Have you ever met for the first time someone you expected to dislike because you had heard negative or nasty things about him or her? But then, after you had met, you actually liked that person, and maybe even became friends? Your liking this person came as something of a surprise, because you had been biased against him or her. You had heard some piece of gossip, or been told something you really didn’t have a need or a right to know. As a result, that person almost didn’t get a chance to make a good first impression, because he or she had been given a bad name by somebody else.
And that’s not fair, is it? Our Church teaches that everyone has a right to a good reputation, and that it’s a sin to gossip or reveal things about people that others shouldn’t hear. To do that is to violate a person’s privacy, hurt their relationships with others, and maybe even put them in danger in some way. People can end up losing their jobs, for instance, because of gossip. And as the “greatest generation” used to be reminded: “Loose lips sink ships.”
Just consider what Jesus taught in today’s gospel. Whenever someone has offended or hurt us in some way, we are to first of all approach that person in private in the hope of resolving the situation. We aren’t to go around telling everyone how this person hurt us or how we think that he or she is a jerk. Jesus knows that it’s tempting to do this, because “Misery loves company.” It can feel good to get other people on “our side” of the conflict. Not only do we receive sympathy, it’s a way for us to “get back” at that person by making him or her look bad in another’s eyes. When we gossip about a person who has hurt us, or maybe even just really annoys us, our real intention is to punish.
As today’s gospel makes clear, this is not something our Lord wants us to do. Gossiping is referred to as the sin of “detraction,” it detracts from a person’s reputation and takes the shine of his or her good name. Gossiping, to say the least, is not an act of love. It’s ironic, therefore, that sometimes we do it about the very people we should love the most. Husband and wives, for instance, sometimes complain about their spouse’s behavior to their friends or acquaintances. They say things like: “My husband is so clueless; he can’t even screw in a light bulb.” Or, “My wife is such an airhead: she can’t even balance a checkbook.” Or, “He’d rather go fishing than spend time with his family.” Or, “If I spent the way she did, we’d be in the poorhouse.” If people said things like this to us about our spouses, we’d get angry and come to their defense. But we don’t hesitate to say these things ourselves.
There may be truth to what we say. But saying it doesn’t improve the situation or resolve the problem or help the relationship to heal or grow. Sometimes we’ll excuse ourselves by thinking that now we’ve gotten it off our chest, we won’t fight with our spouse later. But that’s baloney. All we accomplish is to make someone we love look bad in the eyes of others. And what will they think of our spouse the next time they see him or her? They’ll remember what you said, and look down upon your spouse. You’ve given them a bad reputation, and the harm we’ve caused can be almost impossible to repair. The damage is done.
Great damage can be done by gossip in the workplace, too. We’ve all experienced it, if we’ve ever had a job. And it’s hard to resist, sometimes because it sounds so juicy, and sometimes because we don’t want to be left out of the crowd and miss what’s being said. But workplace gossip wastes time, lessens productivity, poisons workplace morale, leads to divisions and cliques, and can ruin reputations and careers. A recent poll revealed that 60 percent of us rate “workplace gossip” as our number one on-the-job pet peeve.
These days, we might even say that we’re drowning in a virtual sea of gossip. There are nearly 400 gossip magazines on newsstands devoted to nothing more than revealing intimate details of the social and personal lives of celebrities and other public figures- things we don’t need to know and, I add, we shouldn’t seek to know or pay to learn about. Add to this the gossip spread around the internet through blogs, tweets, and Facebook, and what we have is something like a tsunami.
On our own, we probably can’t hope to stop it. But we can make a choice not to contribute to it. Let’s walk away from the water-cooler scuttlebutt, refuse to buy the trashy magazines, and not visit the offending websites. And most of all, let’s keep guard over what comes out of our mouths. It may be that someone may have hurt us, but that doesn’t mean that everyone and their brother needs to know about it. Because according to Jesus, we should treat the person we’re talking about as our brother. And he wants us to “win them over.” Not put them down.
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/090411.cfm