The Power of Words

Children chant in sing-song the ditty: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” How erroneous this really is! Broken bones mend, but we do not always recover from cruel words. Words can prevent us from becoming the best we might be, and we often use them as weapons against each other. But the opposite is true as well. Words can be healing; they can transform us. “You’re not alone; I’m here” can give us strength and courage. “I love you” can turn life from black and white to technicolor. There is definitely power in words.

In the Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments are frequently referred to as the Ten Words. Unfortunately, many of us today view these laws as restrictions on life. The Israelites did not. They considered them guides for living lives of wisdom and truth. They cherished the laws, because following them was the way they lived out their covenant with God. If we look carefully at these ordinances, we will see that they sketch a picture of a God committed to justice. The God behind the law requires that people live honorably in society, respecting one another’s persons and property. These are certainly words of life.

James uses an agricultural image to speak about the power of the word, specifically the word of truth. He no doubt is referring to the word of the Gospel, the word through which we were reborn in baptism. He insists that it is not enough to hear that word and claim allegiance to it. It must bring forth fruit; we must live out that word in our lives, for this is the way we will live out our covenant with God. The psalm response gives us a glimpse of such a way of living—blameless and just, thoughtful and honest in dealing with others. These are certainly words of truth.

Much to our surprise, strict adherence to these words can produce the opposite of what they were intended to effect. Rather than enhance life and direct us to God, such adherence can restrict life and result in smug self-satisfaction. In the Gospel, Jesus chides those who demand rigid observance of the law even when circumstances might require an interpretation of that law. Jesus respects the law, but teaches that the Ten Words are meant to be guides, not shackles; and he insists that our attitude toward them should spring from the heart. Only then will they be words of genuine truth and life.

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