Words Flow from what Fills the Heart
Eighth Sunday of the Year. Fr Martin Ganeri preaches on the disharmony between who we are and what we say.
‘A good man draws what is good from the goodness in his heart; a bad man draws what is bad from the store of badness. For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart.’
Today’s Gospel passage is one which is going to be difficult for us to accept. Difficult to accept because none of us is innocent when it comes to there being a gap between what we are and what we say. Difficult to accept also because we may be inclined to question whether the teaching is true – that we can only say good things if we are good ourselves. And there would not seem to be much chance that we are going to model our lives according to the pattern of this Gospel passage, if we neither like it nor think that it is right anyway.
Our ability to speak is a powerful and dangerous tool. It allows us to communicate with each other in ways that are often creative and subtle. We have only to think of the beauty of fine literature and the penetrating brilliance of the writings of great thinkers down the ages. It is language that allows us to express what we intuit and what we feel. It is also language that can enable us to come to realise some truth or feel some emotion as we follow through an argument or read a moving story.
On the other hand, we know all too well how we use language to manipulate others to our own ends and often to their harm. We can use language purely to destroy or undermine. And in this darker side to our gift of speech we can place the power of language to conceal, as we lie and flatter. Our language allows us, moreover, to reprove and criticise the actions of others, even though we ourselves are as guilty as they, or even to encourage and advise them to do things that we do not do ourselves.
This negative side of our language, in which what we say is often far removed from what we are or do, makes us feel uncomfortable with a Gospel that tells us that we should look for and remedy the faults in our own lives before we set about the imperfections of others. But we might also add in justification that our words can have a good effect on others, even if we ourselves remain frail sinners. When language is so powerful a tool, is it not evident that such can be the case?
The Gospel, however, is more profound than this. It aims not merely to reprove us for our hypocrisy or to deny that we should speak for the good of others, even if we ourselves are not good. Rather it sets out a vision of the integrity between what we are and what we say, which is not merely for the good of others, but also for our own good. It tells us that we should cultivate goodness in ourselves – that we should be concerned for our own spiritual and moral welfare, if we are to be certain of helping others and if we are to realise our own full potential.
This is good for others, not just because our good advice to others can but fail to convince when they see its absence in our own lives, but also because we cannot be sure to get that advice right if we do not have the pattern of our own lives to guide us. It is this that the Gospel seeks to convey in its vivid pictures of the absurdity of the blind leading the blind, of one man struggling to prise the splinter out of his brother’s eye, while the plank in his own eye obscures his vision. We owe it to others to make sure that our advice is effective, and it is most sure of being effective when we have struggled ourselves with putting it into practice.
But it is also good for ourselves, because a harmony between all the elements of our lives brings us closer to the harmony that exists within the Godhead and raises us further into the dignity which God intends for us. Disharmony between who we are and what we say may lead to limited goods, but harmony holds out the promise of the supreme good that is God Himself.