This instruction from Jesus seems so clear and so obvious that it is tempting simply to point to his statement – it is what comes out of us that defiles – and say, “Don’t say unkind things,” and sit down.
But this encounter points to the deep divide between the Pharisees and the Jesus way. Surely the Pharisees believed that their salvation lay in meticulous observance of the rituals. That is, it seems that they were moved to perform the same actions as their ancestors had without examining why.
In fact, when I went to looking into the rationale behind the hand-washing ritual, I couldn’t find a reason. It seems they performed this ritual purely because their ancestors had done so. The closest thing to an explanation is one scholar’s suggestion that the raising of the hands after washing resembled the raising of the hands in prayer.
But Jesus was outraged that these religious leaders who adhered to the principle of We’ve Always Done It That Way criticized the way he was in educational relationship with others. Clearly, even as they were scrupulous about hand-washing, their relationships left something to be desired, because Jesus called them hypocrites, men whose deeds did not match their words.
You wash your hands, he said, and you think you have found the path to the kingdom of heaven. But your actions damage relationships rather than mending them.
I suspect the Pharisees were afraid. With no valid reason, they persisted in rituals that they believed would protect them. Salvation was a matter of staving off fear. And fear is no basis for a healthy relationship. By the same token, I suspect that much of what we say that is damaging is also motivated by our own fears. Maybe that’s where Jesus’ lesson to us comes in. If fear was driving the Pharisees to insist on adherence to ritual, what does Jesus see in us that prompts him to caution us about what comes out of the mouth?
It could be that, like the Pharisees, we praise God with our lips, but our hearts are far from Him. It could be that you and I are hypocrites. We attend church – and yet we do and say things that destroy: and maybe what drives us is that same fear that motivates the Pharisees.
Why do we say hurtful things to and about others? Whatever we fear about ourselves is quite likely those things about which we are insecure. If I’m afraid that my job will be cut, it becomes easier to say that some other group of laborers is stealing my job. If I’m worried that the other kids in school will make fun of my clothing or hairstyle, I project that onto making fun of someone else. Whatever we fear is the first thing we target in others. We build ourselves up by tearing one another down. But how does that help? Is our own uncertainty so deep that we can feel good about ourselves only if someone else feels bad?
What is it the Pharisees feared? They would have come from a people with a long history of being oppressed, exiled, enslaved. Even now, their power was limited – they were allowed a minor amount of autonomy only because the Roman Empire permitted it. Within their small region, they had power. They had status. They had job security. But if their sense of self derived entirely from their position – then in their position it was vital that they were scrupulous, utterly flawless about maintaining the laws of behavior, the same rituals observed by their fathers and by their fathers before them. So much would be at risk if it was suggested that they were less observant than a religious leader should be. And if they lost their jobs, they would be unable to support their families. They would become outcasts and beggars – the very people they despised.
In that light, perhaps we can have some sympathy for the Pharisees. What’s our excuse?
Where does it come from, this need to build ourselves up by tearing others down? Why do we say what we do, make fun of others, criticize? How does it help?
There are many sources for an acronym that can serve as a guide to let you and me guard our tongues as Scripture advises us to do, so that we can heed the wisdom of Jesus: it is what comes out of us that is damaging. The acronym is this: THINK.
As in, what if I THINK before I speak? Is what I have to say:
- True? Is it
- Helpful? Is it
- Informative? Is it
- Necessary? Is it
When our daughter was younger, we used this technique often. One of the hallmarks of autism is a tendency to take things literally, which meant that sometimes she would say something hurtful. We had told her always to tell the truth, so when we called her on it, she had what she thought was an ironclad defense: “But it’s true!”
If I say something critical about someone else, it might be true, but often it is not kind or helpful. And if I am honest with myself, often it is fear, it is my own insecurity, that drives my behavior.
“Be doers of the word,” James tells us, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” How much more will we experience the kingdom of God all around us – how much more clearly will we be able to see that of God in everyone – how much more confident will we be that our words and our actions reflect the light of Christ to everyone we encounter – if, before we speak… we think.