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Sins of the Tongue

Fr. Joseph K. Horn
13 April 1997
St Barbara’s Parish
Santa Ana, California

When you hear the word “sin”, what do you think of? The ordinary person thinks of sins like murder, rape, theft, cheating, lying, swearing, and all that sort of thing. But St. James in his letter implies that the sins we ought to think about the most are sins of speech, the so-called “sins of the tongue.”

James says (3:2), “In order to reach perfection, you have to control your mouth.” This is a core teaching, a fundamental moral guideline for both sexes, for all ages, for all cultures. Sins of speech are far deadlier than most folks realize.

James says (v.4), “Just as the man at the helm of a great ship can steer it through a storm by controlling a tiny rudder, so can you weather any temptation if you can but control your tongue.” Know what that’s like? During the World War there were posters that said, “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” The meaning was clear: during a war, revealing the wrong thing to the wrong person can cause disaster. Well, guess what. That’s true even when there’s no war going on.

James says (v.5), “Just as a tiny flame can set fire to a huge forest, so too sins of speech can lay an entire soul to waste.”

You want to hear a sad example? I’ll change the names to protect the innocent. Michelle returned to a large, famous Catholic high school last September, looking forward to a happy and busy year. During the previous summer, Michelle had experienced a growth spurt that changed her from a cute but slightly overweight girl into a tall and strikingly attractive woman. During her first day back at school, a classmate said to her, “Hey, Michelle, what happened to you? Are you pregnant?” Those nearby overheard the comment and laughed. Within a few days, Michelle was asked by several friends if the rumor was true that she was pregnant. No matter how or to whom she denied it, the rumor grew, until at last she couldn’t stand it any more. She transferred to a public school, where she has been treated with more respect than she received from her classmates in Catholic school.

What a tragedy. This young woman’s soul was shattered by cruel gossip. And this is just one example. I’m sure you can list many times that heartless words lay your soul to waste.

James says (v.7), “Wild beasts can be tamed by men, and often are, but nobody can tame their own tongue; it is a pest that will not keep still, and is full of deadly poison.”

That reminds me of the cartoon showing a woman hanging up the telephone. Her husband says to her, “I told you never to repeat anything about other people unless it’s good.” To which she replies, “Oh, believe me, this was really good!

James says (v.9), “We use our tongue to bless God, but we also use it to curse our fellow men who were made in God’s image, the blessing and the curse coming out of the same mouth.” He goes on to say (v.10), “This must be wrong! Do you get fresh water and salt water out of the same pipe? Do you get olives from a fig tree, or figs from a vine?”

This reminds me of what Jesus said (Mt 15:11 and Mk 7:20), “What goes into your mouth is not what defiles you, but what comes out of your mouth.” Do we realize how critical this is? It means that most of us are worried about the wrong things in our spiritual lives. We worry about whether we are wearing the right clothes to Mass, and we say cold things about people who are not dressed for church according to our standards. But what makes us holy: how we dress on Sunday, or how we speak to people?

We bless ourselves with holy water as we leave church, but we don’t even make it to our cars without spreading the latest gossip. So what good did that holy water do, hmm? And what harm have we done to the reputation of others?

We exaggerate details whenever we recount stories or describe ourselves. Exaggeration is a sin of speech, because it is a lie. It may win us the rapt attention of friends, but what does it do to our souls?

We all know very well how effective flattery can be when we need something. Flattery is a contemptible sin of speech, a lie masquerading as a compliment.

Finally, we believe that we are peacemakers and that we are doing everything we can to foster tranquility and calm among our fellow men. But then we whine and bellyache and complain and whimper and gripe and drive everybody around us out of their minds with an interminable torrent of words, robbing people of whatever shred of peace of mind they may have had, and making charity a virtual impossibility. Unnecessary talk, especially complaining, is a chronic sin of speech for many people. How many times would the world have been better off if we just kept silent?

And lest I be accused of unnecessary talk, I’ll now shut up, but not before leaving you with this thought: Talk isn’t cheap; it can cost you your very soul.

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