Each of our readings this weekend deal very bluntly with the impact and the revelatory power of our words. The words we say tell us a whole lot about what’s going on in our hearts and what our character is like.
Our first reading from the book of Sirach told us that “the fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.” The author then goes on to say that we should “praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.”
In our gospel, then Jesus echoes pretty much the same exact teaching, telling us that “a good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit” — That “every tree is known by its own fruit.” Good or bad, it is “from the fullness of the heart [that] the mouth speaks.”
From all this, it is perfectly clear: The way that we speak reveals our heart. It’s one of the great tests of our integrity and our maturity.
Words are powerful. They have power to create. In the beginning, God spoke, and everything came to be: “Let there be Light,” He said… and then there was light. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God. Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, through Whom everything came to be.
Words are powerful. But they also have the power to destroy. They can pierce us where we are most vulnerable. They can make us self-conscious. They can expose our deepest weaknesses. They can dismantle our confidence and our security in an instant.
Now given how serious and how powerful words really are, perhaps it would be helpful today to review the most common “sins of the tongue.” Now thankfully, Monsignor Charles Pope did most of the heavy lifting for me, because he wrote an article recently which outlines the most common ways that we misuse the great power of our words.
So let’s run down that list together. And as I share these sins, consider them in your own heart. Examine your own conscience, and ask yourself: “Have I given in to any of these patterns of speech?”
Because… we all have.
None of us are sinless in this regard. So let us, as Jesus told us to, notice first the wooden beam in our own eyes first!
Because we all need to grow in self-control in this area… and we cannot hope to become more virtuous in our speech without God’s grace and without God’s mercy.
So, with all that firmly in mind, let’s put a name to and expose some of the most common ways we misuse the power of words:
The first, and perhaps most obvious one is Lying. Lying directly breaks the eight commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Lying is when we speak falsehoods with the express motivation of misleading others. Maybe we try to give wrong information that makes us look a little bit better… or makes somebody else look a little bit worse. Maybe we pretend not to know something really important to the issue at hand when we actually do know something! Lying can take any number of forms… but the antidote is telling the Truth, even if it’s costly. Lying only gets us more and more enmeshed and tangled. It only gets us more stuck — but telling the Truth sets us free.
Another sin of the tongue is Backbiting. So backbiting is when we choose to talk about others behind their backs, harming their good name through what is called ‘detraction.’ Often enough, the backbiter really only has to say true things, or at least partially true things — and therein lies the deepest pain that the backbiter can inflict! A backbiter might even feel sort of justified — “Well, I’m only telling the TRUTH, right?” — but he or she isn’t sharing that information to build someone up… They’re using that information to tear them down.
That sort of behavior is connected to our next common sin of the tongue, which is indiscretion. Indiscretion involves the spreading of confidential, unnecessary or hurtful information about others. One of the gravest acts of indiscretion would be for a priest to share something that he hears in the confessional…breaking the seal of the confessional. This would be so serious, in fact, that any priest who dares do that — even if he’s on trial! Even if they are demanding that he break the seal — if he does, he will be defrocked! That’s how serious we take the anonymity of the confessional.
But indiscretion could be much less serious in its scope. It might involve simply telling people information that isn’t really yours to share. We make ourselves less trustworthy when we do stuff like that.
The next sin of the tongue is Flattery.
At first that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing at all — isn’t it good to praise someone? Well of course it is. But sinful flattery is when we exaggerate all the good qualities in others just so we can use those people and manipulate them for our own advantage. Why are we complimenting people? Why are we choosing to go talk to this person, rather than the other person? Could it be a form of this subtle flattery? Could we be speaking and using our words… only for some sort of selfish gain? We should ask ourselves that!
Another sin of the tongue is boasting — Now we should boast in the Lord. We should BOAST in the Cross of Jesus. But what I’m talking about here is something different from being confident about what we should be confident about. But boasting involves the person being overly certain or asserting themselves too strongly. Drawing too much attention to oneself. Nobody likes a show-off, do they?
There is also the problem of oversharing — Namely, saying way too much. We might divulge too much about ourselves with the wrong people, or just go on and on and on, complaining or griping… selfishly wasting everybody’s time, enjoying whatever audience is willing to listen. Perhaps this is one of the most common sin of the tongue? And perhaps you think I’m guilty of it when I go on and on up here at the pulpit?
