“Out of the Fullness of the Heart, the Mouth Speaks” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, February 27, 2022

Our first reading today , from the Book of Sirach, gives us threeparables, or analogies to illustrate that principle. The first is a sieve. A sieve, like a colander, sifts out larger things, like stones, from smaller things like sand. I remember watching movies about old-time gold prospectors out West , and seeing how they used sieves which they dipped in the river, to separate smaller gold particles from the heavier and bigger sediment. In ancient Israel, sieves were used to sift out the outer, dead husk or chaff of a grain like wheat from the inner, soft, living grain that would be used to make bread. The small and edible wheat passed through the holes of the sieve while the large and inedible chaff remained in the sieve. Sirach is saying that speech is like a sieve; it reveals the hard, dead, ugly, useless husks in our minds and hearts, and it separates them from the soft, living, beautiful and good things there. 

The practical application of this principle is to listen to your own speech more carefully, so you can throw away the husks. Because speech not only reveals the soul; it also conditions the soul. The more you say something, the more you believe it, The more you praise something, the more you love it. The more you rail against something, the more you condition yourself to hate it.  A constant habit of coarse or insulting speech makes your soul more and more coarse and insulting. Talking about yourself all the time makes you more selfish, not less. Constantly criticizing others does not make you less critical and angry, like “letting off steam” in a radiator,but exactly the opposite; it digs a rut in your soul. Whatever you do or say makes it easier to do it or say it again. That’s true of both words and actions, and those two things strongly influence each other. The easier it is to say it, the easier it is to do it. Many otherwise good and sincere Christians are not aware of the negative tendencies within them that come out in their speech. 

So, as I said earlier, it may be a good resolution this Lent to pay attention to the words that come out of our mouth on a regular basis, and get a read there as to what goes on in our minds and hearts, beyond the fake veneer of politeness and reasonableness that we like to show to others. If your speech is regularly negative, critical, demeaning, it is probably letting you know that there are some anger issues simmering away inside of you. Usually it is someone close to you, in your family, that has to bear the brunt of all that negativity. But you may also find that others do not particularly like being around you, because of the bad stuff that spews out of your mouth, without, often, you being aware of it. ”Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks”, says Jesus in our gospel today. 

Speech, then, according to Sirach acts like the sieve in revealing a person’s defects. Have you even been “sifted”, brothers and sisters? St Peter was. At the Last Supper, Jesus told him bluntly “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat.” (Luke 22:31) Jesus was predicting that Peter would deny knowing him three times at his arrest. Peter, of course, strenuously refutes that prophecy, showing he is unaware of his own fatal inner weakness, his fear: ”Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison, and to death”. Brave words, but sadly to prove Peter’s own undoing at the moment of trial. Peter does, eventually, after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, go to prison and to death for Jesus, but only after being “sifted”, humbled and broken of his pride and self-sufficiency, beforehand at Jesus’ trial. Sometimes, God allows us to go through a similar type of “sifting”, but only to expose our inner frailties and weaknesses, which often we, too, are unaware of. Because what you do not deal with overtly and directly, will deal with you covertly and negatively. When our buttons are pushed, when inner wounds are prodded and probed, the hurt and the anger gets released and people around us get hurt. Satan is only too aware of those inner darknesses within us, and will keep on exposing them, with God’s permission, unless and until we learn to bring them to the Lord for healing. 

This brings us to our second analogy, or parable, from Sirach, that of the potter’s furnace. Here again, Sirach is making the point that, just as speech,like  a sieve, can reveal a person’s defects, so too does the kiln. If you want to know what a politician really thinks, tune in some time to Question Period in Parliament, where an MP is being badgered over some policy or other, and wait for the moment when he or she is provoked beyond endurance and comes out with some snap comment which really shows what they are thinking! Under fire, under pressure, what emerges out of our mouths? No one was put under more verbal, emotional, physical and spiritual torture than Jesus at the cross. But what came out of his lips as he beheld the mocking, spiteful crowd beneath him, spewing hatred at him? Anger, vengefulness, spite? No: ”Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) I can pretty much guarantee that no such words would come out of my mouth in a similar situation, because nothing like those words come out of me when I face criticism and rejection nowhere near as bad as Jesus suffered. But Jesus lived continually in the awareness of his heavenly Father’s love, that was his environment, he was always and everywhere in the Father’s presence, he lived with the Holy Spirit always coursing through him. He could speak words in anger, as he did at times to the Pharisees and scribes, and also, when they warranted it, to his disciples. But it was always to the right people at the right time in the right way. Unless and until we are, in the words of our responsorial psalm today “planted, like the palm tree, like the cedar, in the house of the Lord”, in other words, unless and until we put ourselves continually in the presence of the Lord, through prayer, scripture reading, works of charity, we will never be, like Jesus, in control of our speech and our actions, such that they will always bear good fruit.

The final analogy or parable from Sirach continues that theme. In speaking of the cultivation of the tree, it provokes us to ask ourselves “What kind of fruit am I producing?” If, as a child of God, and disciple of Jesus, I am called to “bear good fruit for the glory of God” (John 15: 8), what kind of fruit is that? Well, St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, describes it as the fruits of the Spirit and he lists them as: ”love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control” (Galatians 5: 22 – 23). How are we doing with that, brothers and sisters? Is our conversation loving, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, and all the rest of it? Well, as Sirach makes clear in our first reading today, it depends on what is going on in our minds. Which is why St Paul urges us, in his letter to the Phillippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, THINK about these things“ (Phillippians 4:8) (“and keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard  and seen in me”). Whatever passes through the eye gates, whatever we read or watch or study, will be reproduced in our hearts and in our speech. So it behoves us, says St Paul again, in his letter to the Romans, not to be “conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our MINDS” (Romans 12 : 2) so that we have the same mind as Christ Jesus (cf Philippians 2:5).

There we have it, brothers and sisters, three short, simple parables from the lips of one of the Old Testament sages, but full of wisdom from above. St James, in his New Testament letter, speaks of the tongue as a “fire, out of which comes both blessing and curse” (James 3:6, 10). “My dear brothers and sisters, “ James goes on to say “this should not be so“. Indeed.

So going forward into Lent, brothers and sisters, what kinds of words are going to be coming out of our mouths: blessings or curses?