Let the Scriptures Speak
Talking The Walk
From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks
A cluster of traditional sayings exists, underscoring the insight that the character of a person shows itself most truly in deeds more than in words. “Talk is cheap,” we say, meaning that what a person actually does is far more important than the promises that person makes. “She doesn't just talk the talk; she walks the walk,” we say, meaning that the woman lives out what she professes. These sentiments are particularly strong during political campaigns.
This is true enough, and there are plenty of biblical passages to show that the insight is perennial. But the first and last of this Sunday's readings focus on another aspect of our “talk life”—the utter importance and power of our words. Talk may well be cheap in the case of an empty promise or sly flattery. But both Sirach and Jesus give us words today that remind us that some of our most significant deeds are in fact the words we say.
For better or worse, our speech reveals who and what we are. Sirach demonstrates this in three sharp images. The act of speech is like sifting wheat through a sieve: as the sifting sorts out the husks, so our speech exposes the otherwise hidden faults of our character. And just as the hot fire of a kiln tests the craft of the potter, so the give and take of conversation tests the integrity of the interlocutors. Finally, just as the quality of a fruit tree indicates the care of its cultivator, so our speech reveals everything that has gone into our formation.
One could meditate on that imagery and draw the fatalistic conclusion, “well, you are what you are, and your speech is going to show it no matter what you try to do about it. Maybe it's best to keep quiet.”
Jesus of Nazareth, mediated today by the evangelist Luke, puts the reality of our speech in a fuller context. “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of the store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). By itself, that teaching seems to leave us with Sirach: for better or worse, your speech is going to show you up. But Jesus' words come attached to the rest of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49).
Jesus' sermon presents a bracing challenge to our “talk life.” Jesus addresses his teaching “to you who hear,” meaning those poor enough to be responsive to his words. He then proceeds to urge love of enemies, nonviolence, selfless giving, and a compassion that imitates God's own mercy. The heart that the mouth reveals is supposed to be that kind of heart! This might sound more discouraging than Sirach, except that Jesus’ teaching on prayer throughout the rest of the Gospel of Luke reminds us that the power to imitate Jesus in these matters is not our own. It comes from the gift of the Spirit given in prayer, which in turn enables us to become those who listen to Jesus’ words and act on them.
When we put all this in the larger setting of the story of Jesus and the story of the Church in Acts, we recognize that full discipleship is not only a matter of walking the talk; it also entails “talking the walk.” That is, some of the most important Christian deeds will in fact be acts of speech, challenging injustice, encouraging the downhearted, asking and giving forgiveness, blessing with praise those who need to be affirmed.
As Paul reminds us, the heart that produces the goodness revealed in speech is the heart that is rooted in the risen Lord Jesus. “[Know] that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University