“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-7)
These are strong words from the book of James, and they may disquiet us somewhat. We are not really used to anyone talking about ‘fire’, ‘iniquity’ and ‘hell’ these days. Even if we agree the general drift of James’ argument about the potential evil caused by reckless talk, we may think he is over-egging the pudding somewhat. However, James is in good company with this hyperbolic, extreme language. His brother – and we have good reason to believe these words were written by Jesus’ brother, James – often did the same, when he wished to get his message across. We might think of Jesus’ warning about the perils of being tempted by what we see:
“if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:9)
Was Jesus really in favour of people wandering round with one eye just because they had cast an envious eye on their neighbour’s new house? No, I don’t think so, and as always we must hold such verses in tension with those where Jesus speaks of the unconditional love of God. What he did want to us to do, though, is to take his message seriously and to reflect deeply on what it is in our lives that caused us to sin, thereby separating ourselves from God and our neighbour. Like many contemporaries, therefore, he used extreme language to grab his hearers’ attention and to ensure his words were remembered.
In the same way, we can hear his brother James using this kind of extreme language to grab his readers’ attention. He doesn’t just use extreme language to do that, though, he also produces some of the most wonderful mental images in the New Testament. Metaphors that immediately conjure up pictures in our minds, and again ensure his words are remembered. Think of the three we heard this morning in the third chapter of James:
“If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” (James 3:3)
“Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” (James 3:4)
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6)
All of these were meant not only to drive the force of James’ point home but to ensure it was remembered too: the terrible damage that can be caused by the tongue.
In using these images and strong language about the tongue in particular, James was very much following a strong tradition from the Old Testament. As we have studied James this month in our evening services, one of the points that has come across repeatedly is how James acts as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, reminding us of the continuity of God’s message in our holy scriptures. In particular, James follows very closely in the great Wisdom tradition of the Bible. In the book of Sirach, a book that is found in the Apocrypha in Protestant Bibles, we find these words, again conjuring up very clear mental images:
“The blow of a whip raises a welt,
but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.
Many have fallen by the edge of the sword,
but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.”
Or a little later in the same book:
“As you fence in your property with thorns,
so make a door and a bolt for your mouth.
As you lock up your silver and gold,
so make balances and scales for your words.”
In our call to worship today, we heard words from Psalm 15:
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends” (Psalm 15:1-3)
Or from that great repository of God’s wisdom, the book of Proverbs, we again find another fiery image:
“Scoundrels concoct evil,
and their speech is like a scorching fire.” (Proverbs 16:27)
Turning back to the book of Sirach – a book written around 200 years before the birth of Jesus – we find my favourite image:
“When a sieve is shaken, the refuse appears;
so do a person’s faults when he speaks.
The kiln tests the potter’s vessels;
so the test of a person is in his conversation.
Its fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree;
so a person’s speech discloses the cultivation of his mind.
Do not praise anyone before he speaks,
for this is the way people are tested.” (Sirach 27:4-7)
And all of this brings us back to Jesus, and the gospel reading we heard to today, where our Lord echoes Sirach’s metaphor about the tree and its fruit:
“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. … I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matt. 12:33-37)
These concerns about the perils of the tongue and the dangers of ill-considered or hateful speech, therefore, are not something new to James. They run through almost our entire Bible.
Really, that should not surprise us, because James’ message is truly a timeless one. Ever since people have been able to speak, I am sure, they have been able to upset or hurt others by what they have said. We all know from our own lives that the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” simply does not ring true. We have all been hurt by what people said – and our children here today will sadly know all about this – and we have seen the damage that words have done to people. The same sins about which James, and the other Biblical writers, were so concerned still persist today: gossip, slander, lies, back-biting, name-calling, prejudice. The only difference today seems to be that we have found yet more and more ways of spreading this “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8): tabloid journalism, Facebook, Twitter and so forth. Sadly, these innovations perfectly illustrate James’ concerns. They possess the power to do great things: to bring people together, to inform, educate and entertain. Yet, as we all know, they also possess the potential to promote lies, hatred and anger. As James observed, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (3:10).
