Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Ninth Commandment

Jeff Garrison
First Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2007
The Ninth Commandment
Exodus 20:16

A pastor walking through his neighborhood came up on a group of boys trying to out-lie each other. The kindly parson, overhearing a few whoppers, asked the boys what they were doing. They explained they’d found a puppy and decided the one who told the biggest lie would get to take it home. As you can imagine, this disturbed this man of the cloth. He looked each boy straight in the eye and told them all they should be ashamed of themselves, that when he was there age, he never told lies. The boys all bowed their heads and shrugged their shoulders in shame and their leader, picking up the puppy, handed it to the minister and said, “You win, you get to keep the dog.”

I ain’t going to stand up here today and say that I’ve never told a lie. If I did, as John’s first epistle reminds us, I would be deceiving myself and the truth wouldn’t be in me.[1] All of us have lied—whether telling our mother we didn’t have any homework when we wanted to play baseball, or mixing hot sauce into ketchup and offering it to a young nephew for his fries, or saying we’re going to the office when we have either fishing rods or golf clubs hidden in the trunk. Although our lies vary in degree of intensity, they are all dangerous for they put us in the league with the great liar, Satan whose name means “one who slanders.” He’s the one who lies and deceives.[2]

We’re to tell the truth, that’s the meaning of the 9th Commandment, right? But what about “little white lies.” I’m sure not only have we all told lies; there’s probably been times we all wished we’d told a lie instead of telling the truth. I remember an occasion back many years ago when I was single. I was going to a formal dinner and picked up my date who wore a dress I didn’t particularly like. It looked like it was cut from the same material used for the curtains and bedspread in my parent’s room when I was a child. I bit my tongue, but when she asked how I liked it, I responded in my best imitation of Rhett Butler, “Where’d you get the curtains?” First of all, she didn’t get the joke. She was from New Jersey and had never seen “Gone With the Wind.” But beyond that, my calloused comments hurt and it turned out to be a long evening. Should I have been less than honest? Certainly I should have been less flippant.

What’s the relationship to those little white lies we tell to the bigger lies? That’s what I want us to consider this morning. What does the ninth commandment mean today? “Is lying ever appropriate?” If so, when?

“Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbor,” the commandment reads in the familiar King James Version. What does it means to give false witness and what’s the intention of the commandment, especially in light of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

First of all, in Old Testament times, jurisprudence depended upon those in court telling the truth. The same is true today, but we’re a bit more sophisticated than they were back there in the Sinai trying to organize a nation. In our situation, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor’s side. In the ancient world, including Israel, this wasn’t necessarily so. Instead, someone could bring an accusation against you and it was up to you to prove yourself innocent. Think about this, it’s hard to prove yourself innocent if you accuser is a good liar.

The classic tale of miscarriage of justice in scripture is the story of King Ahab and Naboth.[3] If you remember, Naboth had a vineyard that Ahab wanted to buy. But Naboth didn’t want to sell, so Ahab’s wife Jezebel sent a letter, under her husband’s seal, to the elders of the city instructing them to set Naboth up by having two scoundrels charge him with blasphemy, a crime punishable by stoning. Once Naboth was dead, Ahab was free to take his land.

Perjury, in the ancient world, where two witnesses could result in the execution of an individual, was a serious crime. Those who committed perjury, if it was discovered, were in danger of receiving the same sentence as the victim they lied about it. In other words, if in Ahab’s day justice had prevailed in Israel, which it didn’t, all who conspired against Naboth would have also been stoned. In the courtroom setting, truth is a necessity. But the same goes from anyone with authority. If you are in a position to have privileged information, and misrepresent that information, as we often hear about in various business scandals, we’re guilty. This is a serious crime for those who make decisions on what you’ve said have no way to determine if what’s said is truthful. And when it comes out that it is not truthful, there arises a crisis as we wonder whom, if anyone, we can trust. Obeying the ninth commandment not only protects your neighbor, it protects the foundation of society.

I’ve tried to impress upon you that commandments six through nine provide the basic ground rules for a society. To review these commandments quickly: we’re not to kill or harm our neighbors: we’re not to lure our neighbor’s spouses away; we’re not to take their property; and we’re not to make up lies about them so as to destroy their credibility in the community. To have a just society, these commandments are critical.

