My first assignment as a priest involved being a part of a pastoral team of four priests serving three parishes in Effingham and Shumway. As a brand new priest, I was always impressed with how well the people remembered the priests who had served their parishes over the years. I found that most of the memories were from things that the priests had done in the parishes, and much less about what they said. So if the people remembered something a priest said many years later, it must have been very impactful. One parishioner shared a story about a homily given by one of their former priests that they remembered very clearly, and it is something I too have remembered all these years later.
The priest began his homily by talking about various types of snakes that exist in the world. In particular, he spoke about poisonous snakes. After listing off some of the more deadly species of snakes, the priest made the following point: “But of all of the poisonous snakes in the world, there is one snake that is more deadly than all – the gossip snake!” Wow! What a creative way of delivering an important message, namely, the deadly nature of gossip.
I bring this story up as we begin this month to look at the second set of the Ten Commandments. The Fifth Commandment states very succinctly: “You shall not kill.” As we know from our consideration of a few of the first four commandments, there is much more to these commandments than meets the eye. Jesus Himself addresses this commandment specifically when He says:
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (Matthew 5:21-22)
In his catechesis on this Commandment, Pope Francis explains how the sin of gossip can fall under the Fifth Commandment:
Therefore, not only must one not make an attempt on the life of others, but one must not even pour on him the poison of anger and hit him with slander, nor speak ill of him. And here we arrive at gossip. Gossip can also kill, because it kills the reputation of the person.
Since hearing about the idea of the “deadly gossip snake” so many years ago, I have come to see how very true this is. Gossip can be deadly and as Christians, we should be very careful about how we speak about other people, regardless of whether what we have to say is true or not. What you say about somebody in resentment, pain, or frustration may feel good in the moment, but it invites the person to whom you are speaking to take on the same attitude, thus spreading the poison. In those moments when we are tempted to gossip, we would do well to remember the advice of St. Paul: “Never let evil talk pass your lips. Say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them.” (Eph. 4:29) I can almost guarantee that gossip is not something others need to hear or will ever help them, so when tempted to gossip, just keep quiet and speak to the Lord about it. You may just help to save the other person’s reputation…and your soul. Father Alford