You may remember Art Linkletter, or at least heard of him. Linkletter was a pioneer of radio and TV talk shows, as well as a best-selling author and successful businessman. I remember watching his TV show “House Party” with my Grandma Greenlee. She especially liked the segment of the show called “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” where Linkletter would ask ordinary grade-schoolers a simple question. The answers were often hilarious, at least to Grandma. As a grade-schooler myself, I didn’t usually see what was so funny.
Linkletter got the idea after a conversation he had with his oldest child, Jack, after Jack’s first day of kindergarten. Jack announced that he was never going back to school again. Linkletter asked him why. Jack answered, “Because I can’t read, I can’t write, and they won’t let me talk.”
One day, when my daughter was around three years old, we were standing at the top of a very steep escalator in a department store. before I could take her hand, she stepped onto the escalator and immediate began to wobble back and forth, in danger of losing her balance. I grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her back up to safety. She was I tears, and I was nearly in tears as I tried to comfort her. A woman—a store employee—came over and asked her if we wer OK. I assured her that we were. She said, “I saw everything that happened, so if you need anything, just call me,” and she handed me her card. I thought that was very kind.
Peyton was complaining about her arm, and I was debating about whether I should take her to the doctor to have it checked out. We needed to go to the library—a place Peyton loved—so I decided to go there first and see how she did, and then I’d decide if a doctor’s visit was in order. When we arrived, we were greeted by Peyton’s favorite children’s librarian. “Peyton, I’m so glad to see you! How are you today?” Peyton said, “My arm hurts.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Silka said. “What happened?” “Mommy pulled my arm too hard.”
Yes, kids do say the darnedest things. They often say the most truthful things in the most unvarnished way. We laugh, sometimes uncomfortably, because a child’s truthfulness can expose things about us that we would rather ignore or explain away.
The Bible takes the power of speech very seriously. You can find advice and observations about appropriate speech throughout Scripture, but the Book of Proverbs covers all the bases when it comes to the things we say, the things we should say, and the things we shouldn’t say. The teachers of Proverbs showed their respect for the importance and power of speech by offering more than 100 sayings about the wise and foolish ways we use our words. Jesus took words seriously, too, and he is in full agreement with the wisdom of Proverbs.
It’s sometimes said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but in Scripture, it’s our words that reveal the state of our hearts. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (10:11), we read in Proverbs. I love that image. I picture two people posed like those big fountains that look like fish with their wide-open mouths with water gushing out. Only instead of water, I see flowers and rainbows and stars shooting out of one, and thick, dark, poisonous-looking sludge oozing over the sides of the other. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.”
Jesus said pretty much the same thing, using a couple different images. First, he uses the image of fruit trees. This was a pretty common image for similar proverbs of the time; we see the link between our passages for today. Everyone knew—as we do now—that you can tell what kind of tree you have by the fruit it bears. As Jesus says earlier in Matthew, grapes don’t come from thorns, and figs don’t come from thistles. What shows on the outside reveals what’s on the inside.
Jesus is making his comments to some people who had been using words to cast doubt about him. The crowds had brought a man to Jesus—a demon-possessed man who was unable to see and, interestingly enough, unable to speak. Jesus healed him and, predictably, the crowd was amazed. They are more than amazed. They start to wonder if Jesus is the promised Son of David—the Messiah.
This doesn’t sit well with the Pharisees. Their hostility towards Jesus had been heating up. They were already trying to come up with a plan to destroy him. Their first attempt was to discredit Jesus with a smear campaign—what the teachers of Proverbs would call “whispering.” They start spreading the lie that Jesus is in league with the devil. “It’s only by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that this fellow Jesus casts out demons,” they say.
The charge of being an agent of Satan was bad enough. But the use of the name Beelzebul was what we might today call a dog whistle. Beelzebul was a name commonly used for Satan, but it was also the name of a pagan god—the pagan “god of the temple.” Jesus had said, in an earlier confrontation with the Pharisees, that something greater than the Jewish Temple had come—in effect claiming that he himself was the Lord over the Temple of God. So, the Pharisees were using the trigger word Beelzebul to cast aspersions on Jesus and to mock his claim.
Matthew tells us that Jesus knew what they were thinking, and he responded. First, he made a logical argument. Then he gets to the words of our passage today—words directed at that “brood of vipers” who had been slithering around, whispering into the ears of the crowd, trying to get them to disbelieve the truth that was, literally, in front of their eyes—that Jesus was the Son of David, the Messiah, the anointed one of God.
But, although Jesus’ words were directed at the Pharisees, Matthew wants all of us to hear what Jesus says about words. Because words matter. The things we say matter. They matter because they indicate the state of our hearts. They are the evidence of our faith, or lack of it. Words that are evidence of a living, fruitful faith will warrant justification. Words that are evidence of a lack of faith will not.
That doesn’t seem so surprising. It seems reasonable that loving, welcoming, and healing words—wise words, helpful words—would point to a love of Jesus and a justifying faith. If our words indicate otherwise, well, there are consequences to face. But Jesus doesn’t make it that easy, because he also says that we will have to give an account for “every careless word we utter.”
Matthew’s Greek word which we translate as careless suggests something that is unproductive or useless. Careless words are best left unspoken. But I think that word “careless” is a pretty good one if we think beyond the surface meaning. Careless words really can indicate that we care less about the person we’re speaking to than ourselves. Even if careless speech isn’t intended to harm, it can, simply because we haven’t cared enough to pay attention to what we say. That’s where the Book of Proverbs can help us. In those one-hundred-plus sayings, we learn what characterizes wise speech versus foolish speech.
