Summary: James calls our tongue an unruly beast. Can we tame the tongue?
The Taming of the Tongue
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
In 1590 or 1592 no one is sure exactly the year, William Shakespeare wrote and produced a play called The Taming of the Shrew. In this play, a head strong and independent woman named Kate is married off to a visitor in town named Petruchio by the suitors of her more desirable sister Bianca, because Bianca cannot be wed until Kate is married. After a long and difficult time in which he tried many types of techniques are used, Petruchio does tame the shrew Kate and she becomes a proper wife (at least proper for 1590’s England).
In the reading today, James warns us of the dangers of the tongue. He called it both a fire and a world of iniquity, wickedness, evil. He also said the tongue defiles, or corrupts, the entire body. We should remember in Matthew 15:11 that Jesus taught us it is not what goes into the mouth of a person that defiles them but what comes out of their mouth that defiles them. And one of the best and well known things that come out of the mouth of a person is words.
Our words define and guide us. If we talk in an unintelligent manner, people will see us as unintelligent. If we talk like a gang member, people will believe we are thugs. If we speak with a knowledgeable tone, people will believe we have understanding of what we’re talking about. If you spend your time talking down to people, all you will see is the bad in others. If you talk about the good in others and in the situations you’re in, you be seen as a positive and joyful person. Unfortunately, words can also be used to hurt others.
Many children when taunted by others will say “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. But for all of their bravado, the names do hurt because words hurt. We can be hit, pushed, slapped or be subject to any other physical abuse and usually we can get over it in time. The pain we feel from a slap is usually gone before the redness fades. But the hurt we feel from words may never fade. I have known people who still hurt from a name they were called forty and fifty years later. I saw a TV show where a daughter talked about a name her father called her (in jest) some fifteen years earlier. The father didn’t even remember the incident and said “After all the compliments I have given you and all the times I called you ‘beautiful’, why would you remember that?” The daughter replied, “Because that’s the only one that hurt.”
We don’t get over the emotional and psychological hurts as easy or as completely as we do our physical hurts. Because of our untamed tongue, we wound and injure the people around us, our neighbors. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and yet how many of the insults that we throw at others would we gladly throw at us? How much of the disrespect and slights that we send to others would we want others to send to us?
The Apostle told us that we put bits in the mouths of horses and with that small bit we control the whole animal. Ships are controlled by a relatively small rudder. This can really be seen in the greater sized modern ships. Even if the ship is tossed about by wind and waves, the ship can be controlled by the helmsman. James then makes the comparison; the tongue is very small in comparison to the whole body but like a horse’s bit or ship’s rudder, it can move the entire person, and if we’re not careful, we can be moved into areas we did not intend to go.