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You asked for a sermon on Gossip

 

Ephesians 4:29

[1] In World War II American fliers in the Pacific theatre were provided with a package of shark repellent. As soon as the downed flier had parachuted into the water he released his shark repellent. The repellent spread out around him, forming a protective sphere within which he could survive. Inside the sphere he was safe, in no danger from sharks. If, however, he foolishly decided to move out beyond the sphere of the repellent, he would be devoured immediately.

The Ten Commandments demarcate the sphere, in a fallen world, within which we can thrive, within which there is safety and freedom. As long as we live within this sphere we shall find life blessed, wholesome, satisfying. We shall know and enjoy the freedom which God has fashioned for us. If, however, we decide to extend ourselves beyond the sphere which the commandments mark out, we shall find not freedom but enslavement; not blessing but curse; not life which thrives but death whose deadliness deadens everything around it.

Since the ninth commandment forbids us to bear false witness against our neighbour, it’s plain that to gossip is to think — foolishly — that we can live beyond the sphere of God’s protection and blessing. But we can’t. To bear false witness, to gossip, is to poison ourselves and slay others; to gossip is to let loose poison gas which renders everyone sick unto death.

We have no difficulty understanding that to try to live outside the sphere demarcated by the commandments is to embrace death; that is, we have no difficulty understanding this for some of the commandments. Murder, for instance, or stealing or adultery. Simply to think of these three instances of wickedness is to know that where they thrive we don’t; and conversely, if we are to thrive then these three are to be renounced. Murder, stealing, adultery — and gossip. Is gossip in the same class? Is it really this serious? Is it as disgraceful? as destructive? as deadly? The fact that God forbids us to bear false witness as surely as he forbids us to murder should convince any doubter that gossip is iniquitous.

 

[2] If, however, the doubter remains doubting then a moment’s reflection on what gossip does should convince us.

If we are inclined to think that gossip is a harmless amusement that merely tickles the ear, nothing more than coffee-break chatter, then we should understand that unfounded rumour can end someone’s reputation, end her career, end her life. “She is over-fond of men”, someone says with a knowing wink. Said of a dancehall entertainer the gossip would likely fall to the ground, harmless. (It might even enhance the dancehall entertainer’s business.) But said of a physician it would be ruinous.

“She doesn’t declare everything on her income tax return.” Said of the single mother trying to support herself and her family through the day-care she operates out of her home it would mobilize little. But said of an accountant it would be the end of everything.

“He is disloyal.” Said of a separatist politician from Quebec it is so far from being slanderous as almost to be a badge of honour. But said of a military officer it would mean dismissal. Captain Albert Dreyfus, an officer in the French army at the turn of the century, was accused of treason. There wasn’t an iota of evidence to support the accusation. For ten years Dreyfus and his friends struggled to clear his name. After ten years he was exonerated. By then he and his wife and his children were ruined. While he was exonerated officially, millions of French citizens viewed him as a disgrace — when all the while he was innocent.

Dr. Norman Bethune, the Canadian chest surgeon who worked with the Eighth Route Army in revolutionary China, nicked his finger with a scalpel one day while performing surgery on a wounded soldier. The nick seemed inconsequential. Before long, however, Bethune was dead from septicaemia. Gossip may appear no more than a nick. But some nicks are deadly!

In World War I Chlorine gas was used on enemy forces. It was a lethal substance which killed men, not instantly, but slowly and agonizingly as their lungs were seared and they choked. In other words, chlorine gas killed after it had induced terrible suffering and panic. There always remained one huge problem in the deployment of chlorine gas: unforeseen changes in wind direction. A change in wind direction brought the gas back upon those who had only recently released it. At this point the gas didn’t merely take down the enemy; it took down everyone. Gossip is just like that.

 

[3] This being the case, why do we gossip? Before we look for ultra-sophisticated analyses as to why we gossip we should be sure we understand the most elemental reason for gossip: false witness comes naturally out of the depraved human heart. It is not the case that humankind’s heart is naturally righteous or godly (if it were, the gospel would be superfluous). The human heart, rather, is by nature (fallen nature) a fountain of corruption. “For out of the heart” (this is Jesus speaking) “come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” When we ask, “Why does gossip, malicious gossip, leap unbidden to the tongue?”, we must always recall the pronouncement of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt. Who can understand it?”. As often as we look for a reason for our addiction to gossip we must remember that at bottom our addiction to gossip is unreasonable, irrational — as irrational as all the addictions of the corrupt heart. (Recall Kierkegaard: “Whoever claims to understand sin has never experienced it.”)

Once we have admitted that gossip is an outcropping of our innermost corruption; once we admit that the root of gossip is sunk in invisible irrationality, we can then safely attempt rational explanations for some features of gossip.

For instance, we find it virtually impossible to honour someone else’s right-to-privacy. Not wanting to honour someone else’s right-to-privacy we speculate or fantasize as to what is happening in that person’s private life. Next (and here’s the lethal step) we voice our speculations or fantasies as though they were factual. There are no grounds for doing this. But who needs grounds? What we can only guess at we utter as though it had been proven a hundred times over; all the while we know nothing at all.