The first warning in Proverbs is against crooked speech. “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (4:24). Crooked speech covers a multitude of spoken sins. Crooked speech twists the truth and distorts reality. It puts a spin on things to cover up what’s really going on. It gives a wink and a nod to things that are wrong, or at least a little shady, inviting others to go along (16:30). Proverbs includes crooked speech among the marks of “a scoundrel and a villain, who goes around with crooked speech, winking the eyes, shuffling the feet, with perverted mind devising evil, continually sowing discord” (6:12-14).
Lying, of course, is the most blatant kind of perverse speech. Simply making something up out of whole cloth is so unacceptable that a tenth of Proverbs’ sayings are devoted specifically to lying. According to Proverbs, lying lips may reveal a deceptive heart, but they also conceal hatred and a desire for violence and dishonesty when it comes to obtaining treasure (10:11, 10:18, 21:6, 26:8).
Lying has many hues. There’s empty flattery, which Proverbs calls a “net for a neighbor’s feet” (29:5). There’s saying something that’s not true and laughing it off, about which Proverbs says, “One who deceives a neighbor and says ‘I’m only joking’ is like a maniac who shoots deadly firebrands and arrows” (26:18-19). There is lying about other people, to which Proverbs gives a great deal of attention. “A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer,” we read (14:5).
And then there’s gossip. Gossip is not necessarily a lie, but it is destructive in any case. True or false, “the words of whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (18:8). Gossip affects not just the one who’s gossiping or the one who’s gossiped about. It affects all those who hear the gossip, too. Like those extra pounds we gain from eating too many delicious desserts, words of gossip are impossible to get rid of once we’ve consumed them.
Most of us would say that we don’t lie. We wouldn’t think of offering false testimony. We refrain from gossip. But who among us hasn’t spoken rash words—often in anger? These are often “care-less” words; we don’t take the time to consider what we’re going to say. When we’re upset, we couldn’t care less about how our words will affect others. Proverbs has something to say about this, too. “Rash words are like sword thrusts,” Proverbs says (12:18). “A fool gives full vent to anger (29:11), and “there is more hope for a fool than someone who is hasty in speech.” Clearly, exercising restraint in our speaking, especially when we’re angry or upset, is a wise thing to do. As a more recent proverb goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
On the other hand, not speaking up can be a problem, too. Someone who hears a victim’s cry but doesn’t disclose what they know about the crime is, in effect, the perpetrator’s partner, and just as guilty (29:24). If we stand by while evil occurs, fear or false claims of ignorance will not save us. Proverbs challenges us: “If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?” (24:10-12). And, finally, “One who compresses the lips brings evil to pass” (16:30). To paraphrase a more recent popular saying, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to say nothing.”
I know you well enough to know that your speech is more likely to be the speech of the wise than the speech of the foolish. I hope you feel the same way about me. But the Book of Proverbs still has a role to play in helping us “guard our mouths,” as one verse says (13:3). It reminds us that our words reveal things about us that we may not even recognize in ourselves. The jokes we tell and laugh at and the words we use to describe other people reveal our prejudices and our attitudes. Our words reveal how much—or how little—we respect ourselves and others. The things we say reveal our values and our beliefs and our assumptions.
Regular review of the sayings of Proverbs can help keep us mindful of what we say and how we say it. They can function like the construction barrels that spring up all over the roadways. They direct our speech away from danger zones and help us avoid the potholes and rough patches of careless words.
They also act as detour signs, because nearly all of them pair what to avoid with a better alternative. Here are some examples:
- “The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush, but the speech of the upright delivers them” (12:6).
- “Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult” (12:16).
- “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (12:22).
- “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (15:4)
Proverbs gives us wise routes to take when choosing the things we say.
There’s one last way these proverbs can help us—a way that is especially helpful in this era when words come at us from so many sources. We hear people speaking, not only from the traditional platforms of TV and newspapers and people we know, but from all the different social media. Anyone has an outlet to say whatever they want to say these days, and sometimes it’s hard to decipher what’s true and what’s not. As Proverbs observes, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion” (18:2).
The words we hear may lead us away from the truth, like the seductive words of the adulteress we heard in Proverbs a couple weeks ago, and like the words the Pharisees whispered about Jesus to the crowds. In today’s environment, the Book of Proverbs reminds us to be alert to the “care-less” speech of others. “[Wisdom] will save you from the way of evil,” Proverbs tells us, but it will also save you “from those who speak perversely” (2:12).
Trying to sort out wise speech from foolish speech—even trying to rein in our own speech—can be difficult. But the good news is that there is a Word who is always true, a Word who never speaks to us “care-less-ly” but always speaks to us with the utmost love and care and compassion. We have the Word made flesh to guide us, and he will never lead us astray. We have his Spirit, the very Spirit of truth, who helps us to speak loving words, kind words, words that come from the faith that justifies. We have Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life—Jesus who said to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” We can count on the truth of the Word—God’s own Son—for, as Proverbs tells us, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (30:5).
Responding to people who were using their words as weapons, Jesus likened our words to the fruit of a tree. Like that fruit, our words reveal the source: either a heart filled with love for God and neighbor, or a heart of thorns and thistles. He also compared our words to treasure that we bring out of the vaults of our spirits: either good treasure or evil treasure. We will have to account for the careless words we utter, Jesus tells us. So, we are blessed to have words of wisdom to guide us—words from the Book of Proverbs and from God’s own Word made flesh, since “to watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble” (21:23). May the things we say be good fruit produced by faithful hearts, for “from the fruit of their words, good persons eat good things” (13:2). Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young