“I Swear”

  1. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

I believe in freedom of the press. I believe that the Internet should be open and accessible. I think that political opinions shouldn’t be censored by government.

I think that creative people should be able to express their ideas and make their art and direct their films. I don’t believe that I’m puritanical—at least, no more puritanical than the typical person of my age and background!

And yet, I find that there are limits to my support of free speech. For example, I’m uncomfortable about much of the language spoken on television shows; it seems unpleasantly crude. Jokes are made about bodily functions and body parts. Characters in drama series swear frequently.

I don’t think I’m being overly pious. In general, people should be free to say what they want to say. But I get an uneasy feeling about all this bad language.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his own take on free speech. He says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” The things that come out of our mouths get us in moral trouble.

Christ is referring here to Hebrew dietary laws. These rules prohibited eating certain foods, such as pork, and—as Jesus notes—Jews were required to perform ritual washing of their hands and utensils before they ate. These laws were important to the people of Israel because they reinforced their identity. They marked the difference between Jews and non-Jews.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the worst conflicts in the early Church pitted converts from Judaism who wanted to keep the dietary rules of their original faith against Christian converts from pagan religion who had never followed these rules.

Eventually, the church reached a fortunate compromise that allowed it to grow: Hebrew Christians could keep the old laws if they wanted to, while pagan Christians could eat what they wanted.

So it came to pass that believers were identified as followers of Christ not by what went into their mouths but by the words that came out of their lips.

Past generations of churchgoers agreed that Christians shouldn’t swear.

Christians cared about their words. They wanted what they said to reflect who they were: human beings bound for an eternal Kingdom. So Christians would try to avoid crude language; it was unworthy of the children of God.

These days, we worry much less about vulgar speech. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe we are freer as a result. We can certainly be less inhibited! Maybe we can be less uptight than Christians used to be without jeopardizing our faith.

I once knew a clergyman whose private conversation was filled with four letter words! I was amazed that he could get away with this! Yet he was as caring a pastor as you could find, much loved by his people. Members of his congregation were willing to ignore the profanity of the priest’s words because the priest himself was so genuine.

I question, though, whether the condition of the human race is improved by vulgar language. Using sitcom language in real life certainly isn’t the worst of sins; but I don’t know that our mimicking of TV shows contributes much to the Kingdom of God!

And there’s a deeper reason to watch what we say. As Jesus taught, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

Jesus gives 12 examples of these “evil intentions”: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Quite a list!

“Fornication” and “licentiousness” might be encouraged by the vulgar TV and movie language I referred to earlier. But the sin of envy, for instance, is also fostered by what we say. We’re jealous of the success of a rival at work, so we use malicious gossip to try to tear her down in the eyes of others.

Another example of what shouldn’t come out of our mouths would be “hate speech.” While bigoted lies about certain groups might be guaranteed by the Constitution, in terms of Christ’s teaching, it creates an atmosphere that can be “murderous.”

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that good things can also come out of our mouths. Our words can nurture life and health and community. In painful situations, we can offer kind words–helpful words—healing words.

And, after all, there is such a thing as good swearing. In a court of law, witnesses take the oath: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

In a similar way, if you’re wrongly accused of making an error at work, you defend yourself with the words: “I didn’t do it—I swear!” This kind of swearing shows your commitment to truth.

The spiritual point Jesus was making is this: when we pay attention to our language, we’re paying attention to what is going on in our souls. Controlling our language can help us to control our emotions.

At one time, scientists challenged the value of this control. Psychologists advised their patients that when they got angry, it was therapeutic for them to “let off steam.” Freud proposed the model of the pressure cooker, where if someone holds anger inside without letting it out, it will build to dangerous levels – like steam in a pressure cooker will build if it is not vented.

So, it was thought that expressing your anger would allow you to get the bad emotion out of your system. However, recent research suggests the opposite conclusion. While people report that they feel better after venting, they actually become more angry.

Negative self-expression takes a toll. As the venom flows out of our mouths, we savor it.

I once knew another clergyman who had a quick temper. He didn’t swear, but he rarely passed up an opportunity to get in a quarrel! I would guess that some of his happiest moments were spent in feuding with bishops! Yet he was a good example of someone who should have held his tongue. Although those of us who knew this priest loved his forceful personality, we knew that his free speech could get the better of him, and we should steer clear of him when he was in a bad mood.

Of course, actions can be more important than words. It’s better to have a kind employer whose language is rough than a boss with pristine speech who treats his workers badly.

In the end, it’s that evil intention that counts. Why do we say what we say? If we feel the anger leads us to swear, we can ask what is in our souls that’s making us mad. And we can ask God to put something better in our hearts.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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