Lord, open our ears to your truth, open our eyes to your beauty, and open our lips to proclaim your praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I invite you to listen with me to the Word of the Lord. It is Exodus 20:16, which we said together just a few moments ago. But now hear it as God’s word for us this morning. Listen closely and well:
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Bible is an incredibly realistic book. Even as we are called to holiness, to live fully devoted to the LORD, the Bible has no delusions about what life as the people of God will look like. God knows us. He knows that there will be conflict in the church, just as there was in Israel. He knows that we will wrong each other. He even knows there will be court cases (even though Paul rightly says that having a court case is already a failure). God knows it will happen.
When God gives his commandments, when he instructs us how to live faithfully as his people, he does not only give commandments for what to do when life is good, for how to live the good life as his people, but also what to do when fighting and accusations come, when gossip and slander start to sneak in, when that person we just cannot stand is right there and we just want to stomp on their reputation.
There are no rose colored glasses in the Bible. For when the mess starts to break out, God gives us the ninth commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
The ninth commandment assumes a situation where things have started to go wrong. The context of the commandment is a courtroom. There has been an accusation and you are called to bear witness. What did you see? What did you hear? What really happened? If they are my friend and telling exactly what happened will get them in trouble, what do I do? If my neighbor is someone I don’t like, in fact, a despicable person, and lying will get them what I think they deserve, or maybe not even lying, but only selectively telling the truth, what do I do? What if everyone else is piling on the hate, but we do not know enough of the facts, what do I do? When I am upset with someone, do I complain about them to someone else instead of talking to them in person and working to reconcile the relationship? Do I tell the story in a way that flatters myself or panders to the person I want to like me or slanders the person I want to tear down? What do I do? What does love of neighbor look like here?
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
God’s word is incredibly realistic. When someone we dislike or disagree with is vulnerable, we are tempted to use the truth, ignore the truth, or twist the truth to destroy and injure our neighbor. We are tempted to paint them in the worst light possible, and the internet only makes the temptation worse by giving us a sense of anonymity and distance. We no longer face our accusers, so we feel more emboldened to break the ninth commandment by how we speak about other people. For when the mess starts to break out, God gives us the ninth commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
In our time together this morning, I want to explore why this commandment is here and then give you one word to help us keep it. In short, why is it here and how do we keep it?
Why the ninth commandment? Three things: the value of a person’s name, the power of a person’s word, and the value of the truth itself.
First, the value of a person’s name. A person’s name is connected with their identity, their authority, and their reputation. We talked about this a few weeks ago when we considered the third commandment: You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. God’s name is connected to his identity, authority, and reputation. We are not to treat his name as if it was nothing, but instead to honor and respect the Lord’s name. Because of your name, in the ancient world as today, people know who you belong to. They have a sense of whether they can trust you. Your name carries something with it. Now, we use credit scores, but a credit score is just a mathematical projection of how trustworthy your name is. Not that long ago, we would not use a number. Instead, we would say, “Oh, you are a Vos. I know your family, I trust that when you say you will pay for the job, you will pay me.” or “Oh, you are part of that family. The last four times I helped you out, you treated me like dirt. I don’t think I want to do that again.” Your name is connected with your reputation.
So much depends on having a good name. So one of the reasons that God places the ninth commandment here is that the problem with lying and deceit is not only that it does not communicate the truth, but also that it does violence to the good name of our neighbor. When we drag someone’s name through the mud, when we gossip, when we gloss over details that don’t fit with our version of events, we are not telling a lie in abstraction, we are damaging someone else’s name.
Just as God calls for us in the third commandment to protect and honor his name, which is always good, we are called to protect and honor the name of our neighbor. Lying damages someone’s name, while the truth speaks honestly. This does not mean covering over or covering up the truth to protect someone’s reputation. There is no place for covering up wickedness, especially in the church.
The first reason we are commanded, You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor is that false testimony dishonors the good name of our neighbor and so much of our life in the world depends on having a good name. Lying not only violates the truth, but damages our relationship with our neighbor and likely their relationships with others if the lie is believed.
Second, we are commanded not to give false testimony because of the value of a person’s word. Words are powerful. We often forget just how much of a gift from God it is that we can communicate using language. Words shape reality in many ways. God’s Word changes things. “Let there be light” and there was light. God spoke and the universe was made. Even our words have a certain power to them. There might be only three letters that separate “I love you” from “I hate you” but it is a world of difference. A difference than can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
Words are powerful and cannot be unspoken once they leave our lips. We can apologize, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, but we cannot take them back. James rightly says, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:3-12)
We are commanded not to give false testimony against our neighbor because of the power of the human tongue. We need to guard our speech, watch our words, because like a fire they can set a great forest on fire. I read a story a couple years ago about Justine Sacco, a PR executive who tweeted just before boarding an eight hour flight. She had a good job, a stable life, a good name. She was traveling to Africa. The tweet was racist and objectionable, no doubt. But during her long flight, the internet grabbed a hold of it and destroyed her. I say the internet, but it was people. People who saw her comment and instead of ignoring someone with less than a thousand followers on twitter, decided to retweet with venom, to call for her to be fired, arrested, or worse physical bodily harm. By the time she landed at her destination, thousands of people had chimed in, Buzzfeed had picked up the story, and the news media had gotten wind of it. She landed 8 hours later and the press were waiting as she walked off the plane. In the end, she lost her job, lost her reputation, no one would hire her because of the smear campaign that was run.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor, because the tongue is powerful. Whether it is the short words of Justine Sacco that, though deleted, cannot be unspoken, or the viral vicious outrage of people on smartphones and keyboards that ruined a woman’s career. Words are powerful. We are commanded to guard and speak the truth, because our words have impact.
