The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2017 – Matthew 5:21-37
“But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. … Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” [Mat 5:22, 37 RSV]
I want us to reflect this morning on how we speak, how we talk, the words that come out of our mouth. Most of us would agree that we should always be honest when we speak. And certainly Jesus’ words today are about a certain kind of honesty: “let your yes be yes, and your no be no”. No mush. Of course, there is also the question of whether, if I “honestly” think you are “fool”, I should say so. Or should I just “think it”? The “hell of fire”, Jesus says – and don’t think Jesus never talked about hell and punishment – hangs in the balance.
I became a Canadian citizen 3 weeks ago. So I can now make comparisons between Canadians and Americans without unbiased impunity. And I suppose all of you know that Americans are known for “speaking their mind”, being transparent, and thus you know where you stand with them; whereas Canadians are known for being ever-polite, reticent, and emotionally inscrutable. Does the difference have any moral connotations?
The first thing I ever had published was an article I wrote while I was still a young missionary in Burundi, Africa. It was called “The Will to Silence”: it was about the silence of the Burundi people, and government especially, regarding the horrendous violence of the 1972 civil war there, that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Silence about the violence, silence about the causes silence about the continuing ethnic hatreds boiling under the surface. I thought I saw all the signs of cultural and personal and moral twistedness around me, and in the church too, that derived from this silence, from not openly facing the truth. And I thought, after struggling with this issue, living with it, trying to get others to engage it, that I needed to “say something”. When the article was published far away in America, I was promptly arrested, interrogated, and deported.
My notions of honesty were very American, very informed by a culture of “free speech”, of open critique; very romantic too – all about “speaking truth to power”, being a lone voice of clarity in the midst of oppressive muteness and deafness. And, and in speaking my mind, I also messed everything up: the ministry of the school where I taught, my students’ lives, the church. I had been told, by the way, a traditional proverb by Barundi friends: “Nzi kuvuga ahanwa na Nzi guhora”: “’I know how to talk’ is always defeated by “I know how to be quiet’”.
That was 32 years ago. I’ve had a long time to reflect on this. I still have enormous admiration for dissidents, who speak up, publish fearlessly in the face of threats and suppression – in Communist countries of old, in Russia today, in Iran or Egypt.
But I think I recognize now, at least to some degree, how our attempts at “honest speech” get a lot of things mixed up and messed up.
In our society, we have freedom to speak. That’s not entirely true, of course, because there are all sorts of pressures to conform, to play along, to avoid ruffling annoying current orthodoxies, whether politically or in schools or the workplace. Still, more than anywhere and at any time, North Americans can say whatever they like. The result is that everything we say ends up being a reflection of, well, “whatever we like”, that is “just me”. You are free to say “what you want”: well, what is that? Exactly what I want. Just me. I’ m not supposed to say what other people want me to say; or to say what I was taught to say; or to say what God wants me to say. I am supposed to say what I want to say. This is a profound problem.
Now to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus says, “let your yes be yes and your no be no”, he is not actually talking in the first place about honesty. “Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” [Mat 5:33-37 RSV] Here Jesus is talking about oathtaking. And that is less about honesty; rather, it is all about trust. “I promise I will do this” – will pay you back; will be your friend; will be faithful to you as long as I live”. Yes or no? Jesus is talking about keeping your word. Doing – or “performing” — what you say you will. Yes, I will. No, I won’t. That’s it.
To me, this is very significant.
Yes, yes; no, no is not about making sure your words move to the truth; it’s about making sure your words move to the will: I will do what I say.
Obviously, the truth is important; and speaking truly is important. But willing to do what we say is exactly where everything gets messed up. Our “will” is the biggest problem. Jesus himself says later: “For out of the heart – that is, the will — come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” [Mat 15:19 RSV] We would like to speak the truth; but because we want other things, what comes out of our mouths and is worked by our hands is a mess. I think I am “telling the truth”, “speaking honestly”, standing up as a “prophet”, when I say to this person or that person, “how wrong you are!”; but what I am really doing, what my “will” is doing, is playing out my anger, my bitterness, my nastiness.
I feel this deeply as a preacher – and I speak to some our students here. Even if my words seem to conform to the truth, they end up coming “out of my heart”, along with all the other things that lurk there: my fears, my resentments, my pride, my self-delusions and malice.
Every time we preachers get up and talk, we lie at some deep level, because we are speaking about ourselves.
Mind you, we have no choice as priests, but to do this. That is one reason why preachers are a kind of negative image of Jesus, “who becomes a curse” on our behalf (Gal. 3;13; cr. 2 Cor. 5:21): we stand as the sin of every person here, speaking falsely, and being cursed. Every preacher should begin his or her sermon by praying, “forgive me Father, for I am about to sin”. For I am about to speak.
