In a Nutshell
James challenges the presumption that lurks waiting to capture and burn lives that should be harvests of "wisdom from above".
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How are teachers to be appointed? How is the tongue to be tamed? How is wisdom to be expressed?
Let not there be many teachers [among you], my brothers and sisters, knowing that weighty judgement [is what] we shall receive.
For in many ways we all stumble. Anyone who can speak without stumbling is a complete person, capable of keeping the entire body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. And consider ships: though they are of considerable size, it takes strong winds to drive them along, while they are guided by a very small rudder subject to the discretion of the pilot. Similarly the tongue is only a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. What an extensive forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue [we can say] is [indeed] a fire, embedding itself among our members as a domain of iniquity; it stains the whole body, enflaming the [entire] ecosystem, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, reptiles and sea creatures, can be tamed and have been tamed, by the human species. But the [human] tongue by no human can be tamed - it is a [thoroughly] restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we [also] curse humans made in the very likeness of God. From out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. It's not on, my brothers and sisters, this ought not be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening with both fresh and brackish water [at the same time]? Is it possible, my brothers and sisters, for a fig tree to yield olives, a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
So then, who is the wise and understanding among you? Let that person demonstrate the good life by his or her works that are gently wise.
The purpose of this letter is not to get us worried and concerned about who shall or shall not be a teacher. Heaven-sent wisdom from above fits a person for service whatever the task in God's Kingdom. The wisdom is indiscriminate in that sense. Of course, it must be this same wisdom which comes to recognise the person called specially to teach. The advice here is that the people of the Lord not allow too many to become teachers - in other words, they not only need to exercise discernment about who is best fitted for the work, they will also need wisdom about what teaching work needs to be done. James then pushes this point home further by indicating a prior need - the people of the Lord must grow wise about the way in which their lives are all to easily ruled, not by wisdom, but by an active self-assertive principle lodged in their hearts which by its presumption singes all of life, bringing death and destruction in its wake. The tongue is nothing but a complete disaster giving those who should be its master the run-around, and so people are perpetually trying to put out the fires caused by them because they encourage this lawless pyromaniac. That's us, says James. So, quit your presumption. Face facts. Live wisdom.
The truly challenging thing for me about the Letter of James comes down to this: this letter causes us to pause, to pause and to keep on listening. James asks his readers to breathe it in - to absorb this teaching deeply. What gentle wisdom there is in this letter is to be demonstrated not by talking about it, but by simply going about one's life in the recognition that this is the wisdom that liberates, that emancipates.
I wonder: we know that the apostles were made corporately responsible for the way the Good News was taken into all the world. But though they were given Jesus' own directive to oversee the work of teaching this Good News, is does not mean that all were Rabbis, called to the office of DIDASKOLOS, as were Peter, James and John.