This first reading is taken from what is called the Wisdom Literature. Wisdom, in Hebrew and early Christian thought, was a very concrete virtue. It didn’t have much to do with lofty and abstract thought. Wisdom, rather, was a matter of acting rightly, prudently, paying careful attention to the rightness of even the smallest detail of
day to day life. For the scriptural authors of both Testaments, all of that was especially true when day to day details at issue were words.
In the Hebrew and early Christian view of reality, words had a value, a power, almost a life of their own. So, to give to someone else your word, to speak to them, was to give them something of yourself, to establish a personal bond with them. That was most clearly so when the word that was given was someone’s name or title. The name was the person. Understanding that, I think, gives tremendous weight to what is a revelation of the love that God has for his people that is utterly unique to the Hebrew Christian tradition. God chooses to give his name, his titles, to us and invites us to use them when we address him.
Today’s readings from Sirach and the Gospel speak about the power of the Tongue, the power of Speech. They are about the tongue as a sword and a symptom.
First, the tongue can be a sword. If we think back on the past twenty-four hours of our day, there are a number of people we have touched physically maybe with a pat on the back or a handshake. How many more people have we touched with our words?
With our words we can give comfort, strength, encouragement, praise. We can sing with our tongues to the glory of God or we can hurt people, destroy reputations, spread suspicion and slander. Our words can clarify and clear the air. They can deceive and create confusion. Words can cause war or begin the process of peace.
The old saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is a lie. We all know the terrible terror of the untamed tongue. The tongue is only three inches long but it can do a great deal of damage and create a great deal of hurt.
The tongue is also a symptom. The tongue as we all know is an indicator of the state of our health physically. That’s why the doctor checks it. It’s also an indicator of the state of our health spiritually. Our Lord’s concluding words in the Gospel, ‘From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks’, teaches that how we speak to and about others is a symptom, a fairly good indicator of what is happening in our heart.
As we approach Lent, our readings call us to look not only at our speech but also at our heart. Lent is a time to look within at the state of our heart. Are we trying to clear the speck from another’s and missing the log in our own? Can we see clearly enough to lead another? What is the condition of our heart? Is it a Christian heart or a self-absorbed heart, a heart of darkness?
Let’s not forget the power of the good word, the healing word, the helping word. A good word, a Christian word to another has an effect that will last a lifetime.
If our heart reflects Christ, so will our words. We all have work to do! Fr Andrew