The first and last of Sunday’s Scriptural Readings focus on our “talk life” – the utter importance and power of our words. Talk may well be cheap in the case of an empty promise or sly flattery but both Sirach (First Reading) and Jesus (Gospel) remind us that some of our most significant deeds are in fact the words we say.
For better or worse, our speech reveals who and what we are. Sirach demonstrates this in three sharp images. The act of speech is like sifting wheat through a sieve: as the sifting sorts out the husks, so our speech exposes the otherwise hidden faults of our character. And just as the hot fire of a kiln tests the craft of the potter, so the give and take of conversation tests the integrity of the speakers. Finally, just as the quality of a fruit tree indicates the care of its cultivator, so our speech reveals everything that has gone into our formation.
One could meditate on that imagery and draw the fatalistic conclusion, “well, you are what you are, and your speech is going to expose you no matter what you try to do about it. Maybe it’s best to keep quiet!”
Jesus puts the reality of our speech in a fuller context. “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of the store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). By itself, that teaching seems to leave us with Sirach: for better or worse, your speech is going to show you up. But Jesus’ words come attached to the rest of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49).
Jesus’ Sermon presents a sobering challenge to our “talk life ” as he addresses his teaching “to you who hear”. He urges love of enemies, nonviolence, selfless giving, and a compassion that imitates God’s own mercy. The heart that the mouth reveals is supposed to be that kind of heart! This might sound more discouraging than Sirach, except that Jesus’ teaching on prayer throughout the rest of the Gospel of Luke reminds us that the power to imitate Jesus in these matters is not our own. It comes from the gift of the Spirit which enables us to become those who listen to Jesus’ words and act on them.
When we put all this in the larger setting of the story of Jesus and the story of the Church, we realize that genuine discipleship is not only a matter of “walking the talk”; it also entails “talking the walk.” That is, some of the most important Christian deeds will in fact be acts of speech, challenging injustice, encouraging the downhearted, asking and giving forgiveness, blessing with praise those who need to be affirmed.
God sees the heart and always will. We may put on a great show of words and actions, but it is what is at the root of these that is so visible to God. Focusing on the faults of others, no matter how true, only attempts to take the focus off our own.
As Paul reminds us, the heart that produces the goodness revealed in speech is the heart that is rooted in the risen Lord Jesus.
Find your roots!