In World War II, soldiers were warned that “loose lips sink ships”. They were prohibited from giving their families any information about the movements, location, and plans of the armed forces, because the enemy might get hold of that information and use it to plan attacks. If the soldiers didn’t watch what they said and wrote, it could be deadly.
Something similar to that general principle is true from a spiritual perspective. Our words can be very damaging to others and to ourselves, particularly if we allow ourselves to speak ill of others. In the first reading today, God punishes Miriam and Aaron very harshly for speaking against Moses. They had criticized him out of jealousy and because they disapproved of his choice of a wife. Yet, Moses was a man that God had chosen to lead the people of Israel. God saw Moses’ heart, whereas Aaron and Miriam were pronouncing merely superficial human judgments. Through their contrition and Moses’ intercession, they were forgiven, but God made the point that we should not take upon ourselves the right to judge others.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see the same principle at work. The Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples because they did not observe all the human traditions about ritual table manners. The Lord responds by explaining that external, conventional things like table manners don’t make a person good or bad. Our words, which are the expression of our hearts and minds, are much more important. The Pharisees sinned by speaking ill of the disciples, whose behavior they had misjudged.
It is very difficult to control our words and to avoid rash judgments and gossip. St James says in his letter that “if anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man”. Nonetheless, we have to remember that God takes our words very seriously, and will judge us accordingly. Perhaps we could re-phrase the wartime slogan to say, “loose lips sink souls.” May God grant us “clean hearts and steadfast spirits” so that our words will be an expression of love, respect and compassion, and may He grant us forgiveness for the times when, through our words, “we have done what is evil in His sight.”