A meditation on Ecclesiasticus 28:14-26
In this world of practiced falsehood and deceit on every level what is a Christian to do? Salesmen habitually make false claims about the nature of their products. Businessmen habitually misrepresent the terms of business arrangements. Political candidates habitually use the weapons of falsehood and half-truth to prove their worthiness to be elected and to show how their opponents are unworthy of election.
All too often I catch myself lapsing into these common practices and find myself judging others and relaying assumptions about them in order to either enlarge myself or diminish them in order to achieve a business or social goal. In the practice of law, and many other professions, this is considered the norm. But as the lesson from Ecclesiasticus points out this is a dangerous business not only because we hurt others but also because we hurt ourselves. It was once described to me “as akin to taking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy “. It requires that we step outside our skins and recognize that man (in the broad sense) is more than a simple biological being in need of material comforts but also a being that possesses a immortal soul which also requires nourishment and protection.
In the lesson from Ecclesiasticus our teacher Joshua (or my preference: Yeshiva) ben Sira (Hebrew for Jesus son of Sirach) talks about slander and its immense power to wreck destruction upon ourselves and others. Slander in legal parlance is a form of tort (a personal wrong) that constitutes spoken language which is false and has the effect of injuring the reputation of another. Its sister tort is libel which is made up of similar types of statements but written as opposed to spoken. What Yeshiva is talking about, however, may or may not rise to the level of a legal action but still exerts immense destructive effect upon the soul of the one spoken about and also upon the soul of the one doing the speaking.
Yeshiva counsels “Slander has shaken many, scattered them from nation to nation and destroyed strong cities and over turned houses of great men”. “Whoever pays heed to slander will not find rest, nor will he settle down in peace. The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.” Yeshiva advises us to protect ourselves and to avoid slander and, speaking metaphorically, he advises to “See that you fence in your property with thorns, lock up your silver and gold, make balances for your words, and make a door and a bolt for your mouth (emphasis added). He ends the passage with a chilling phrase “Beware lest you err with your tongue, lest you fall before him who lies in wait”. This phrase is reminiscent of a phrase used in the office of Compline taken from 1 Peter 5:8-9a “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”
The eighth commandment of the Decalogue states: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” Exodus 20:16. John Calvin suggests that behind this proscription is the “assumption that the inability to speak truthfully to one another has everything to do with our inability to speak truthfully of God.” In his institutes Calvin says:
…To sum up, then: let us not malign anyone with slanders or false charges, nor harm his substance by falsehood, in short injure him by unbridled evil speaking and imprudence. To this prohibition the command is linked that we should faithfully help everyone as much as we can in affirming the truth, in order to protect the integrity of his name and possessions. (Institutes 411).
And, in Chapter 10 of The Imitation of Christ Thomas a Kempis writes that we should avoid “superfluous words “ as the “end result of gossip about things we like or dislike only leaves us with a guilty conscience.”
Therefore next time I find myself passing along information about someone which may, or may not, be true I am going to take heed and endeavour to practice Yeshiva’s advice and “make a bolt” for my mouth not just for the sake of the person I am speaking about but also for the sake of my soul as well. This can be hard in 21st century sound bite America but essential to our salvation.