Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

How erroneous! Broken bones mend-sometimes stronger than before the break, but we don’t always recover from cruel or uncaring words. Words can be obstacles from realizing our true worth or becoming the best we might be. Too often words are weaponized and used against another.

No one overcame more physical adversity to become a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball than Jim Abbott. Born with but one hand, as a boy, he would throw a rubber ball against a wall, slip his throwing hand into his glove—which rested on the stump which ends his right hand—and then fielded the ball using his now-gloved left hand.

He became a starting pitcher on his high school team, University of Michigan where he won Big 10 player of the year, the winning Olympic squad, the big leagues for over a decade which included pitching a no-hitter. He never allowed himself to feel inferior nor allow another’s words about him become the way he felt about himself.

Words can indeed be used with the intention of causing harm, but they can also be healing. They can transform us. In Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments are frequently referred to as the Ten Words. They are living words of wisdom and truth. The commandments are an expression of the way the people of faith entered into the presence and caring of God.

Counter intuitively, strict adherence to the words of the commandments can produce the opposite of what they were intended to effect as noted by The Very Rev. John Payne. Rather than direct us to God, such adherence can sometimes result in smug self-satisfaction.

This very thing manifested itself when the Pharisees disputed with Jesus over the oral tradition - the compilation of the interpretations passes on from one generation of rabbis to the next. So complex did the labyrinth of esoteric legalities become that ordinary people became alienated from God and scorned by the Pharisees.

Mark 7:1-23 reveals how Jesus suffered the displeasure of the Pharisees over rules about ceremonial hand washing. The Pharisees were shocked and angered when the disciples did not observe tradition.

Their anger only increased when Jesus said that what makes a person clean is not decided by outward appearances, but a heart overflowing with thanksgiving to God. Quoting the prophet Isaiah (29:13), Jesus calls not for clean hands and lip service but a clean converted heart.

Jesus teaches what defiles in the sight of God is not what is eaten or how it is eaten, not holding right beliefs or correct doctrines. What defiles in the sight of God are thoughts and intentions and the words used to give both expression.

Look closely at the ethical categories in Mark 7:21-23. Notice what heads the list. “Sinful thoughts” are put first as the polluted fountain from which all other deeds flow. Toward the end of the list, to bookend a final time, hateful words that reviles and hurts others comes from an unclean heart.

It is more important to love our neighbor than to be certain we are always right!

 -Rev. Colby Smith