What he says is unimportant...
So said a character once in an old television show, then explaining sotto voce to a colleague that he had just called the other person a liar.
Indeed, when a person is known to be a habitual liar, that person’s words are unimportant: that person's words have lost value.
But lies are not the only things that diminish the value of a person’s words.
I don’t pay attention to him: he’s just a complainer.
She can swear up and down all she wants: she goes back on her word too often.
Thus today’s first reading (James 5:9-12) warns us ominously against complaining and inconstancy.
Do not complain, brothers, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.
You have heard of the perseverance of Job,
and you have seen the purpose of the Lord,
because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
But above all, my brothers, do not swear,
either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath,
but let your “Yes” mean “Yes”
and your “No” mean “No,”
that you may not incur condemnation.
In some ways, the three items that St. James mentions here – complaining, perseverance, and oath taking – are very different topics, but a common theme that they share is how they affect the value of a person’s word.
And if our words have lost their value, we are less effective as witnesses to the truth of Christ.
Thus we do well not to be complainers and we do well to be people who are true to our word (making oaths superfluous).
Some of us, of course, have not been perfect in everything we have said. Some of us have complained too much. Some of us over-promise and do not follow through. Some of us have a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth. Some of us have even broken our most solemn words.
Reputation, reputation, reputation!
O, I have lost my reputation!
I have lost the immortal part of myself,
and what remains is bestial.
(Othello, Act II, scene 3)
What then are we to do?
First of all, as St. James says, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (thanks ever be to the Lord our Savior). By the grace of God, we can repent and find forgiveness and healing.
The Lord, of course, knows unerringly whether our repentance is sincere and whether we have indeed mended our ways.
It is not so easy to rebuild trust with our fellow human beings and to restore the value of our words with them.
What then are we to do?
Obviously we need to do more than just express contrition and firm purpose of amendment (although we need to do that). We cannot change the past or repair all the damage we may have caused, but while making a good faith effort to do what we can to make up for our past faults, we must also strive to move forward.
We must move forward with humility, diligence, patience and (most importantly) with prayer: praying for the Lord to continue healing us and all those whom we may have hurt, realizing that we are nothing more than humble instruments in the Lord’s hands.
Even if we feel more like wretched instruments than humble, even if we have not been faithful or true in the past, the Lord is eternally faithful and true and his grace can work in us and through us.
Because of our sins and imperfections, our words may be unimportant, but no matter what we have said or what we have done or what we have failed to do, the infinitely good and eternally powerful Word of God – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – can make manifest his saving power, even in us.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, be merciful to me – a sinner.