The first reason we are told not to give false testimony is to protect the good name of our neighbor. The second reason is because of the power of words to both heal and destroy and so the necessity of guarding our tongues to speak the truth.
The last reason we are given the ninth commandment is the value of truth itself. The Ten Commandments were given to the community of God’s people for the sake of the whole community. The command against false testimony is given not just for the sake of our neighbor, but for the whole community. When we lie, when we twist the truth, when we gossip and slander, we treat the truth as optional or marginal. We say with our lips and our lives that truth is not important.
However, a society where truth does not matter, where truth is only a marginal issue, is a society ready to implode on itself. And a church where truth does not matter, where slander or gossip or lies run rampant is a church also ready to implode on itself. If truth matters somewhere, it must matter everywhere. If truth matters when it comes to who God is, where to find the hope of salvation, and the promise of eternal life or impending judgment, if the truth matters here then it should matter when we talk during coffee after church. It should matter how we talk about our spouse when they are not around. It should matter how we speak when we are asked about our neighbor.
This is the basis for the ninth commandment: the value of our neighbor’s name, the power of human words, and the value of truth itself. So what does it actually look like to keep the ninth commandment?
In describing the aim of the ninth commandment, the Heidelberg Catechism says, “I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it.”
Love the truth, speak it candidly and openly acknowledge it. That’s so much harder than it sounds, isn’t it? For we live in a world where we expect people to lie and we are expected to lie. For the world, truth is just another commodity to be used (or not) depending on what it will gain us. If telling the truth will help us, sure, go for it. But if it’s better to slide around it, mold it a little, or outright deny it, then you do what you have to do.
We expect people to lie to us. Trust in public figures, politicians, and even pastors is low, because we expect people to lie to us. And we are far too often proven right in that assumption. When presidential and corporate cover-ups cease to phase us and the nation can wonder ‘what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is’ we have a loose relationship to the truth. When some people believe the relationship is all that matters and will say whatever they think the person wants to hear, whether it is true or not, we have a loose relationship with the truth. When others believe that the relationship doesn’t matter at all, and use the truth as an excuse to avoid compassion, we have a loose relationship with the truth.
“I’m just being honest” is often a sequel into brutal honesty, which is usually more brutal than honest. “I’m just being honest, but I don’t like you.” “I’m just being honest, that sweater looks terrible.” “I’m just being honest…you fill in the blank.” Honesty and Compassion are frequently set against each other. For compassion’s sake, we twist the truth. For truth’s sake, we forsake compassion.
“I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it.” But this is incredibly difficult in a culture that sees lying as no big deal, as expected even. We even have names for it, ‘little white lie’ that make it sound better than it is.
But as God’s people, our concern should not be how acceptable or unacceptable our behavior is in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God. And all sin separates us from God. Every one of us who has lied, who has twisted the truth, who has spoken rashly against our neighbor is guilty of sin before the eyes of God.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
But through faith in Jesus Christ, who himself was convicted on the testimony of false witnesses, who himself was the way, the truth, and the life, through faith in Jesus Christ, the true witness, our sins are forgiven. All who cling to Christ in faith are declared righteous in the court of God. Jesus Christ, the true witness, has taken our place and the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that we are children of God. Even our lies, even our half-truths, are taken up in Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
How then do we live in obedience to the ninth commandment? Now, forgiven and washed clean, how do our tongues not spark a fire that consumes the whole forest, but plant and build up the life of our neighbor? What does Christian discipleship look like in light of the ninth commandment?
I think there’s a word for it. It’s an older word, but one that I think captures what the aim of the ninth commandment. The word is this: Candor. I think the Catechism gets it right when it says that “I should love the truth, speak it candidly,and openly acknowledge it.” We are to speak the truth candidly, with candor.
In our world today, we are tempted to separate honesty and compassion. Candor holds them together. Candor is gently, patiently speaking the truth for the good of your neighbor. Candor involves speaking truth face-to-face, not behind another’s back. Candor is avoiding flattery or silence out of a misguided desire to protect another with half-truths. Candor is loving someone enough to speak plainly and lovingly. Candor avoids using the truth as a bludgeon. Candor means being upfront about another’s gifts and sins. Candor encourages and corrects. Candor avoids naively believing everything we hear, but earnestly seeks the truth. Candor also avoids believing and speaking the worst about someone else before all the facts are in.
That’s candor. “I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it,” the catechism says.
The ninth commandment was given in the context of a courtroom. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. When called upon to speak the truth about what we have seen and heard concerning our neighbor, we are not to give a false testimony, but a true one. And true testimony requires being sure of truth. It means diligently searching it out, testing it, and holding fast once it has been found. This is true whether we are hearing gossip about our neighbor, trying to figure out what a politician believes, or holding fast to the truth of the gospel. When we speak without testing for the truth, we run the risk of false testimony.
Whenever we are called upon to speak the truth about what we have seen and heard, we are not to give a false testimony, but a true one. That requires speaking plainly, honestly, and lovingly — not a refusal to point out falsehood or vice, but to do so without ambition or malice. When we disagree or correct out of dislike for someone else, instead of love, we run the risk of false testimony.
In a word, we need candor.
Candor helps us keep the ninth commandment in our businesses, at our schools, and in our homes. We need candor in a culture that finds half-truths and misdirection as the norm. But the ninth commandment is also crucial for our life together as the church. It is part of being disciples of Jesus. The church, of all places, should be where the truth is told. The truth about us — our beauty and our brokenness, both made in God’s image and rebels against God. The truth about God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — his holiness, his goodness, his love and his grace poured out in Jesus Christ, the coming judgment, and the call to repentance and faith. The church, of all places, should be a place of candor — where tongues that speak the truth speak also in praise of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.