’t make too much out of these metaphors from our contemporary point of view.
CLOSER READING: In addition to everything from two years ago, we might want to notice that verse 3 in Greek is literally something like “if we put bits in the mouths of horses for them to be persuaded by us.” The author seems to be implying that bits and rudders are instruments that make the large vehicles they control very sensitive to small suggestions from the director. This seems significant.
In verse 6, the Buddhists could have a field day with that “setting on fire the wheel of generation” [literally] – it sounds a lot like “interdependent origination” as set in motion by the endless cycle of the Three Poisons [ignorance, attachment, and aversion or hatred]. Granted, James probably wasn’t thinking about that. Although Buddhist teachings would have been in existence by his time, it seems unlikely they would have been on the mind of a Mediterranean author writing for “the twelve tribes of the diaspora.”
What seems more to be on his mind is the cyclical round of desire, conception, and birth, the “course of nature,” which he mentioned earlier, in James 1:14-15. The reference to “hell” is literally to Gehenna, according to a reliable source, at this time an image of fiery punishment.
Verse 7 is hyperbole; as we know, I hope, it is not literally true that every kind of beast, bird, reptile and marine creature has been tamed by human beings.
Verse 11 would really be better, according to me, as a continuation of verse 10: “unless a spring pours forth from the same opening fresh and bitter water.” Which we know does not happen.
Ultimately, the author seems to be making the same point Jesus is making in Matthew 12:34, “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” If “in the same mouth” is blessing God and cursing the image of God, something is messed up at the source, which is not the mouth, or even the tongue, as James knows just as well as we do.
Assuming that “the tongue” in verse 6 is a metonym for “what a person says” from verse 2, and assuming that this discussion is a further development of the advice in James 1:19 to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,” we probably want to keep thinking about what specific kind or kinds of stumbling/mistaken speech James has in mind.
Boasting? There’s a good case for this one. Gossip? Harsh words? Incitement of desire? [Again, a good case can be made for this. Then would contemporary advertising be indicted? This seems very near the mark to me.] Doctrinal words, spouting off half-baked conclusions and the like? Maybe this is why this section starts out with the warning to teachers. [And in which case, I should probably be ever more circumspect.]
Stupid fact-free posts on Facebook? [OK, he wouldn’t have had those IN MIND, but someone might say they are covered by the principle being developed in this text.]
Thoughtlessly malignant offhand comments that people, after they make them, turn around and say “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by that, it was just a figure of speech …” That does seem to be EXACTLY the kind of thing James would want us to recognize as indicating a deeper problem at the inner source of speech.
My point: thinking about what precisely James is talking about here will probably be worth our while.