We gossip, too, inasmuch as we are vindictive cowards who want to hurt someone without being held accountable for our assault. If we walked up to the person we wish to hurt and punched her in the face, we’d be in jail for assault. Then how to assault without having to account for it? Gossip. Gossip is the signature of the person who is vindictive and cowardly in equal measure.

We gossip, again, inasmuch as we are envious. Not only can we not accord someone else her right-to-privacy, we cannot accord her her right-to-possession. We cannot endure someone whose house is larger, or bank account richer, or inheritance greater, or ability grander, or children brighter. Since the disparity between someone else and us is unendurable, we have to end the disparity. There are only two ways of doing this: either we elevate ourselves or we bring her down. Only the latter is feasible. But how are we to bring her down? We can’t embezzle her savings or reduce the academic achievement of her children or diminish her talent. We can only gossip. Three words of gossip and she will be levelled; more than levelled, she will be beneath us. What a triumph! (When individuals do this, it is called gossip; when a nation does it collectively, it is called propaganda.)

 

[4] The command of God is plain: we are not to bear false witness against our neighbour. “False witness” is the English translation found in both places of the older testament where the Ten Commandments are stated, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The English translations are identical, but the Hebrew texts behind them differ. In Exodus 20 the Hebrew text which is translated “false witness” means lying, falsehood, what is untrue. In Deuteronomy 5 the Hebrew which is also translated “false witness” refers to insincerity or frivolousness. In other words, Exodus 20 refers to the substance of what is said, while Deuteronomy 5 refers to the mood and motivation of what is said. The Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 5 recognizes that it is possible to say what is factually correct but to say it in a mood and out of a motivation which is every bit as damaging as an outright lie. When the Hebrew bible forbids us to bear false witness it forbids us both to utter what is untrue and to utter what may be true but the uttering of which arises from a mood and motivation which aim at someone else’s ruin. In Psalm 51 the psalmist maintains that God “desires truth in our inward being”. “Truth in our inward being” means both outward truth, devoid of falsehood, and inward heart-purity, devoid of insincerity or duplicity.

 

[5] As we school ourselves more profoundly in the revelation entrusted to our Hebrew foreparents we come to appreciate Israel’s horror — sheer horror — at false witness. The psalmist cries that to have malicious witnesses rise up against him is the worst thing that could befall him. (Have you ever been slandered? If you have, you will agree with the psalmist instantly.)

Our Israelite foreparents were so fearful of false witness that one witness — one witness only — was never sufficient to convict anyone in a lawcourt. Testimony given by one witness alone was worthless.

Hearsay was never permitted. If someone said, “I didn’t see it happen myself, but last week Samantha told me she saw it happen” — worthless as well.

The Mishnah stated (the Mishnah is the distillate of rabbinic wisdom); the Mishnah stated that anyone who was commonly known to be loose-tongued or mean-spirited was disqualified as a witness; that person’s testimony was worthless at all times and in all circumstances.

The Mishnah stated too that if someone were discovered bearing false witness, that person must be punished with the same punishment that would have been assigned to the accused if the accused had been convicted. In other words, if person A testified falsely against person B concerning fraud, and the penalty for fraud was five years in prison, then person A, the bearer of false witness, himself went to prison for five years. In situations where this arrangement was impossible to implement (for instance, if false testimony were offered concerning the legitimacy of a child, the false testifier couldn’t suddenly be pronounced illegitimate himself), then the person bearing false witness was lashed 40 times. If the penalty for an offence was normally 40 lashes in any case, then the person bearing false witness was lashed 80 times. In other words, our Israelite foreparents wanted everyone to know that before someone spoke so much as one syllable against another person, the speaker had better know that he must speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and do this without any insincerity, frivolousness or malice.

The Mishnah said one thing more. When a witness offered testimony concerning an offense whose penalty was death, and it was the witness’s testimony which secured the conviction, then the witness (whose testimony had been true) must nevertheless himself serve as executioner. It was felt that if someone testifying truly still had to serve as executioner, then someone testifying falsely concerning capital offenses could never live with himself if his false testimony secured a conviction followed by an execution which the false testifier himself had to implement.

Then perhaps the safest thing to do was not say anything; not bear witness at all, whether true or false; simply keep one’s lip buttoned and one’s head down. But this wasn’t permitted in Israel. The person who remained silent when he heard gossip; the person who heard gossip but did not denounce it on the spot; that person was deemed guilty of gossip himself, guilty of bearing false witness. The person who said in self-extenuation, “But at least I never repeated the gossip I heard”; that person was as much guilty of gossip as the gossiper herself. Leviticus 5 states that to hear gossip and not denounce it is to be guilty of gossip — and therefore subject to the appropriate punishment for false witness.

It is little wonder that the prophet Malachi tells us that God will flay any and all who bear false witness.

 

[6] Gossip is a curse. What is the cure?

The first stage in the cure is to hear the command of God afresh. What is the ninth commandment? that we are not to bear false witness? No! We are not to bear false witness against our neighbour. A command not to bear false witness would be highly abstract, devoid of human face and heart. But a command not to bear false witness against our neighbour reminds us constantly that we have to do with a specific, living, suffering, fragile flesh-and-blood person.

