The season of Lent lies before us, beginning this week with the observance of Ash Wednesday, significant for its very popular custom of doing what Jesus cautioned his followers against doing: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [Mat 6:16-18]. But then, if Christians did everything Jesus said (and avoided what he said to avoid), the world would be a very different place. Mardi Gras, for one thing, might look a lot different.
But that is matter for later reflection. Two of this Sunday’s readings
direct our attention to speech, especially false and
injurious talk, about which Jesus had some significant things to say, following the Wisdom tradition glimpsed in the passage from Sirach, the book formerly known as Ecclesiasticus.
There has undoubtedly been a lot of talk on the airwaves this week, not a little of it false and injurious according to many accounts. That’s politics, you might be tempted to object. But if truth should have a home in the heart and mouth, that would be a very good place to plant it. The zinger with which Luke ends today’s gospel passage is preceded, fittingly, by a long diatribe from Jesus about hypocrisy – looking for evidence of malfeasance by others when comfortably overlooking it in our own case, which, after all, is so wonderfully excusable. Or so we hope!
Christian scripture usually locates hypocrisy in the realm of speech, although it remains lodged in our understanding as pretending to be more virtuous than we really are, in fact, to do the very thing we condemn in others. “Hypocrite” originally meant “actor,” from which the notion of pretense derives. And as with acting, the art of hypocrisy is revealed, as Sirach and Jesus claim, in what we say about what we – and especially others – do. St. James, too, has some pointed observations about that in his testy letter, which draws on the similes used by Jesus himself.
“For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh” [James 3:7-12].
The full measure of hypocrisy lies in its produce, an agricultural image also favored by Sirach and Jesus. The image of the harvest sieve from Sirach seems particularly apt when sorting through the overabundance of verbiage that bombards us these days, although I have to confess that something like it occurred when I cleaned out my cat’s litter box this morning. Sometimes the “husks” are hardly worth preserving! In the electrically charged atmosphere of today’s political world, however, those are the treasures that seem most valued in the realms of public discourse, especially on cable TV and Twitter.
The acrid realm of current politics is far from the only area that Jesus and Sirach bid us consider. In fact, the normal arena of truth-telling and civility is our day-to-life in the home, school, and workplace. Old Sirach has some good advice in that area, too:
“Never repeat a conversation, and you will lose nothing at all.
With friend or foe do not report it, and unless it would be a sin for you, do not reveal it;
for someone may have heard you and watched you, and in time will hate you.
Have you heard something? Let it die with you. Be brave, it will not make you burst!
Having heard something, the fool suffers birth pangs like a woman in labor with a child.
Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh, so is gossip inside a fool.
Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it; or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it; or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.
Question a friend, for often it is slander; so do not believe everything you hear.
A person may make a slip without intending it. Who has not sinned with his tongue?” [Sirach 19: 7-16].
As Lent approaches, we could do worse than bear in mind Jesus’ simple observation, “Each one speaks from the heart’s abundance” [Luke 6:45]. We have cause, then, to look to our hearts as well as our tongues. May your Lenten season be a blessed and, yes, joyful opportunity for reflection and growth.