Le jugement dernier (The Last Judgement)(detail), Rogier van der Weyden (1400–1464), c.1450; Hospices de Beaune

Fr Neil’s homily for Quinquagesima, 27 February 2022

Do not praise a man before you hear him speak, for this is the test of men.¹

Words are important. Our ability to communicate by complicated speech patterns marks a major distinction between humans and other animals. Words are used to express thoughts, feelings, ideas and meaning. Language as a means of communication also reflects something of the divine image after which we are made.

We are used to referring to the recorded word of God when speaking about the scriptures. The scriptures reveal the story of God’s interactions with us, with humanity. The scriptures are also animated by the Holy Spirit so that they become the living word of God. Here we touch upon the power of the word as a living force.

In the beginning of creation God spoke, “Let it be…”² and that which did not exist came into being. The authoritative word has the ability to bring about life. It is why the created order is often referred to as the second scriptures, or testament to God.

In John’s prologue, Christ himself is identified as the “Word made flesh…that enlightens all men.”³ It is God’s dynamic proclaimed word that animates: healing the sick, recovering the sight of the blind, cleansing the leper and raising the dead.

Words have power. We hear much today about claims that certain people should be silenced, de-platformed and censored. We are told that their words are “violence” towards others whose feelings are hurt and damaged. There is a battle between those who want greater censorship in the public domain and those campaigning for the freedom of speech.

Both sides are aware that words are powerful. Those wishing to censor speak about how words can be dangerous and harmful, especially for minority groups — while the other side argues that the freedom of expression is vital in the search for truth and human flourishing.

Certainly, history teaches us that many dictators have burnt books and silenced opposition voices ‘for the common good of the nation state.’ We have even seen some of this over Covid. Those who wandered from the main narrative have had their social media accounts frozen and have been de-platformed; major protests involving tens of thousands of people against vaccine mandates and lockdown restriction were just not reported on. The very fact that I feel the need to make clear that am just highlighting a point not stating a position in relation to Covid is telling in itself.

There are those who wish to argue that words and speech are just the normative narrative between grown-ups and are not dangerous; but they are being disingenuous. Words can dehumanise, diminish and crush others as well as animate, inspire and enable human flourishing. Just take a moment to compare the recorded speeches of Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King.

Most teachers will be able to tell you that a child who is encouraged, supported and told that they are loved will flourish, succeed and have greater life chances that the child who has heard the opposite.

The writer of Ecclesiasticus and Christ in the gospel both agree that the words which proceed from the mouth reveal a deeper truth about speaker. What is revealed in speech is what is in the heart. They are both clear that a good tree cannot bear rotten fruit. The state of our heart and soul is revealed in the things we consistently say.

How easy it is to transfer the dark feelings of our heart on to someone else by the manner in which we speak about them — or to them! We do this seeing with an absolute clarity the fault of the other, while far too often overlooking our own failings.

Christ exhorts us to take responsibility for the things we say and do because we will be judged by what we say as well as our actions. In Matthew 12:35-37 Christ says,

The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

James in his epistle speaks much about the tongue and humanity’s inability to tame it: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.”⁴

How I understand St Paul’s exclamation “who will save a wretch like me?”⁵! Yet it is Paul himself who points to the remedy. Our only hope is to put immortality upon our mortality and the imperishable upon that which is perishable. In baptism we are clothed with Christ. When we go off-script and allow our unbridled mouths free reign, we can often ignite a fire that is difficult to put out.

Humility before God in confession is the most effective way of restoring the way of immortality. We will never tame the tongue without the aid of God’s sacramental graces. Lent is a wonderful opportunity to give more, to listen more attentively and “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.”⁶

Our words can reveal whether death or life is at work in us. Yet, only when we are clothed in immortality are we able to cry out: “O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”⁷

¹ Ecclesiasticus 27:7
² Genesis 1:3–27
³ John 1:14, 9
⁴ James 3:9
⁵ cf Romans 7:24
⁶ Colossians 3:16
⁷ 1 Corinthians 15:55

The editorial title comes from Proverbs 18:21.