There’s a lot to be said for the old dictum “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But we’re not merely bones. To a certain extent, we need the respect of others in order to carry on our lives. True, Jesus himself bore a great many insults. But he also took name-calling surprisingly seriously: “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the fire of Gehenna” (Mt 5:22).
Sins of speech can be especially insidious. It’s easy to speak without thinking. And it’s easy to underestimate the damage that a word can do, in comparison with the more spectacular damage done by violence. Here St. James is helpful: “Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna” (Jas 3:5–6). Sins of speech turn us into arsonists, indeed inept arsonists, since ultimately we ourselves do not escape the inferno.
Aquinas discusses numerous kinds of verbal arson, in fact too many to name here. There’s reviling, in which the speaker seeks to dishonor someone to his face. It’s what Jesus has in mind when he prohibits saying “You fool!” Speaking against someone in secret is called backbiting. If the backbiting is false, it’s called calumny. If the backbiting is true—and there are times when even some true things should not be said—then it is called detraction. Backbiting is aimed at the diminishment of someone’s good name, and for this reason it can be worse than theft, since “a good name is better than great riches” (Prv 22:1). Worse still is mischievous talk aimed at poisoning a friendship, since “nothing can be compared to a faithful friend” (Sir 6:15).
There’s also derision—making fun of someone. It’s not always serious, but it can be worse than reviling when the aim is to “laugh someone to scorn.” Yelling “You fool!” at someone at least acknowledges the person’s existence and the effects of his actions. Scornful derision, by contrast, is a denial of the person’s fundamental dignity. The derider dismisses him as if he were a circus animal, unfit for human society except as a form of entertainment.
Christians are a people who ought to appreciate the power of words. We are saved by the word of the Gospel, and we worship the eternal Word, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Evil words, therefore, are especially absurd when they come from a Christian’s mouth. We tend to forget the importance of words. So Jesus tells us to become like little children. He needs to teach us again how to speak.
Image: John McColgan, Elk Bath