The thoughts I will be sharing with you this morning from Scripture fall under the category of the Second Great Commandment – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I have a riddle to propound to you. I wield no weapon, nor do I even raise a hand, and yet I can inflict wounds from which some will never recover. I have nothing to do with covert military operations, and yet possess such cunning and stealth that my victims are all but defenseless. It is nearly impossible to track me down – I am elusive. I have toppled governments. I have destroyed careers. I have ruined lifelong friendships and broken up marriages. I have wrecked entire churches. I have no name, and yet operate even at the highest echelons of society. With utmost efficiency, I inflict heartache, sleepless nights, suspicion, division and grief. Who am I? I am gossip.
Since I’ve been at Shema (and it’s going on 20 years) I don’t recall our ever having given a sermon specifically on the subject of gossip. In part, that’s because it isn’t our normal custom to preach topically. Ordinarily, we teach through a book of the Bible at a time. Another reason is that, by the grace of God, over the years we have had little cause to do so. By and large, Congregation Shema Yisrael is comprised of kind-hearted and spiritually mature men and women, the kind of people who have reverence for Adonai, who love one another, and who go deep in the word.
And while we are not, at present, embroiled in some crisis, gossip is so serious a sin, and so destructive of the unity Messiah Yeshua wants for us, that from time to time we ought to be warned of it. And so, this morning, with God’s help, we’ll see what the Scriptures have to say about gossip. We’ll consider its various forms, take heed against engaging in it, and learn principles and techniques for how to shut it down when we encounter it.
First, let’s define gossip. To gossip is to engage in idle conversation in which you reveal personal, intimate or scandalous news about someone, often unconfirmed as true, especially of a negative nature, to one or more other people; or, to instigate a rumor about someone to others.
I. What the Torah has to say about it
Do not spread false reports. Do not align yourself with a wicked man by being a malicious witness.
The presumption is that the gossip, or rumor-mongering, is based on falsehood; and that those who engage in it are aiding and abetting wickedness. Notice how gossip is equated here with someone who agrees to perjure themselves in a legal dispute. It’s because the spreading of rumors is generally borne out of malice. God commands that we not do such things.
Leviticus 19:16 (JPS)
You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
Note the tandem prohibitions; first, the one against gossiping, and then right on its heels the command not to stand idly by as someone is being murdered. Why would the one immediately follow the other? Because things go with things. When you speak derogatorily about someone (what in Hebrew is called lashon hara – “evil speech”), you diminish their dignity and humanity in the eyes of others. According to Jewish teaching, you may very well endanger that person’s life, since you cause others (and possibly THE wrong person) to view them disdainfully. All it takes is one sick, vindictive person to hear those things, and justify in their mind doing harm to them.
II. What the K’tuvim (writings) have to say about it
LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman.
If you want to enjoy close fellowship with God, and to dwell with Him in His Kingdom, you need to be a truth-speaker. You cannot spread evil reports about people and expect God’s approval. I’ve messed up in this regard, and I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this at times, but I’m not sure we realize just how serious an offense this is in the eyes of the Most High God, and how it puts us in danger of His judgment.
Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him I will destroy; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure.
Well, that’s not exactly ambiguous. Slander is designed to destroy a person’s reputation. Adonai says He will destroy the slanderer. Both of these Psalms were written by King David – a man who knew exactly what it feels like to be wrongfully denigrated. Psalm 101 also gives us a glimpse into the soul of the slanderer; the thing that motivates them. They are arrogant and filled with pride. By reducing the stature of others through gossip, they hope to elevate their own.
The Proverbs, as you know, are replete with warnings about taking heed to the words that we let come out of our mouths. It is no surprise, then, that there are many warnings against gossip and slander in the Proverbs. Let me share seven examples.
There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Gossip is divisive in nature. It creates distrust. It is meant to. “Did you hear what so-and-so did? Can you believe that?” The gossiper creating suspicion in the mind of the listener about the person they are gossiping about. It is one of the seven things that God detests.
He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander is a fool. When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.
If God will destroy those who spread slander, you would have to be a fool to engage in it. This is describing the two-faced person; the one who appears to be friendly, but is concealing their hatred of you. And here God is also giving us a bit of practical advice to keep us out of trouble. Namely, don’t talk so much. Talking too much gets both preachers and politicians in trouble. Sooner or later, you’re going to put your foot in your mouth. Therefore, he who restrains his lips is wise.
We have humorous expressions to convey this truth:
“Better to be silent and be thought a fool… than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
“God gave you two ears and one mouth… try to use them proportionally.”
Or how about this one from Lemony Snicket:
“If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk,
then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf.”
The next series of Proverbs highlight the fact that the person who gossips cannot be trusted. They destroy friendships, and set people against one another for their own twisted pleasure. Don’t reveal anything to a gossip that you don’t want people in the next county to know about. In fact, just avoid them altogether.
A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.
Proverbs 16:28 and 17:9
A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends… He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.
This doesn’t mean you don’t correct a person when they sin. It means you deal with it quietly and discreetly. You don’t shame them by spreading news about it.
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.
