Words can be powerful weapons against evil, especially the evil of death. But too often we forget just how our words, either written or spoken, can have an effect on those around us. Our Constitutional right of “free speech” is often misinterpreted to mean that we can say or write anything, any time, anyway, about anyone. But as our lesson this morning should teach us, those same words that we may use to hurt or criticize someone may also have the power to restore life.
In first century Palestine, to be a widow would mean to live a life of poverty and hardship. There were not the “social safety nets” that we have today; there was no life insurance or government assistance that would provide some financial support for the family members left behind in the event of the death of the family’s bread winner. In most situations, the only “survivor’s benefits” available to the average widow was her own children, especially her sons, who would be expected to assume the responsibility as head of the household and provide for his mother and the other dependents in his family. So the situation in today’s Gospel lesson was doubly devastating. Not only had the woman lost her husband but now she lost her only remaining means of support, her son.
In today’s reading, Jesus was in the town of Nain when He and His disciples came upon the funeral procession. Jesus saw the widowed mother and immediately understood the impact the death of her only son had on her life. The Gospel tells us: “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (v. 13). We should notice here that the Gospel tells us that it was on the widow that Jesus had compassion, not the dead man. The widowed mother still had what could possibly be a long life ahead of her, and with no one to provide for and protect her, the future did indeed look very bleak. But our Lord took compassion on her and by His love changed the future for both the widow and her son.
Next, the account tells us that Jesus stopped the funeral procession, and touching the coffin, He stated: “’Young man, I say to you, arise!’” Immediately at the Lord’s command the young man arose from his coffin and Jesus handed him over to his mother. We see that by that one simple command, “arise”, Jesus changed the lives of not only the widow and her son but the crowd that was attending the funeral as well. The Gospel tells us that “fear seized all of them, and they glorified God” (v. 16). They praised God for bringing a “great prophet” amongst the people of Israel, no doubt referring to the Old Testament incident of the prophet Elijah rising the only son of the widow of Zar-e-phath (1 Kings 17:17-23).
We know from other Biblical accounts that words have the power of life over death. From the very beginning of time, the spoken words of God brought life and order into a lifeless and chaotic universe. During the seven days of creation, God spoke and all that we know in this world came into being. By His words He created man, in His own image, and gave His greatest creation dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth (Gen. 1:26). And as we see by our Gospel lesson today, God can even change the order of nature, reversing the effects of death simply by His spoken words.
Although we may not realize it, we also have the power of life—and even death—by our own words. You do not have to spend too much time on any form of social media to see how damaging the comments of others can be. The Internet provides commentators with the power of anonymity, giving many people the mistaken belief that they can toss out any kind of hurtful or hateful comment without consequences. They equate their abuse to nothing more than a shouted remark on a crowded street; a noise that will last no longer than the final echo. Since they believe they have a “right” to say or write anything they want, that right then becomes a license to tear down complete strangers with impunity. But we all know that this so-called honesty comes at a cost. With our right also comes the responsibility to use the power of our words in a manner that will not cause harm. The damage we cause may go beyond the simple legality of slander and may produce life-threatening results to others. We have all read about young people who are verbally bullied to the point of committing suicide. Sometimes this harassment comes from complete strangers who use the cloak of the Internet to carry out their systematic online torture of a vulnerable individual. We can create laws that punish the person after they have committed a crime, but it requires a conscience not to engage in such crimes in the first place.
We should never underestimate the strength of our words to hurt others, even people we do not know. How often have we posted a comment on a friend’s Facebook account only to have it misinterpreted by someone else? The ability of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people who we do not know should make us pause for a minute and consider how our friendly jabs or throw-away comments could be perceived by someone who does not understand our relationship with the intended recipient. We can joke in-person with our friends and no one usually gets hurt, but post that same comment on their Facebook page and suddenly everyone in the world is ready to judge your words and intentions. It is therefore important to be hypersensitive about everything we post to ensure nothing, no matter how insignificant, is misinterpreted and turned into an unintended slur.
When we take the time to peruse the Psalms and Proverbs, we find that many of the hymns and writings deal with the harm that can be caused by careless and hurtful words. We sing Psalm 141:3 at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during Great Lent: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.” The Proverbs also teach us of the power of words and their effect on ourselves and others: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (v. 10:19). And we also learn about the power of kind words as well: “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones” (Proverbs 19:24). Reading these words, we can only imagine what the Psalms and Proverbs would look like if they were written today, given all the hatred and bitterness that is on display in the social media. Times have changed and our methods of communications have become faster, but the fallen nature that controls so much of our interaction with our fellow humans is still in control of our common sense and decency. We should now pray that the Lord will set a guard over the door of our Facebook and Twitter accounts, for they have just as much power to kill as the spoken word.
So what can be done to combat this digital human degradation that is so prevalent in the world today? Facebook, Twitter, Internet blogs and other future forms of social media that we have yet to contemplate are here to stay, and it is safe to say that we will probably continue along the same path that we are witnessing today. With more outlets to digitally “vent our spleen” and “tell it like it is,” we also have more opportunities to tear apart our relationships with our fellow humans and destroy our own humanity in the process. So, what is the answer?
Like so many of the problems we see in the world, the solution to Internet hostility has to begin with each of us. We must start by choosing our words carefully, with the understanding that everything we say has the power to either build someone up or to tear someone down. I would suggest that curbing our appetites for online comments should not only be restricted to the Great Lent period, but should occur all year long. This form of self-discipline is worth practicing every day. Before we make any remark, we must look at our words from all angles, and determine whether somewhere, someone can read more into them than was intended. This consideration will be useful for our verbal communications as well. Choose words that lift up the person you are speaking with and that display your love for them and your Christ-like compassion for their wellbeing. Speak and write as if every correspondence, every word and every feeling, will be as if it is chiseled in stone on the walls of some public space.
As Jesus demonstrated in our Gospel lesson, the words of God represent the basic building blocks of life. We may never be able to raise the dead, cure the sick or drive out demons by simply speaking, but we can help to rise up someone who may be spiritually or emotionally sick or dying. Simple phrases, such as “Do not weep” spoken with Christ-like compassion may just be the words that provide a sufferer with a breath of hope and reassurance for a better tomorrow. Let us make the commitment that we will use the power of our words, both spoken and written, to be a compassionate, Christ-like witness through our personal interactions with those around us.
-Fr. Dcn. Michael Schlaack