Growing up in a straight-laced family had its benefits: conscientious parents, good enduring friends, hospitality, stability, and protective morality. Hard work and integrity were DNA-like in their influence. The thought of disappointing others was as compelling as the fear of going to Hell.
But the same things that functioned as a moral compass could also morph into something ugly. Call it legalism or self-righteousness, it is the tendency to become superficial in regard to the big, nuclear virtues like love, compassion, and faithfulness. Jesus called it “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.”
Rituals are the means by which groups enforce these moral codes of our society. Going to church 3 times a week, paying one’s bills, voting, and avoidance of the f-word are sure-fire indicators of moral uprightness.
However, the same things that give a sense of moral security can also become legal devices by which the larger issue of integrity can be avoided. Going-to-church regularly, though beneficial, can also create self-satisfaction making it easier to ignore things like racism or being a poor parent or mistreating a fellow employee.
Back to the f-word. This is not to say that using that word is okay; it’s gross and vulgar. On the other hand, a person who is rough around the cultural edges may also be the most tenderhearted, kind, and loving person there is. The f-bomb, while socially distasteful is far less so than using the n-word or allowing anger to go uncontrolled in one’s life or gossiping about another person.
A first-century version of the f-word was to neglect the ceremony of washing one’s hands. That could bring the ire of the keepers of tradition, and the assumption was that if you didn’t wash your hands you were an evil person. But Jesus said that the uncleanness which the religious authorities feared was not caused by what you ate or whether your hands were clean.
Rather, uncleanness is bred within the heart. It comes from what someone believes. From what someone prefers in life. From attitudes too invisible to see. This sort of uncleanness cannot be washed away by water or purged by not using some words. Or even by going to church 3 times a week. It is heart work. Work done by prayer, meditation, and discipline.
It is frankly easier to not say the f-word. But being the sort of person that has integrity through and through is quite another proposition. Being that sort of person requires intentionality, discipline, and focus. Which is why Jesus said that his disciples were not made unclean by failing the hand-washing ritual.
Our hierarchy of sins sometimes, mistakenly, rank the f-word higher in awfulness than mistreating another human being. Nevertheless, a few bacteria or a disapproving raised-eyebrow are more to be preferred than sitting in judgment on others or being a lousy human being.