Look what happens here in Luke’s retelling of one of Jesus’ visits to the synoguge….in verse 21 the writer (Luke) tells us: “All spoke highly of Jesus and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Then someone spoke up, “But, isn’t he the son of Joseph?” Seven verses later, listen to what is happening: “They drove him out of town, to the brow of the hill to hurl him down headlong.” Those seven verses only took two minutes to read? In real life how quickly did it happen that the people went from awe at Jesus’ words to the point that those same people were ready to toss him off a cliff?
Come to think of it, we’ve seen the same thing happen in our midst – certainly in society. A person is put on a pedestal – – – a single detractor mutters a criticism, a neighbor hears it and shares it at the dinner table or with co-workers. In the time it takes to go from one TV commercial to the next, the person goes from being a hero to the devil-incarnate.
It can happen on a smaller scale, but it’s just as devastating. Someone offers a complimentary remark and a so-called friend mutters, “Huh, if you only knew what I know.” And in a flash a reputation crumbles! Or, perhaps worse yet, nothing is said. The compliment falls in a vacuum of dead air. Why are we so afraid to lift one another up, to second a compliment, or expand on the worthiness of the person???
The word “bystander” isn’t a nasty word and shouldn’t be a term connected solely with bullying. It’s an active word; it means more than being a zoned-out spectator. Speaking up, standing up for someone being criticized, picked on, condemned for the same faults the speaker may have – yes, it takes daring… a special grace of courage. A by-stander worth her salt can repeat and expand on complimentary remarks to make a person’s day.
Think about this: What did Jesus do when the crowd turned on him? Luke says, “He passed through the midst of them and went away.” What happens when guests or prospective vocations encounter a judgmental flavor in the air versus when they experience an atmosphere where love is obvious and personal reputations upheld. Compliments and positive strokes far out-weigh any negativity? In the one guest’s experience they do what Jesus did – they pass through our midst and disappear. In the other, they say, “I like this place and these people – the Spirit is in this place. I can thrive here. I’ll be back and I’ll tell others what I found here to bolster my spirit. Give me some flyers, I want to share the peace I’ve found here.”
It takes but one stone thrown into the pool of family/community life to start a negative rumor (“Isn’t he the son of Joseph?”). Or a stone tossed lightly over the water may cause the opposite. It can cause ripples that form a pleasant, positive touchy-feely circle of belonging. Bystanders have a choice: pick up their negative stone and toss it into the mix. Remember what your parents, your first teachers taught you: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Recall the Sufi teaching “Before you speak, ask yourself: ‘Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”
It’s not necessarily true that practice makes perfect. What is true is that practice makes permanent. Studies show that persons with dementia can readily recall Christmas carols, nursery rhymes and dance steps learned early in life. But what happened yesterday? Did I eat lunch? I was married? May be fuzzy or completely lost. We need practice making positive contributions to conversation. And it does take practice; lots of practice – like 6-8 weeks of daily practice.
This week we will celebrate the memorial of St. Blasé when we traditionally receive the blessing of throats. We pray for deliverance from all ailments of the throat. It seems to me this would include control of the tongue – fitting right in with the message of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday.
Degrading, critical remarks can’t live side by side with the sentiments we’ll pray in tomorrow’s psalm: “O God, you have taught me from my youth and till the present, I proclaim your wondrous deeds.” Acknowledging and complimenting the “wondrous deeds” in the life of another is one way of proclaiming God’s work. We pray with the psalmist: “You are my hope, O Lord; my trust; on you I depend. My mouth shall declare your justice, day by day your salvation; I will proclaim your wondrous deeds.”
~ Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress