March 3, 2019
Between Lent, which begins this Wednesday, the long Easter season, and the special feasts of the Pentecost, the Most Holy Trinity, and Corpus Christi, we celebrate today the final Sunday of Ordinary Time until the end of June. The Church sets us off on our journey through the most important seasons of the Catholic year on a strong note, with some advice from the Book of Sirach.
This long book, which is not found in Protestant Bibles, was likely written less than two hundred years before the birth of Christ by a man who shared our Lord’s name, Jesus, (which was quite common at the time; see Sir 50:27). The earlier Jesus, who was normally referred to as Ben-Sira or “the son of Sira,” assembled a beautiful and deeply challenging collection of advice about human life and one’s relationship with God.
Along with instruction on many topics of foundational importance, such as maintaining a disposition of reverence before the Lord, Ben-Sira addressed plenty of seemingly mundane daily situations and gave counsel on how to handle them. Today’s reading comes from this latter category—it is about the careful use of speech in everyday life—but as we will see it has profound implications.
The proper exercise of speech is something that was of great concern to Saint Benedict, whose Rule sets the pattern for my life as a Benedictine monk. Saint Benedict devotes an entire chapter of his Rule, and parts of several other chapters, to the issue of the correct use of speech; his driving point is that silence is so important for monks, so that we might have the interior peace needed to listen to the voice of the Spirit, that “we must refrain at times even from good speech.” All the more so must monks avoid any sort of idle or crude speech or gossip, for these things invariably lead us astray.
While Benedict wrote his Rule specifically for monks I think he, like Ben-Sira in today’s first reading, has much wisdom to offer all of us. Who, after all, has not longed for peace and quiet in the middle of a busy day? Who has not wanted to discretely slip away when a conversation suddenly turns to gossip and negativity? Who has not regretted letting a word or statement escape us that we wish we could take back?
Taking this to a deeper level, today’s readings remind us that a person’s speech reveals much about them, going to the heart of one’s character. This is where the wisdom of Ben-Sira and Saint Benedict find a point of correspondence in today’s gospel reading. It is from the Gospel of Luke, and in it our Lord cautions us against hypocrisy—just the sort of danger that idle speech can lead us into. Jesus says: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?…You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.”
With the approach of Lent people have often asked me: “What are you giving up for Lent?” Instead of giving up chocolate or dessert maybe we could heed the advice of Ben-Sira and Saint Benedict and try to “give up” excessive or gossipy speech. Thus we would avoid the hypocrisy of which Jesus himself warned us, and would bear good fruit by exercising a proper respect for the gift of speech and using it for the good of all.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Illustration: The high priest Jesus Sirach in the Secret Book of Honour of the Fugger by Jörg Breu the Younger, 1545–1549