Jesus said, “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” - Matthew 12:33-37
The Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, often remind God’s people of the power of our words. There are the instructions to praise God, to let our words be “pleasing” in the sight of God. The author of Psalm 34 declares that God’s praise will “continually” be in their mouth. These reminders to fill our mouths with good words, honest and true words, words that praise God and show the new creation we are in Christ.
In the words of Jesus above, we hear the other side of the reminders to speak good: a prohibition against speaking evil or careless words. Jesus isn’t alone in this: the letters to the early churches in the New Testament frequently instruct Christians to avoid gossip and slander.
Mostly, we take the prohibitions against gossip to mean that we should not repeat stories about other people, especially if the story isn’t public. Then, we typically understand that “slander” means malicious, deliberate attacks on a person’s character. Jesus throws another word into the mix: careless.
Careless. There’s an interesting word. No intention, malicious or otherwise, is needed for a careless word to come bearing evil. Carelessness itself is dangerous when it comes to our speech. But I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you that. You can probably tell a dozen stories of careless words causing evil. I have plenty of my own: both when someone else’s carelessness has hurt me and when I’ve put my foot firmly in my own mouth.
The trouble is that carelessness is so easy, made more tempting by the ability to forward, share, or retweet something. How often have you reposted something you agreed with, or found funny, without giving a thought to whether it was true or helpful or necessary? It doesn’t take an internet connection to speak carelessly, though. All it takes is speaking without consideration for others, or assuming we know someone else’s motivations without asking them, or drawing a conclusion without having all the facts, or… well, you get the idea.
Careless speech with evil outcomes is just as evil as deliberate, malicious gossip or slander. To make this clear, Jesus uses the metaphor of a tree and the fruit it bears. A healthy fig tree grows healthy figs. A healthy olive tree grows healthy olives. A withered and diseased tree grows nothing fruitful at all. It doesn’t matter what has destroyed the tree; only that the fruit it bears reveals its nature.
We know and trust that in Jesus Christ, our natures have been recreated by the Holy Spirit to be God’s chosen saints. And yet, too often, we speak in a way that reveals us to be rotten within. We live as sinners without seeking repentance or even admitting to our evil words. Deliberate or careless, bad fruit is bad fruit. If we grow bad fruit, we need to repent and turn away from speaking words that condemn us.
God, let me be known as a tree that bears good fruit. Keep me from careless evil words, and forgive me when I misspeak. Amen.