Summary: Oh that we would learn to tame the tongue!
“Tongue Full of Poison” James 3:1-12
At a national spelling contest in Washington an incident occurred that made me feel good—and made me wonder. In the fourth round of the contest, Rosalie Elliot, then an eleven-year-old from South Carolina, was asked to spell avowal. In her soft Southern accent she spelled it. But did the seventh grader use an a or an e as the next to last letter? The judges couldn’t decide. For several minutes they listened to tape recording playbacks, but the critical letter was accent-blurred. Chief Judge John Lloyd finally put the question to the only person who knew the answer, “Was the letter an a or was it an e?” asked Rosalie. Surrounded by whispering young spellers, she knew by now the correct spelling of the word. Without hesitating, she replied she had misspelled it. She walked from the stage.
The entire audience stood and applauded, including half a hundred newspaper reporters, one of whom was heard to remark that Judge Lloyd had put quite a burden on an eleven-year-old. Rosalie rated a hand and it must have been a heartwarming and proud moment for her parents. The thing that makes me wonder, however, was the apparent feeling on the part of so many that the issue might have been in doubt and that honesty might have bowed to temptation.
Have we in this age stopped taking honesty for granted, even from our children? Has the nature and manner of our speech become so tainted, so poisoned, by greed, self-interest, selfishness, that rather than assuming that the words of another will be honest, we know that we must be cautious in trusting the words of another person? Have we become a people so clouded, so disillusioned, so stricken with sin’s consequence, that rather than trusting in the words of another we know that those words are so likely to be hurtful, painful, sharp words, that rather than trusting, we must prepare to defend ourselves?
While the words of others routinely give great cause for concern and caution, what about our own words? In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ’Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (ESV) What of our own words? What of our own tongue?
This morning we will examine what James has to say with regard to the taming of that most wild of beasts; the tongue. Is there any greater instrument of vile wretched dishonor than the tongue when it is wielded without care? Is there any more offensive gadget than the tongue of a man or woman when used as a weapon instead of an instrument of praise? What other device known to man is capable of so much beauty and also so much ugliness?
Benjamin Franklin, that brilliant American Founding Father, said, “A slip of the foot you may soon recover, But a slip of the tongue you may never get over.” It has been said that the tongue is the ambassador of the heart. The great danger of this is that so often we get our tongue into motion before engaging the brain.
It is especially interesting for me personally, as a Bible Teacher, one role of the Pastor, because it is with great fear and trembling that I first yielded to the call of God to the ministry. It is with continued fear and trembling that I step into this pulpit every time I endeavor to allow God to use me in this fashion. James admonishment has significant historical context.
At the time of the writing of this text the role of teacher in the local assembly was a position that brought with it a great deal of respect and honor. Very much as in our day, the one who taught in the assembly was given a measure of assumption of his good intention, his reputation tended to be one of good report, and as such, to be a teacher in the local Church was desirable.
In an age of widespread illiteracy, the teacher in the assembly was very likely among a small minority of people in the congregation who had been very well trained academically. It would stand to reason that as James (the brother of Jesus who later believed in Christ and became an emissary of the Lord) addresses what is most likely a congregational of Jewish Christians; that in that setting, there would be many who would consider it advantageous to become a teacher.