I would like to begin my remarks this morning by sharing a story with you from my school days. I went to boarding school, and in my boarding house there were around 50 boys aged between 13 and 18. One day, when I was around 15, excrement was discovered smeared across the walls of the toilets. The housemaster gathered us all together in the common room, and you can imagine the state of nervous excitement in the boys as we gathered to await punishment. Yet the housemaster – after making clear how angry he was – said ‘I have never believed in asking other people to do something that I am not prepared to do myself’ – and he then took a mop and bucket and cleared up the mess.
That story has always stuck in my mind, for two reasons. The first is that it is clearly a wonderful example of real leadership – but that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is the yuck factor, for that is the second reason why it has remained in my memory.
The truth is that we all have purity taboos; these days they often masquerade under the description of ‘hygiene’ – but even if a situation is hygienically sound, we may still have all sorts of qualms. There is something very basic and human about a reaction of disgust, it is something that can overwhelm us unless we are careful.
I think that this is central to what Jesus is emphasising today – in the context of a debate about these purity laws he says twice: what comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. In other words it is our language that should be provoking the yuck factor – we should have same reaction to our words as to misplaced bodily functions, for in spiritual terms, how we speak is a vital question, it is central to the life and health of a spiritual community – in particular, our language about other people: gossip.
There are very clear and consistent and strong biblical injunctions against gossip:
- the ninth commandment – thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour – it is up there with blasphemy, murder and adultery;
- in Proverbs ch 6 it is described as an abomination before God;
- in Luke 6.45 Jesus says that it is out of the overflow of the heart that a man speaks;
- in Romans 1 Paul lists it with the haters of god as deserving destruction;
- and in Ephesians 4.29 we are instructed not to let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths.
So why are we all tempted to indulge in it? I believe that it is often undertaken to provide a cheap and shallow form of solidarity – hey, we’re together because we’re not like that person, did you hear what they did? But this is the process of casting out, the very same process which cast out Christ from the city and murdered him on a hill. Diabolical.
Let us heed David’s prayer in psalm 141 and pray for a sentry to be placed on guard over our lips. Imagine before we speak a soldier with a rifle saying “halt, who goes there?” And he will ask four questions:
- is it true? As Christians we are wholly dependent upon the truth – if it is not true then it must not be spoken;
- is it spoken from love? – if we are separate from love then we are lost, so if our words are not from love they must not be spoken;
- does it need to be spoken? – if it is unnecessary then it is simply idle chatter; and finally
- is it wise to speak it now? – what is the kairos? has it been prayed about?
Or – if that is too complicated – let us have a single rule – never say anything in private that you would not be prepared to say in public, that you would not be prepared to say here on a Sunday morning before the congregation.
If this sounds very restrictive, leading to a complete absence of conversation [or blog posts ;-) ] let us also remember Isaiah, who, when summoned by God to speak on his behalf, said “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips”. Isaiah shared our human condition, yet God touched his lips and enabled him to speak. As Christians we believe that contamination can work both ways; the only issue is whether we spread the contamination of the devil or do we spread the contamination of the Spirit, by refusing to speak ill, to let unwholesome language pass our lips? We live by the Word, and if we allow the living Word to live within us then our words become words of life and we can pass on that life with our words.
The spiritual realm is very real – just as real as concrete things like walls and doors – and the effects of our spiritual pollution are also real – Christ’s point is this: the yuck factor should be applied to how we speak. In other words:
We should have as strong a reaction to gossip being spread within our church community as we would have to excrement being smeared across our church walls – we should be disgusted and distressed and ashamed and angry – we should be desolate and desperate for it to stop - for gossip will do much greater and longer lasting harm to us, and it is an absolutely certain pathway to hell, for individuals and for the community.