Well if you want to say that, or you HAVE said this — then you might be guilty of another sin of the tongue called RASHNESS — Rashness is when we say something or we render a word of judgment before we ought to, usually without having all of the relevant information. We’re familiar with this particular sin every time we pull up Facebooks — We see everyone rushing to share their rash opinions as if their opinion is going to change the world — without first gathering all the necessary context and all of the nuance that’s there. Everyone wants to post hot takes these days, even if they leave out a LOT of information.
One of the problems with those “hot takes” we see on Twitter or Facebook… or those “rash” words… is that they almost inevitably lead to our next sin of the tongue, which is quarreling.
Quarreling is different from arguing. Arguing is kind of a lost art that we badly need to recover, I think. Arguing just involves making a well-reasoned case for one’s legitimate position… and then defending it with charitable, even if passionately. Quarreling is different, however. Quarreling is when we jab at one another, or tear one another apart in an overly opinionated way, attacking others personally, and even provoking unnecessary division.
When quarreling escalates, there is then the greater temptation to commit yet another sin of the tongue, which is cursing. Cursing is when we wish harm upon others, or when we speak harshly or severely. We might even use vulgarities or slurs that are certainly not befitting of our status as adopted sons and daughters of God.
Now last but certainly not least, another sin of the tongue can be silence — Now, usually, silence is a good thing, right? We have to find silence in our life so we can hear God’s voice. And you might even wonder, ‘Well, how can silence be a sin of the tongue if it involves not saying anything?’
But here, I’m actually referring to silence as a sin of omission. We can commit sins of commission, but there’s also such things as sins of omission. So maybe we’ve run into the situation where someone insults or denigrates the Catholic Church at work. Do we remain silent? Maybe, rather than starting a quarrel, or being resentful — maybe we could offer a positive word: “You know, I’m a practicing Catholic, and I love my Church. I’m fed by Jesus in the Eucharist. My priest offers me forgiveness of my sins in the sacrament of Penance. I don’t know where I’d be without the Church!” When we fail to speak up, when we don’t warn people about sin, or when we choose not to announce the truth about Jesus Christ and what he teaches — this, too, believe it or not, can be a sin of the tongue.
Now, I hope that examination was helpful. But let’s now turn to something more positive. Because in stark contrast to all these bad and destructive ways of using words, our Psalm this weekend (Psalm 92) gives us the ultimate cure for all of these various sins of the tongue…
Psalm 92 says (and it was the refrain we sang this morning)
“Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.”
These are by far the best possible words that could ever come out of our mouths. They are the good fruit born from every good tree:
“Lord, thank you. Thank you so much. Despite everything going on in the world. Despite everything seemingly falling apart — Despite the threat of World War III — You are good, Lord. Thank You. You are so holy. You are deserving of all praise, honor, and glory!”
It is certainly VERY good to give thanks to the LORD, to proclaim His kindness at dawn and His faithfulness throughout the night. And that is precisely what we do every time we come to Mass.
The Eucharist is giving the Lord thanks. The priest says it point blank: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” — and you reply: “It is right and just!”
We offer up to God the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ Himself in the most Holy Eucharist. The most perfect, most profoundest words are those of the Holy Mass, the words of Christ Himself — “This is my Body, this is my Blood.”
With those simple little words, we believe as Christians that “Death is swallowed up in victory!” And so we cry out in the words that St. Paul gave us from our second reading from 1st Corinthians: “Where, O death, is your victory? — Where, O death, is your sting?”
We can taunt DEATH…
Every one of us has been hurt by somebody’s harsh or destructive words. I know when I was growing up, I was bullied a lot. And I felt like a loser because of other people’s words. Unfortunately, every single one of us, however, has also been guilty of hurting other people with our words… Maybe a stranger on the street. Somebody we work with. A family member. More often than not… it is our family members.
But I guess my encouragement to you is: Don’t give up! Let’s make that firm resolution to do everything for the glory of God. To use our words wisely and carefully!
Let’s allow the Words of Jesus to define us instead!
Because what does the Lord have to say about you and me? Does He say that you are bad? Does He say that you are hopeless? Does He say that you aren’t worth His time? Does he berate or insult you?
He speaks His love over you. He speaks the fullness of Truth over you. He speaks words of exhortation and YES… of conviction! He invites each one of us to the full repentance and renunciation of all our sins, and He speaks to us about how we can live a more holy, and more radically Christ-centered life.
But He will never speak words of accusation over us. He will never belittle us or make us feel dumb. He only has words of support and encouragement — encouragement to real virtue, to real life, to real happiness, and to real sacrifice.
Do you believe that about our God? Do you believe that His Speech, His Words are spirit and life? Healing and hope? Goodness and truth?
If so, then let us in turn strive to pattern our own words, our own speech after His.