Pens and Swords

Scripture:  Matthew 15:10-20

Winston Churchill earned his place in history.  During the darkest days of World War II, he came to represent Britain’s fighting spirit.   While Churchill did have a military background, by the time he was prime minister is soldiering days were behind him.  Yet he still fought.   Churchill had exchanged the rifle for the pen, and his primary weapons were words.   Some of the greatest quotes of the 20th century come from Winston Churchill.  For instance, when the war was going very much in the Axis favor, Churchill inspired his countrymen by stating, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

Winston Churchill illustrated just how the pen could be mightier than the sword.  Churchill was more than a great orator though.  He truly did wield words as a weapon.   He had a reputation of being absolutely savage when it came to insults.  For instance, he was essentially once asked to say something nice about his predecessor in the role of Prime Minister, a man he strongly disagreed with.  The best compliment he could offer is that he was a “sheep in sheep’s clothing.”    Churchill famously had an ongoing war of words with British politician Lady Astor.  Astor once quipped to Churchill, “If you were my husband I would poison your tea.”  Without missing a beat Churchill replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”

We often try to downplay the power of words.   I remember being taught the pithy saying as a child that “sticks and stones break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”   That’s not true though, is it?.   Words have power.  They may not break our bones, but they pierce our souls and break our hearts.   Actions may indeed speak louder than words, but even if they are not as loud our words tend to carry more truth.   Our words tend to reveal who we really are, this is exactly the point that Jesus is making in this morning’s scripture.  If we truly want to change and become more Christ like, then we begin not by taking certain actions but by being more mindful of what we think and what we say.

We get the impression from this morning’s scripture that Jesus clearly understood the power of words, and he was not afraid to use them.  This morning’s scripture also shows how Jesus did not hold back his words.   He did not speak maliciously, but he always spoke truthfully-even when the truth was uncomfortable or the truth stung.   We see that in this scripture in how Jesus refers to the Pharisees.  Remember, for most of the people in 1st century Israel the Pharisees were the religious leaders.  Yet Jesus calls them blind guides!  In this scripture, and throughout the gospels Jesus does not hold back the truth, even when it might cause someone to be offended.

We also see Jesus not mince words with his own disciples.  Peter ask Jesus to explain the parable.   I do not know about you, but I imagine Jesus gave Peter a long “are you kidding me look” before asking “Are you still so dull?”   Jesus really did not even tell a parable.  He made a statement that was fairly straight forward.  Even though there was some disappointment that his disciples did not understand what he was getting at, Jesus still then took the time to explain it to them.

Separated by centuries of time and culture, it is easy for us to roll our eyes at the disciples’ denseness.  However, we should not be that hard on the disciples.  What Jesus was saying went against what the disciples had been taught their entire lives.  It could be Peter asked for clarification, not because he did not understand what Jesus was getting at, but he wanted to be perfectly clear since Jesus’ statement was so different.    To this day, the Jewish faith has a number of purity laws.  These are rules to follow to maintain ritual cleanliness.   The Pharisees were all about these rules.  In fact following them was kind of their thing.  They knew all of the rules to be clean, they followed them perfectly, and they made sure everyone knew they were following them.  However, it was not just the Pharisees.  It was all of first century Israel.   The Jewish people had resisted Hellenization, the process of giving up their traditional culture to be more like the Greco-Roman culture.  One of the ways they did this was by leaning into their purity laws.  They were different than their Gentile neighbors because their actions made them clean, whereas the actions of the gentiles made them unclean.  For the first century people of Israel and especially for the Pharisees, what made them good followers of God is how well they kept the rules to maintain ritual cleanliness.  More than that though, it was also how they maintained their cultural and religious identity.

It is no wonder then that the Pharisees were offended with Jesus’ statement.  However, the words of Jesus were truth, and this morning’s scripture is consistent with one of the messages that Jesus returns to again and again in the gospels.   An internal change, a heart focused on God is more important than outward actions.   The Pharisees liked to emphasize actions, because honestly that is easy.   When others are watching, doing the right thing is not hard.   What we say in private, is much more telling of who we actually are and where our heart is oriented.

The Pharisees preferred to focus on outward actions than having any sort of inward change.   Doing so feels kind of like a cheat code in faith. We get to claim righteousness without any of the messy, humble work of submitting our hearts fully to God.   That appeal that lured the Pharisees in still appeals to us today.   For instance, we tend to make morality about what we do as opposed to why we do or do not do something.   It is so much easier to follow an external list of do’s and don’ts then it is to have our hearts transformed so that have compassion for others and we love God more than anything else.   The Pharisees portrayed a look of righteously following God, while refusing to follow God in their hearts and allow themselves to be changed by God.   Unfortunately, there are too many Christians who follow the path of the Pharisees.