And we are warned about the consequences of our words. Yeshua said, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” That idea is found throughout Scripture. With the words of your mouth you have the potential to give people comfort and joy, and with the words of your mouth you have the potential to crush their spirit and emotionally destroy them. As enticing as some salacious bit of ‘insider information’ about someone may be, we must have nothing whatsoever to do with gossip.
Proverbs 18:7-8 and 21
A fool’s mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts… Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down. Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious person to kindle strife. The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body.
Proverbs 26 repeats the enticing nature of gossip, but admonishes us to shun it altogether. Don’t spread gossip. Don’t even listen to it when it’s coming from someone else. Otherwise, you add fuel to the fire, and will be guilty of contributing to strife between people. And we’ve already seen how God feels about that.
III. What the B’rit Chadashah has to say about it.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Gossip and slander appear right in the middle a list of horrific sins – sins which, in context, are described as characteristic of godless people. How could we allow ourselves to behave like the godless? These will incur God’s severest judgment!
2 Corinthians 12:20
For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.
Ephesians 4:29, 31
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear… Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
1 Timothy 3:11
In the same way, their (pastors/bishops) wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
1 Timothy 5:13
Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.
But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good…
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
What kind of person engages in gossip?
- Someone who is idle
- Someone who is unhappy
- Someone who is angry
- Someone who is insecure
- Someone who has forgotten the second Great Commandment
What kind of person entertains gossip?
- Someone who is equally idle
- Someone who is too afraid of disapproval to do the right thing
- Someone who has also forgotten the second Great Commandment
What is the effect of gossip?
- It causes distrust
- It causes division
- It causes heartache
- It feeds a deadly form of pride
- It advances Satan’s agenda
- It invites God’s judgment
How should you respond to gossip?
NIP IT IN THE BUD! Shut it down. Don’t entertain it, not at all. In that moment, when you realize what is about to happen, you need to interrupt the would-be gossiper, mid-sentence, and politely but firmly tell them that you will not give ear to gossip. And, yes, call it gossip. The first step toward remedying sin is to identify it. By shutting it down, you actually help prevent the other person from sinning. That is the loving thing to do, even if they don’t appreciate it at the time. And they probably won’t. If they say, “I thought you were my friend,” you should reply, “I am your friend; faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6). Friends try to keep friends from sin.”
When friends or coworkers begin to gossip about someone, use the opportunity to say something nice. Perhaps that will redirect the conversation and serve as a subtle reminder that the group can do better things with their time. As a bonus, if you are always the person who consistently says good things about others, people will trust you, and perhaps they’ll figure out not to gossip in your presence.
Gossip isn’t only wrong for Christians and Messianic Jews, it’s wrong no matter who’s doing it. But whereas I don’t have any expectations of unbelievers, nobody who names the name of Yeshua should have anything to do with gossip. The Scriptures, as we’ve already seen, both Old and New Covenants, are clear-cut as to how egregious is the sin of gossip; and pronounces the severest judgment on those who engage in it (both the talker and the willing listener).
And let me add something here: don’t think for one minute that gossip suddenly becomes non-gossip just because it occurs in the midst of prayer requests! In fact, that is grotesque, because you’re taking something holy, and treating it in an unholy way. Most prayer requests can, and many ought to be, left unspecified.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz has written about the Jewish teaching on Rechilut: the prohibition against gossiping. Here is what he writes,
There are quite a few mitzvot that involve gossip and slander. Collectively, such evil speech is known as lashon hara (which literally translates as “evil speech”). This particular form of smack talk, however, is called rechilut – “talebearing” or gossip.
The nature of rechilut is as follows: Jane hears Mary say that Sally is nasty. Jane runs to Sally and says, “You should hear what Mary is saying about you!” Now, not only is Mary badmouthing Sally, Sally is mad at Mary. Jane, the gossip, has increased animosity among members of the community rather than defusing the situation.
The word rechilut comes from rachil, a peddler. The gossip is like a salesman, going door to door hawking their merchandise. Unfortunately, in this case, the merchandise isn’t brushes or encyclopedias, it’s slander, anger and hatred.
Rechilut is a particularly dangerous thing. The Talmud says that it metaphorically “kills” three people – the speaker, the recipient and the subject. Therefore, it behooves us to stay far away from this matter, even as the seemingly-innocent listener!
The reason for this mitzvah is that God wants there to be peace among His children, not animosity. Plain old slander is bad enough, but spreading it around only makes things worse!
And I want you to hear me on something: it doesn’t require a special empowering of the Holy Spirit to refrain from gossiping. It isn’t an addiction. Now, if you are practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading and contemplating the Scriptures, and asking God regularly to give you fresh measures of the Spirit, you are wise, and are far less likely to walk in sin. And you should do these things if you want to be strong in the Lord. But the fact is, you are fully capable of NOT gossiping. Don’t think to say, “Oh, I couldn’t help myself!” Nonsense! You willingly chose to talk about someone behind their back. Or, you willingly chose to listen to the salacious news.
Psalm 141:3 (asking God to help us guard our words)
Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.
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.
For the sake of your walk with the Lord; for the sake of both your soul and the souls of others, which are damaged by the sin of gossip; for the sake of the unity in our congregation that Messiah Yeshua wants for us, and to which end He prayed, have nothing to do with gossip.