This week in The Gathering (livestreamed at 9:30 am) and Sanctuary worship (livestreamed at 11:00 am), our scripture reading will be Matthew 15:10-20, where Jesus says, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person…What goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight.”
Jesus’ words are in keeping with a long wisdom tradition warning about the power of words — and being careful with them:
- In Psalm 120, the Psalmist cries out to God in distress because he is the victim of “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue.”
- In the New Testament letter of James, James says that the tongue is like the rudder on a huge ship — the whole ship’s course is determined by the small rudder in the water.
- With horses, says James, when we get control of their mouths with bits, their whole bodies follow. The tongue, James says, is the smallest part of the body, but it can direct the whole course of a person’s life.
- Then James employs another image which powerfully makes his point: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.” The picture of the tongue as a fire would also have been a familiar image to the first readers of James’ letter.
- The writer of the book of Proverbs says, “A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.” And outside of scripture, in ordinary speech, we also use that “fire” metaphor, don’t we? We say that gossip “spreads like wildfire.”
- Jesus warned in Matthew 12, “By your words you will be justified; and by your words you will be condemned.”
- Proverbs 15:1-4 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath; but a harsh words stirs up anger. . . .A gentle tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
Jesus Ben Sirach, the writer of the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, was also very concerned about what we say and how we say it. His words from chapter 28 speak to us as powerfully today as they did in antiquity when he wrote them:
“If you blow on a spark, it will glow; if you spit on it, it will be put out; yet both come out of your mouth. Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many. Slander has shaken many, and scattered them from nation to nation; it has destroyed strong cities, and overturned the houses of the great. Slander has driven virtuous women from their homes, and deprived them of the fruit of their toil. Those who pay heed to slander will not find rest, nor will they settle down in peace. 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. Happy is the one who is protected from it, who has not been exposed to its anger, who has not borne its yoke, and has not been bound with its fetters. For its yoke is a yoke of iron, and its fetters are fetters of bronze; its death is an evil death, and Hades is preferable to it.
— Ecclesiasticus or Sirach 28:11-20
Or, as Jesus Ben Sirach would say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may actually crush them.”
In our time, social media fans the flames of conspiracy theories, rumors, and junk science into a raging wildfire. I get forwarded emails that are long-discredited hoaxes still circulating as fact. New conspiracy theories seem to emerge every day. Some of them are enormously destructive and hurtful, yet they are forwarded or posted and continue to damage at a distance without the possibility of control — like wildfire.
Can’t we do better? Certainly, as people of faith, we can.
This Sunday we’ll be thinking together about the power of words to hurt, to undermine, to divide, and even to kill. But, more importantly, we’ll think about the power of words to heal, transform, bring together, inspire, and give life.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”
12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”
15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”
16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”