Clean Words beget wisdom

The WORD in Other Words by Fr Randy Flores SVD (Philippines)

8th Sunday Ordinary Time 
Ecclesiastes (Sirach) 27,4-7
1 Corinthians 15,54-58
Luke 6,39-45

Today‘s Gospel and the reading from Sirach assert that our tongue is linked to our   heart. If our tongue is “rotten” so is our heart. 

 Jesus Ben Sira, the sage who authored Sirach (Ecclestasticus), says that the gauge  or “test” for evaluating a person is his/her speech. He likens the testing to the shaking  of a sieve so that the “husks” appear. The “husks” literally mean “dung.” The farmers   in those days placed the wheat in the sieve to sift the grain from oxen dung trodden  into the straw. Left after the sifting are balls of dung as are people‘s faults when they  utter dirty speech.   

Why was the sage so concerned of a clean speech?   

Ben Sira lived in a period when the popularity and attraction to the Greek culture  were at its peak — the period of Hellenization. It was around 180 BCE when he wrote the book of Sirach in in the Hebrew language in response to the growing number of Jewish youth that were abandoning Judaism in favor of the new culture. He sought to  present in it the value and beauty of the ancient tradition within which spirit would  the good values of the Greeks be welcomed without the Jews necessarily turning their back on their religion.   

Good speech was one great Hellenistic value the Greeks held, owing to Aristotle‘s   Rhetoric. They knew full well how words could be manipulated, misused and abused and incite rebellion. Aristotle said that when speech was grounded on reason, moral  character and compassion to the audience, it could move people to do what was right.  So would the opposite be. A bad speech could lead to violence. Thus, the Greek Stoic thinker Zeno warned: “Better to slip with the foot than with the tongue,” a proverb   that Ben Sira included in his teaching (Sir 20:18). Earlier, Ben Sira taught as well that  honor and dishonor or one‘s downfall comes from speaking (5:13).   

The book of Sirach was most likely used as a “textbook” for the training of future leaders of the Jewish communities in Jerusalem and in the diaspora. They made their  students understand that good leaders were measured by their speech. That words were outward expressions of a person‘s thoughts and character. They had to see to it that future leaders were trained in the wisdom of words. “Wisdom becomes known through speech” (4:24), says Ben Sira, and that “the fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so speech discloses the bent of a person‘s heart” (27:6)   

We ‘re not sure if Jesus of Nazareth had read the work of Jesus Ben Sira though both share some parallel teachings. The value of good speech is one of these. When Jesus of Nazareth then taught that “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks,” he echoed the teaching of his ancestor less than 200 years earlier of the value of a good  speech that was incumbent upon leaders to practice.

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