James III: 1-12
I have often said that during this season of Lent the emphasis on what we do or don’t eat can easily obscure the deeper meaning of our Lenten observance, so rather than touching on the Gospel for today – the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son – I prefer to direct our meditation to today’s Catholicon, which is an extract from the Catholic Epistle of James. When considering some of the dietary rules handed down in the church, we should also remember our Lord’s warning that, “What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.” (Matthew XV: 11), and appropriately the theme of today’s Catholicon is about control of the tongue.
There are many ways in which the tongue can dishonour both the speaker and those of whom he or she is speaking. Using restraint in speech, however, acts as a brake on foolish, indiscreet or unkind words. Tongues loosened by alcohol are notable for indiscretions. The Book of Ecclesiastes notes that “a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words” and counsels, “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (V: 2-3). I particularly like the old maxim, “Better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and prove it beyond all reasonable doubt.” St James points out that although the tongue is a small part of the body, it can make great boasts, and he urges us to bring it under control. The bit placed in the mouths of horses or the rudders of ships, which enable us to tame strong animals or steer a ship against prevailing winds, are powerful reminders of the need to exercise prudence when speaking.
Saint Basil the Great tells us that “the sin which is caused by the tongue is very active and many-sided, being active in wrath, lust, hypocrisy, judgement and deception. Do we need to recall the many names which are given to sins of the tongue? From it come slanders, coarse jokes, idiocies, irrelevant accusations, bitterness, swearing, false witness – the tongue is the creator of all these evils things and more.” The Thesaurus is rich in words describing the ready tendency to speak badly of others, and we know how often foolish gossip appropriately referred to as ‘talking behind someone’s back’ or more colloquially “dishing the dirt” can so easily dishonour, defame, damage, scandalise, stigmatise, calumniate, traduce, malign, vilify, denigrate, blacken, tarnish, badmouth, discredit and smear the reputations of someone, leading to us “dragging their good name in the gutter” or “giving a dog a bad name.”
The Book of Proverbs (XVIII:8) says, “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly,” whilst Leviticus (XIX:16) counsels, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.” Tale-bearing is not indulged in by those seeking the reformation of something wrong, but rather the “choice morsels” exposing human frailty (Proverbs VIII: 8) are essentially malicious. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he who fetches also carries and that what gossips say to us about others, they can also say to others about us.
Even though there may be some truth in what is told, “A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter” (Proverbs XI: 13). Again, the Book of Proverbs warns that, “The one who forgives an offense seeks love, but whoever repeats a matter separates close friends” (XVII: 9) and the Psalmist shows his absolute detestation by declaring, “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off” (Psalm CI: 5).
The New Testament is equally strong in its condemnation of this evil. St. Paul lists “backbiters” along with “haters of God” (Romans I: 30) and counsels that we “speak evil of no man” (Titus III: 2), which is echoed by St. Peter who directs that we must lay aside “all evil speakings” (1 Peter II: 1). The fact that it is often mentioned suggests that even among the elect in the primitive Church, this was still an issue and, if we are frank, we can all recognise that it is still prevalent in our churches today.
The Scriptures are clear in their moral condemnation of gossip or backbiting, but even more hateful is indulging in tale-bearing which has no foundation in truth or consists of deliberate lies. Satan is the father of lies (John VIII: 44), and God said that he hates a lying tongue (Proverbs VI:17). According to the Book of Revelation (XXI: 8) all liars will have their part in the lake of fire. Proverbs (XXV:18) also says, “A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow,” because it is a deadly weapon. It can be used to harm others: a maul is a hammer, which can be used at close quarters; the sword has a wider reach, whilst an arrow can travel long distances.
There are many other ways also in which the tongue can be misused. Another form of dishonesty is flattery where excessive and insincere praise is craftily used to insinuate favour and generally further one’s own interests. The Psalmist speaks of flattery as a characteristic of the wicked, not the righteous: “For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.” (V:9). Linked to flattery, the Psalmist also speaks of those who have a proud or boastful tongue, “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” (XII: 3-4)
Sadly, in modern times there is little restraint on the use of bad language and, whilst swearing, cursing and profanity have always been disapproved of, it is now tolerated to such an extent that it is commonly used on the media and even in Parliament. Its use for abusing others is basically spiteful and bitter. “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Romans III: 13-14). As Christians we should try to lead the way in ensuring that our talk is wholesome and edifying. St Paul warns us, “You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians IV: 29)
St. James reminds us that with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (III:10)
St. Cyril the Great counsels us, “The effective proof of a sound mind and perfect thought is to have nothing faulty on our tongue and to keep our mouths closed when necessary. For it is better to be guided by worthy speech, which is able to express the fullness of all praise. For the most useful talent is to be able to speak wisdom when talking about how to live well. Foolish talk should be foreign to the saints.”
There is a false tendency to regard gossip as a ‘minor’ failing, but that opinion is not borne out by the scriptures or the fathers of the church, who regard it as a great evil. Indeed, Saint Jerome says, “The sword kills the body, but the tongue kills the soul.” Others, however, cloak their mendacity in self-righteousness, like the Pharisee who stood by himself and prayed: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else.’ Our own Venerable Bede wisely warns us, “It is clear from this that the heart which is not right with God cannot bring forth the words of the works of righteousness on the contrary, if the heart is wicked, everything it says and does will be wicked also.”