SUNDAY SCRIPTURE

Just listen to yourself

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Today’s readings begin and end talking about how we talk. A Jewish sage, Sirach, makes the observation that “when a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks” (Sir 27:4). Jesus — the Jewish sage par excellence — likewise takes a person’s speech as an indicator of where they’re at: “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45).

In other words, you can learn a lot about what’s inside a person by listening to them. If words are fruit, the person is a tree, and, as Jesus remarks, “every tree is known by its fruit” (Lk 6:44).

We can direct this line of thought to other people, but not before applying it to ourselves. “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,” Jesus asks, “but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” (Lk 6:41).

Scripture — and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which builds on it — offer thoughts to help us evaluate our speech and consider what lies behind it. For example:

— “The babble of some people is like sword thrusts” (Prv 12:18). “Babble” means shooting off your mouth — what the catechism calls rash judgment, that is, assuming “as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor” (No. 2477). “She called in sick this morning, but I bet she’s just hung over.”

— “Whoever reviles a neighbor lacks sense” (Prv 11:12). “Revile” means showing contempt. The catechism points to one form of this: “disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior” (No. 2481). Some of us have a particular gift (perhaps not quite the right word?) for wickedly funny imitations of teachers, parents, bosses, co-workers, clients, spouses.

— “One who slanders reveals secrets” (Prv 11:13). The catechism uses the word “detraction,” a rare term that sounds like a dental procedure but means disclosing “without (an) objectively valid reason, ... another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (No. 2477). “Did you hear? Their son’s going to prison for fraudulent Medicare billing.”

The point of this sort of exercise is not to make us feel bad but to help us see ourselves. Why do I say and do things like this? What kind of satisfaction do I get out of it? What does it indicate about how I value people?

The answers could be starting points for a conversation with God.