Specific? How specific? Who is our neighbour? Jesus was asked this question. He replied in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The point of the parable is this: our neighbour is the person nearby us who is in need. Our neighbour is that person who is so very proximate to us that we find ourselves bumping into her all the time: grocery store, library, dentist’s waiting room. Already she is in great need. Are we going to worsen her neediness by bearing false witness against her? We are not to bear false witness against our neighbour. Our neighbour, according to Jesus, is the person whom we meet in the course of the day’s unfolding and whose need is undeniable. To worsen that person’s suffering through gossip is unspeakable cruelty and detestable sin.

Israel, we have seen, was horrified at false witness. It did everything it could to inculcate that horror into all its people. Its approach here was similar to the approach used with teenagers who are convicted of impaired driving. Teenagers convicted of impaired driving are made to watch film-footage of motor vehicle accidents caused by impaired drivers; made to watch motor vehicle accidents whose victims are killed or crippled; made to watch all of this in the hope that horror at impaired driving will be inculcated in the teenager and remain inculcated forever.

If we could be made to see what gossip does to that neighbour whose need finds her suffering intensely already we should be horrified, for life. And a most excellent thing it would be.

There is more to the cure for the curse of gossip. The next step in the cure is to hear and heed the apostolic injunction. Look at what Paul says to the church in Colosse: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt…”. Salt, in scripture, is a sign of the covenant. Salt is a sign of the pledge God has made to us, pledging himself, promising himself, ever to be our God, never to forsake us. Grace is God’s faithfulness to his pledge; grace is God himself forever keeping the promise he has made to us. To say that God is gracious is to say that nothing will ever deflect him from his pledge and promise to be God-for-us. Because you and I are sinners God’s faithfulness meets our sin. When God’s faithfulness meets our sin, his faithfulness takes the form of mercy. Salt, then, is the sign of God’s pledge to us that he will ever stand by us and envelop us in mercy.

The apostle Paul says that our speech is to be seasoned with salt. Our speech is to reflect to others the faithfulness and mercy of God himself. This is crucial; after all, we live in a world characterized by unfaithfulness and mercilessness. Christians are to be salt in this world; our speech is to be salt. Salty speech is a sign of what we are in ourselves: people who are not unfaithful to the suffering neighbour but rather who support the suffering neighbour faithfully, always enveloping him or her in mercy.

In his letter to the Christians in Ephesus Paul writes that their speech is to be “such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear”.

Our speech must fit the occasion. Of course our speech must be truthful; but more is needed. Our truthful speech must fit the context, fit the occasion. A physician who spoke the truth about a patient’s medical condition at a cocktail party would be hanged. No physician could ever plead that he was telling the truth and only the truth. The occasion is entirely unfitting, entirely inappropriate. The schoolteacher who said to the 8-year old in front of 25 other 8-year olds, “No wonder you are sleepy in class every day; your mother and father fight so much that no one can get enough sleep in your home”; the teacher who said that could never excuse herself on the grounds that she was only telling the truth. Her truth-telling does not “fit the occasion”.

The apostle insists as well that our speech is to be edifying; it is to be more than merely true, more than barely true; it is to be edifying.

And then Paul says something about which I have never heard a sermon: he says that our speech is a sacrament. He does not say in his Ephesian letter that our speech is to reflect God’s grace; he says that our speech imparts God’s grace. If human speech imparts God’s grace, then our speech is a sacrament.

Throughout the history of the church there have been bloodletting controversies over the sacraments. What is a sacrament? What is not? Protestants jump up and say, “There are two sacraments only, baptism and the Lord’s Supper”. Roman Catholics reply, “Seven; there are seven sacraments. Marriage, ordination to the priesthood, penance — plus others — are sacraments too.” At one point in the middle ages there were twelve sacraments. Not once in my reading of church history; not once have I come upon a discussion of speech as a sacrament. But the apostle Paul (whom Protestants appear to venerate above all others) plainly says that it is a sacrament. A sacrament of what? Poison gas? No! A sacrament of God’s grace.

My last point in the cure for the curse of gossip. All of us are jabbed from time-to-time. We may be jabbed verbally or non-verbally. Whether we are jabbed verbally or non-verbally, our first instinct, our depraved instinct, is to retaliate verbally. In retaliating verbally we bear false witness. We may do so by uttering gossip, or by uttering truth maliciously, since our mood and motivation are deadly. I have found there is one sure way of defusing the temptation to retaliate. When next you are jabbed, don’t dwell on the nastiness of the person who jabbed you. Instead look upon that person as your neighbour; which is to say, find out where that person is suffering. Then dwell on that person’s suffering. Wrap your heart around that person’s suffering. You will find that the temptation to gossip, the temptation to bear false witness, evaporates in that instant.

F I N I S

                                                                    Victor A. Shepherd

January 1994

Exodus 20:11*
Deuteronomy 5:20*
Matthew 15:19
Jeremiah 17:9
Psalm 51:6
Leviticus 5:1
Malachi 3:5
Luke 10: 25-37*
Colossians 4:6*
Ephesians 4:29*