We see this so often around us.  For example, we have all heard stories of the moral crusader who publically decries a behavior then gets busted for doing the very thing they judged so harshly.  This public hypocrisy has happened so many times it is now a tired cliché.  A more practical and sadly widespread example is what (used) to happen on Sunday afternoons.  How dining has worked has changed some in the COVID-19 landscape, but back when dining out was more common, you could ask any long time server what day they liked to work the least and the answer would almost always be Sunday afternoons.   Among servers the after church Sunday crowd has a reputation of being the most demanding and rudest customers.  This is such a widespread experience there have been actual scientific studies done on the phenomenon.   One study theorized the reason for this is because by going to church people had already done one morally good act, so they subconsciously give themselves permission to not be on their best behavior since they have already been “good” for the day.  In other words, it is a result of focusing on outward actions instead of inward changes.

We know that is not how it should be.   For servers Sundays should be the best day, because the followers of Jesus in their restaurant should be more patient, more gracious, and more generous than the average patron, not less.   As Christians, we are to be disciples of Christ, and to be a disciple means that we become like the teacher we follow.  Our goal, what we should constantly be seeking to achieve in life is to be as much like Jesus as possible.  I understand all of us are works in progress, that we are forgiven, not perfect.  We are going to all have our off days, we are all going to have times where our shortcomings get the better of us, and we are all going to say things we wish we did not say.   However, when we put all of our focus on exterior actions then we are never going to truly change.   We only truly become more Christ like, when our heart becomes more like Christ.  In this morning’s scripture, Jesus points us to a practical and effective way that we can work on making changes in our lives so that we better follow our Lord and Savior.

Our words have power.  Jesus said in this morning’s scripture, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart.”  Our words show who we really are, but they also help form us.   Our words have very real consequences in how they influence and shape the actions we take.  What do the words you say, reveal about your heart?   I am not talking about the words you say in public forums where you are trying to impress people.   I am talking about the words we say in smaller audiences or even to ourselves.   Do our words build others up or do our words tear people down?    Do our words encourage or do they belittle?    Do our words convey cynicism and sarcasm or do they convey joy and peace?

Personally this was driven home to me a number years ago. I was on a youth mission trip and in the evening after the work was done we were playing a game called ImaginIff.  In this game players take turns being the subject of a question that the other players then write and answer for.  The group then secretly votes on which answer they think fits the person the best and the answer with the most votes gets points.   On my turn, the question was “what word best describes me?”   One of the teens wrote “negative”.   Now thankfully that was not the most popular answer, but I was taken back and asked how that described me.  She explained her reasoning, and she was right.  I had a bad habit of pointing out was wrong with everything.   I would often cynically point out what was wrong with whatever in the world.   I apparently did this so much, that for this teen “negative” was a good word to describe me.

What comes out of our mouth comes from the heart, and a fifteen year old girl called me out on that.  For the past decade, I have tried to be more encouraging and kind instead of critical and cynical.  The primary way I have sought to make this personal change is through being more mindful of my words.  I have found that the less I vocalize a cynical attitude or critical sarcasm, the less I thought to do so.   I do not always get it right, but I feel like “negative” as a descriptor does not fit me in 2020 as well as it did in 2009.   And hopefully as a result, I have journeyed to being a bit more Christ like now then I was then.

We should all consider, based on our words, what kind of impression do we give other people.   When we speak we tell people who we are, so we should all consider if our words point someone to Jesus.   When people talk to us do they hear the same honesty they would hear from Jesus?  Do they hear the same compassion from us that they would hear from Jesus?  Do they hear the same forgiveness and acceptance from us that they would hear from Jesus?   If we cannot honestly answer yes, then our hearts are not fully aligned with Jesus yet, for the things that come out of a person’s mouth comes from the heart.  By being mindful of our words and being intentional in what we say, even when no one else is around, we can begin to transform our hearts to better resemble Christ.

Our words have power because our words both reflect and shape who we are.   As followers of Christ, may we submit even the words we say to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  May we be quick to edify and encourage.  May we speak truth and may we do so with grace.  We are known to others by the words we say, so may the words we are known by, may the theme of our lives, be the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

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