October 19, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news this morning from Matthew 12:33-37.
“Either declare the tree good and its fruit is good, or declare the tree rotten, for a tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you say good things when you are evil? For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Jesus was giving it to the Pharisees again, but remember this is Matthew writing whose community was the target of the Pharisees’ defamation. It’s hard for me to accept that the Pharisees were evil — misguided, obstinate, rigid, vengeful among other things, but they did believe in God, they abided by the scriptures in their own ways, and they did worship faithfully. We are each act at times from good and others from evil. So, I don’t like to think this was a blanket condemnation by Jesus. However, Scott Peck in People of the Lie gets at what I think Jesus was lashing out at, “[T]he central defect of the evil in sin is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.” The Pharisees refused to acknowledge that they were failing to conform to God’s will and that, in fact, they were laboring to thwart God’s will in many ways.
As Peck goes on, he may well have been writing about the Pharisees as well as those he observes today, “A predominant characteristic, however, of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection….Scapegoating works through a mechanism called projection….They [the evil] project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently, see much evil in others….Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil. Instead of destroying others they should be destroying the sickness within themselves….Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” That’s what Jesus identified as evil. As Isaiah wrote, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.”
Jesus tells us that our words reveal our hearts. Sometimes I am accepting, affirming, and loving disclosing the fullness of my heart. Other times I am cutting, judgmental and condemning. Both occasions reveal my heart. I am neither good nor evil; I am both. I am evil when I refuse to acknowledge my own sin and instead try to project it onto someone else through my words. Jesus is telling me that my words count — they will count for me and against me. Those words will either acquit me or condemn me. I am not one to use words carelessly, but occasionally I blurt out something hurtful or hateful and they can’t be taken back. Those words reveal my heart.
I’ve been on the receiving end, too, of words loosed without thinking. The viciousness and malicious intent make me recoil. There’s an ugliness to them that is difficult to shake. With time I can forgive, but it’s nearly impossible to forget the hatefulness. I think that’s because, as Jesus says, “an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil.” I don’t mean to imply that a particular individual is completely evil; only that the evil that lurks in the heart is unleashed, waiting for its opportunity to stain and defile.
I think we’re meant to think before we speak. It’s really wise advice. Why? Because if I think about what I want to say, it forces me to think about my intent, my motivation. It forces me to acknowledge my own sin, to own my own imperfections, my own impurity. When I do that I can avoid being a person of the lie, an evil person. I can avoid scapegoating, projecting onto others what I refuse to see in myself. I can avoid destroying or severely damaging a relationship with my rash words that no apology can erase.
I don’t want to be condemned on the day of judgment by my words. As my mother always said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”