Biblical teaching on the use of colorful and harsh language.

In the Gospel from last Sunday, the Lord warns of using uncivil and/or hateful words such as “Raqa” and “fool.” And yet the same Lord Jesus often used very strong language toward some of His opponents, sometimes calling them names such as vipers and hypocrites.

We live in a world that often insists on the use of gentle language and euphemisms. While doing so is not a bad thing, we also tend to manifest a kind of thin-skinned quality and a political correctness that is too fussy about many things, often taking personally what is not meant personally.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility” dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word has entered into common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variances in what is considered to be civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the Scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charity as well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips (Eccl 10:12).
  2. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Eccles 9:17).
  3. Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
  4. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph 4:29).
  5. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Col 3:21).
  6. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  7. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
  8. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6).
  9. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11).
  10. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips (Col 3:8).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness ( Gal 6:1).
  13. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:15).
  14. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you!? (Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts (Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, … As for those circumcisers , I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles: And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters: Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters: These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage (Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse. Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. I dated an Italian girl for a brief time back in college, and I remember being at her house watching her and her mother really go at it in a heated debate (usually in Italian—Mama Mia!). But no sooner had they argued very intensely over some particular point—say preparing the meal—than they were just fine, acting as if nothing had happened. Angry discourse was more “normal” for them than it was for me. Even in this country there are regional differences in what is considered civil. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,” for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Jesus also engaged in prophetic actions like overturning the tables in the temple courts. No one said He’d done wrong, they just wondered where He’d gotten the authority to do this (cf Mark 11:28). In that culture prophets did things like this. No one liked it, but just as our culture tolerates some degree of civil disobedience—even reveres it—Jesus’ culture expected things like this from prophets.

Careful, now—be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, as already observed, we also tend to be a little thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance – The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here are two videos that depict the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger. The passages are from John 6 and John 8.

16 Replies to “Biblical teaching on the use of colorful and harsh language.”

  1. Ah! The good old days. Frank and earnest. No one said, “Let me make myself perfectly clear.” They just were.

  2. Thank you Msgr, for this too and for prayers of all, helping many ,to be touched by The Spirit ;

    just realised that the Holy Face that said those words in indignation, is there in the Eucharist , in the Father’s Presence , to say same , on behalf of those who need to use such harshness, thus to help those who hopefully need to be jolted into repentance , even while they themselves ,if choosing to , under prudence, are to hide in His Sacred Heart , trusting that His Spirit can speak to the mountains that need to be cast off !

    Hope that many in persecuted lands would be blessed with ever deeper faith and love .

    Glory be to our Lord !

  3. Perhaps ‘thin skin’ is a product of ‘gentler discourse’ just as actual calluses are a product of hard physical labor.

    Perhaps, as in other things, Jesus shows us the better way to a full life.

    Speak truth, even of it hurts…but never with the goal being TO HURT.

    Speak with the goal to ‘ build others up according to their needs…’

    If someone does something stupid it does not ‘benefit them’ to endorse it by tacit reluctance or obsequious encouragement.

    Jesus would not have called a spade a middle class professional’s excavation career enablement tool.

    When ‘polite 21st century society’ insists that we not merely tolerate but endorse sexual abnormality, for example, then we are compelled to contradict, lest we encourage the notion.

    Warning someone about the reality of eternal damnation is not considered polite in ’21st century modern’ society.

    If we worked up the calluses with less polite talk, the world would be a better place!

  4. Thanks for these verses reminding us to watch what we say. Our words affect others more than we know.

    There was a really wonderful article in Catholic Family News (Jan. 2014) about practicing the presence of God. I have been trying to form this habit, and it really does make a huge difference. I find that I choose my words more carefully when I’m mindful that Our Lord is beside me.

    As for Jesus and the Apostles using harsh language, I think that it is absolutely necessary when religious leaders are confronting those who would mislead or make it difficult for others to know the truth. Souls are at stake. More priests and bishops need to rebuke and confront those entrusted to their care and not worry about hurting some feelings. Better to have our feelings hurt than wind up hurting for all eternity.

  5. The truth sometimes “hurts”. Jesus spoke the truth using very descriptive words He might have easily quoted from a contemporary 20th century movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth”. No one wants to be called a viper or child of the devil but Jesus called things as He saw them. During Jesus’ time the devil was taken seriously. Yet instead of correcting themselves Jesus’ critics/enemies only hated Him or hated Him with more vehemence.

