Saturday of week 6 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on James 3:1-10

James has some astute comments to make about our tongues as an instrument of speech.  Again, few of us will feel exempt from the lash of James’ own tongue in this passage.

He begins by suggesting that few are competent to become teachers of the faith, for the simple reason that such people have to be much more accountable for what they do and say.  Teachers, in particular, because of the influence they have, will always be held more accountable.  They can make or break a person’s character.  Remember Jesus’ castigation of the Pharisees and the Scribes for not practising what they preached.   “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47).  Among teachers, of course, we can include all religious leaders – bishops, priests, religious, as well as parents and teachers and any who are responsible for the formation of the young and vulnerable.

In fact, says James, a person who has full control over his tongue can be said to be in control of his whole self.  Since the tongue is so difficult to control, anyone who controls it perfectly gains control of himself in all other areas of life as well.

He compares the tongue to the bit in the horse’s mouth.  It is only a small piece of metal but with it we can control the whole animal.  Huge ships, tossed on stormy seas in driving winds, can be steered in any direction by a relatively small rudder.  The tongue, too, is a very small part of our body but it has influence totally out of proportion to its relevant size.

The tongue can be compared to a tiny spark which can set a whole forest on fire.  It exists in our body as “a world of malice”, the source of all kinds of evils, “defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire”.  Marriages have been broken, murders committed and wars started by what has issued from people’s tongues.

It seems that we can tame even the wildest animals but “no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison”.  It can be a “whole universe of malice”.  It can do an enormous amount of harm and in the process defiles one’s whole self.

“From the very same mouth come blessing and cursing.”  The very same tongue can either sing the praises of God or pile curses on brothers and sisters who are made in the likeness of God – and in the process curse God their Creator.   That is a situation which should not happen, says James.

The reading is very simple in its message and may seem in some ways to exaggerate but, if we are honest, we know that there is an enormous amount for us to reflect on here in our own use of speech.  So much time can be wasted, so much poison can be spread about through our injudicious gossip.  We can literally spend hours doing this.  We can be so totally lacking in love, compassion and sensitivity as we consistently undermine the good names of those around us.

We can offend by telling lies or by suppressing truth that should be revealed.  We can utterly destroy people’s reputations, apart from the harm that our negative attitudes do to ourselves.  Perhaps James is not exaggerating so much after all.

And one wonders what kind of compensation we should or can give to those who have been seriously hurt by our irresponsible words?

At the same time, there is so much good we can do, so much upbuilding of others that can be done by the way we speak, by our being generous in praise and encouraging words.   The gift of speech is exactly that, a wonderful gift which can do so much good.

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