This week we were forcibly reminded of how a little thing like the tongue can set whole countries ablaze and create a “world of iniquity” (3:6). On Wednesday, Atomic Scientists moved their symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ forward by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. This clock is re-set annually and the position of the hands is meant to indicate how grave these scientists perceive the risk to global civilisation to be. In 1953, the hands stood close to midnight after the US and the then USSR detonated their first thermonuclear weapons. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, it went back to 17 minutes to midnight. This year, worryingly, the hands have returned to two and half minutes to midnight, indicating how dangerous they perceive our current situation to be. They cited a number of reasons for their decision, including the actions of North Korea, the failure to act over climate change and the lack of effective arms control negotiations. However, they also singled out specifically the tweets and statements of President Trump – something we are all too familiar with but now – as an important factor in their decision. His highly personal attacks on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, using the childish nickname ‘rocket man’, have threatened “fire and fury” against the nation, and vowed to “totally destroy” Pyongyang, while bragging that his nuclear arsenal was bigger than anyone else’s. If we wanted a better example of “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (3:5), then I cannot think of one!
Yesterday, we had another example of the global impact of the power of the tongue, as we marked Holocaust Memorial Day. This is the day we recall all the genocides of the Twentieth Century. That is not only the Holocaust, or Shoah, that involved the death of six million Jews, and thousands of communists, homosexuals, Roma, trades unionists, and others. It also urges us to remember the tragedies in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Genocidal acts where millions of people were killed, solely because of their ethnicity or identity. Crimes against humanity whose scale and brutality we can scarcely begin to understand. Crimes which we, as a global community, daily stand the risk of repeating, as the situation of the Rohingya in Burma demonstrates.
There is a real temptation to regard all of these events as things too big and too distant for us to contemplate or understand. Yet, the words of James ring true in reminding us that evil of this kind begins with our tongues. That such a small instrument as our tongue is capable of shaping the events and history even of a whole planet. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has produced a most useful illustration of how genocides happen: ‘The Ten Stages of Genocide’. As it goes on, it involves increasing levels of sophistication and organisation: the arming of militias, the setting up of death camps, etc. But note where it begins: it starts with ‘Classification’ – “The differences between people are not respected. There’s a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which can be carried out using stereotypes, or excluding people who are perceived to be different.” As we have been so often reminded, genocide and mass slaughter never begin with gigantic military parades or concentration camps. They begin with the sin of a single human heart. They begin with the lies of a single tongue – a tongue that “sets on fire the cycle of nature” (3:6) and turns good people into crazed maniacs, willing to kill, maim and destroy people who only a few days ago were their neighbours. Again, we are reminded of the prescient words of James, who makes it clear that we can never say we love God with our heart, while we hate our neighbour with our tongue: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (3:9)
Now more than ever, brothers and sisters, we need to heed this ancient text of James, for its message is all too modern and contemporary. I hope you would now agree that the force of his language is truly justified, given the deadly consequences of ignoring his words. The words of a man who had seen his own brother hailed by the crowd on Palm Sunday with shouts of ‘Hosanna’, only to witness his unwarranted condemnation a few days later by the same tongues crying, “Crucify!’.
All of us must recognise that we way we speak about one and another reflects who we truly are. If we claim to follow Christ with our hearts, then we have to demonstrate it with our tongues. If, as James reminds us, we have been given tongues capable of both blessing and cursing, then let us bless one another. Let us use our tongues to build one another up, not knock each other down. Let us use them to encourage and offer words of consolation and hope to one another, not backbite or complain. Let us think before we speak and recall the terrible examples from human history, where lies – like a forest fire – have leapt too easily from tongue to tongue, and nearly devoured the world. Let us recall our high calling as disciples of Christ to reject all prejudice, all name calling and discrimination. Let us listen with humility to James’ words, and use our tongues solely to the glory of God and to the service of all his people. Amen.