St. Paul, by the way, picks up on Jesus’ words here. At one point, he is writing to the Corinthians, and trying to explain why he promised to visit them, and then didn’t make it, because of some terrible problems that he faced – imprisonment, perhaps. “I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedo’nia […] Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No.” [2Co 1:16-18 RSV] Just as with Jesus, Paul wants his friends to know that they can trust him, even though events prevented his visit. When I say “yes”, I mean it. But then, interestingly, Paul shifts his focus to Jesus: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva’nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. [2Co 1:19-20 RSV. That is, whatever you think about trusting my words, you must trust Jesus’ words: for his words are his will, utterly. Thy Will Be Done; in Jesus Christ. Amen and Amen.
In Jesus, there is a perfect conjunction of word and will, and hence, in him alone, the truth sines out. What he speaks, he does; and what he does is true.
But, my friends, we are not Jesus. Indeed, if we turn to observe Jesus on this score and try to use him as our example, things get confusing. When Jesus is arrested, and brought before the High Priest, they ask him to answer the charges brought against him. But, we are told, he was “silent” (Mk. 14:61). “He never said a mumblin’ word”, as the spiritual goes. The next thing you know, though, the High Priest asks him, “Are you then the Christ?”, and Jesus firmly answers, “I am!” (14:62). But then, having been brought before Pilate, Pilate asks him, “are you King of the Jews”, and all Jesus can say is “That’s what you say” (Mk. 15:2). No, yes, maybe…
If this is a model for us, it is not one we can follow until we ourselves become like Jesus himself, knowing to the root of our hearts and wills when to speak, when to be silent, when to turn the tables. God is doing exactly what is true and right when Jesus refuses to answer, or answers ambivalently. But we are not God. Jesus tells us today that if we call someone a “fool” we are liable for judgment. Yet, it is Jesus himself who, after calling the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites”, goes yet further and calls them “blind fools”, the exact word for which you and I are liable to judgment! (Mat. 23:13, 17). Yes: let God speak the truth about other people. But we dare not pretend that we do: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” [Mat 7:1-2 RSV] Nothing could be clearer.
That, of course, is the key. We are not Jesus; and so everything we speak is a blasphemy of sorts, a judgment upon ourselves, where word is not will, and where it is our will, it is not true.
So what is our goal and practice when we talk? As in our whole life, it is to become like Jesus.
That is, the goal of our speaking is to focus on something that is prior to, and quite different from speaking itself: a change of will, and change of heart.
The wise person – as opposed to the true fool — rarely speaks: this is biblical wisdom. You probably know the verses, from the Book of Proverbs, but also from the Letter of James: “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” [Pro 17:27 RSV] “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.” [Pro 10:19 RSV] “The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” [Pro 15:28 RSV] “Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak” [Jas 1:19 RSV] Why do the wise say so little? Is it because they are cunning, biding their time for the “right moment”? I think not. The wise do not speak much, because they are busy praying.
And what are they praying for? Not for the right words – that’s isn’t point. Rather, the wise pray, not to speak well, but for a change of will; they are praying for the holy Spirit; for grace; for mercy; for forgiveness; for Jesus himself. If there are to be words, they will follow only from that. I’m not proposing a method – that is, if you pray first, then you can speak well. What I’m saying is that we are called to kindle our desire to be changed in our hearts and wills; and as we focus on that, our desires are more and more lived out and hence proven real.
Which is not to say that practices don’t matter. I learned the other day that all first-year students at St. Augustine’s Seminary – the catholic seminary here in Toronto – are asked to take a year’s sabbath from all electronic devices: cell phones, computers, the rest. It isn’t the practice here that I admire – it doesn’t really work, because people are people and most of us don’t live in a dorm together where we don’t need telephones and computers. But it’s the ideal that challenges. No question: when it comes to wretched speech, email is bad, texting worse, twittering is a cesspool: largely because this way of communicating eliminates more and more the space between willing and speaking, and the long dilation of the heart in prayer for Jesus disappears.
But Jesus calls us into prayer before he calls us into speech. He does that, so he can give us his gifts. We read in Luke, “He told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” [Luk 18:1 RSV]. And St. Paul rightly follows suit, telling the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing”. [1Th 5:16-17 RSV] Of course we must speak; of course we must seek to speak the truth. But even more than this, we must yearn to become utterly true ourselves, which we can find only in God. So Jesus says: don’t give up; keep praying; pray ceaselessly.
Pray: not to accomplish anything; but simply to express who we really are: creatures of the living God who depend upon his grace in Christ utterly.
In any situation, that is the most honest thing that we could ever express to another person and to the world. “Yes”, to your grace, Lord Jesus. Amen.