  6. A lot of the, so called, acceptable derogatory are specific or; at least in the general area of specific. They tend to invite challenge because the one being derided can adress one, or a few, co-hesive comment(s) about one, or a few, co-hesive action(s)
    Fool seems more all encompassing and is a total rejection of everything about the one being derided. In the two quotes from Ecclesiastes no one, in particular, is being called a fool – there’s just a rejection of the foolish state. Later, in the New Testament, derogatory terms are only applied to individuals or groups who have performed certain actions or; sets of actions. Defensive statements are reachable since their specific action(s), and not their overall being, is addressed as the reason for such appelations. The derogatory terms may be somewhat general but, that which brings these general terms has been stated. Seems something like, to me, like no human is considered worthy of total dismissal and that all, no matter how far they (we?) have fallen, we are still worthy of Salvation if we would only turn back to the truth. Debating in a FAIR manner can has a degree of potential to turn one back toward truth.
    Kind of like; it’s ok to criticize a person’s words or actions but, not their right to be a person who is a creation of God and whose actions have led to a state of imperfection – as my actions have led me to a state of imperfection.
    Also, from the post, “we easily presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful or even hateful.” I am led to recall the time, over 15 years ago, when I sat in the middle of a road (among like minded people) and refused to move aside so that a bus could pass. We knew that we would be arrested and, almost certainly, be charged with a criminal offense, convicted and serve short prison sentences. The bus driver wore a mask, the bus windows (except for the windshield) were painted black and the passengers were people who were called “replacement workers” by some and “scabs” by others. We, sitters on the road, were arrested and ended up sentenced to 14 days – a fairly easy time to be incarcerated.
    The point here is not about the issues in a labour dispute or our resolve to be willing to be incarcerated but, our right to disagree in a democracy. There were those on the side of the “replacement workers” and their employers who complimented me on being so dilligent on my efforts to disagree. The erosion of democracy, and its foundations, was just beginning and disagreement was still considered worthy.
    This isn’t so much about taking a stand for the imperfect, but humanly functional, concept of democracy. After all Winston Churchill, who re-inspired and led a battered nation to victory in WW II (with help from many allies including the US and Canada), said that democracy was the worst possible system – except for all the others. Could it be that he didn’t read deeply into the Judges period between Moses and King Saul?
    With one exception, the Bible stresses the right of defense by the accused. The exception being in the Book of Job where the Perfect Judge already knows all sides of the story to perfection. Is anyone who judges by sweeping statements of total dimissal of accusing one of being a fool; or by a sweeping claim of calling disagreement hate; setting themselves up as a false god?

  7. Most excellent, as usual. I think a great aide to the problem of our being thin skinned is the St. Francis Prayer, the desire to become more unassuming. Yes, charity always first. Our Parish Patron says in E SUPREMI; “no means is more efficacious than charity. “For the Lord is not in the earthquake” (III Kings xix., II) — it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity. True the Apostle exhorted Timothy: “Accuse, beseech, rebuke,” but he took care to add: “with all patience” (11. Tim. iv., 2). Jesus has certainly left us examples of this. “Come to me,” we find Him saying, “come to me all ye that labor and are burdened and I will refresh you” (Matth. xi., 28). And by those that labor and are burdened he meant only those who are slaves of sin and error. [•••]This charity, “patient and kind” (1. Cor. xiii., 4.), will extend itself also to those who are hostile to us and persecute us. “We are reviled,” thus did St. Paul protest, “and we bless; we are persecuted and we suffer it; we are blasphemed and we entreat” (1. Cor., iv., 12, s.).

  8. Wow!!!! Mahal na ingkong really speaks the truth of LOVE!!!

    Thank you msgr pope for sharing your heart to us!

    God Bless You!!

  9. Thank you for this.

    I was at Planned Parenthood this morning to pray. A pro-abortion woman started shouting/screaming at us and I lose myself, I shouted back … “why are you so hateful” and “you are the daughter of the devil” … I went home feeling so very bad that I did this …

    1. Yes, it was unfortunate. I too have had a few moments like that in the heat of the moment about an issue that is so painful. I too felt awful. But in this case I think all we can do is offer our pain and embarrassment to the Lord in reparation for the sin of abortion in this land, as well as in sorrow for our own excesses. So I am sorry this happened to you. But I know it gets most of us from time to time. Be of good cheer, better to have an excess of zeal that the “safety” of indifference.

  10. Thank you for this article. Some questions that I’ve pondered for a long time were answered!

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