Telling lies is not just harmful within a legalistic setting, as I’ve first reviewed. It is also destructive within families and between friends. We’re told in the book of Proverbs that a good name is to be chosen before riches.[4] But think for a minute how easy it is to destroy someone’s name. By taking half truths, or slightly distorted truths, we can make an opponent out to look like a demon. Let’s face it; this happens all the time in politics—it’s now even has a term “Swift Boating,” but we must remember that this tactic isn’t limited to just one political party nor is it limited to the political realm. We can witness this behavior even with children on the playground. For some reason, we Homo Sapiens have to have someone we can vilify. It may be a classmate, a neighbor, someone in church, or a politician, but it seems we need someone we can talk and gossip about as well as ridicule. And the danger grows because the more we participate in such activities, the less our conscious pricks us with the words from this commandment. Pretty soon, we come to believe that we’re being truthful, which is the greatest lie of all.

We’re all heard, and most of us have probably used the cliché, “the truth hurts.” The cliché is generally used as a hammer. We tell someone the truth, much to his or her pain, and then we drive the nail in with the phrase, “the truth hurts.” It’s a way of self-justifying our actions of hurting another person with our words. Gossipers use the phrase all the time, as if to claim they’re not violating the ninth commandment. But before we let such a person walk away with a clear conscious, I think we need to look at the intention of this commandment. Is it just to ensure that we always tell the truth, or does it have something to do with the way we treat our neighbors? If it was just about telling the truth, why didn’t God say, “Thou shalt not lie?” Why was the commandment couched in terms of bearing false witness against our neighbors?
I suggest to you that the intention of the commandment has to do with the way we treat our neighbors. And don’t forget, as Jesus showed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbors are not limited to those who live next door or who think and act like we do.[5] We’re to treat others the way we want to be treated.[6]

This commandment also has to do with the way we rebuke another person. John Calvin spent considerable time in his sermon on this verse condemning those who pretend to be “zealous” when they only want to trap their enemies.[7] We all know such people. When they learn about a neighbor’s sin, they act like they’re helping their neighbor reform, when they’re really out to blood. They try to look good and godly while making a neighbor look bad. Before we sign up for a crusade, we should ask ourselves, “What’s in it for us?” Are we just out to get back at someone, to make ‘em look bad. In such cases, we’re using the truth as a hammer. Sure, we might keep the letter of the law, but we’re breaking its spirit.

Jesus, in this Sermon on the Mount, reinterprets the sixth and seventh commandments to include not only the acts of murder and adultery, but also the intentions within our hearts.[8] I think we can make the same assumption for the ninth commandment. Are comments about our neighbor done for their benefit, or to make us look good? Even if truthful, if our intention is to promote ourselves at the expense of our neighbor, in other words, if we’re trying to destroy our neighbor’s reputation, we’re guilty of breaking the commandment.

Now let’s explore a minute about what we call little white lies. First of all, let me say that I think we should strive to be truthful and loving in all we do. Truth and love go hand in hand. Sometimes, out of love, we need to tell people a hurtful truth. That can be helpful in the long run to their well being. But if we’re telling someone a hurtful truth for the wrong reasons, without love, we’re just being a jerk. Maybe a better term is evil.

Let’s say you were living in Nazi Germany and hiding Jews fleeing the holocaust. Would you break the intention of the commandment by lying to an SS Officer and saying that you’ve not seen any Jews, even though they are hiding in your closet? In such cases, the greater interest is justice for the innocent. On the other hand, how about telling a lie to protect a friend or coworker from something they’ve done that’s wrong. In the fist example, you’re protected from your little white lie, but not the second. Let’s say you know a colleague who is deceiving the government, shareholders or customers. Whistleblowers are often condemned for a lack of loyalty, but I suggest such loyalty is misguided when it comes to protecting the guilty. In such a case, using a white lie to protect the one in the wrong would put you in clear violation of the ninth commandment.

Do you see what I mean about the commandment’s intention is to keep a neighbor from being unfairly accused? At the same time, this also means exposing guilt, especially if exposing the guilty party will protect unsuspecting victims.

There is a credibility problem in our society. What are we going to do about it? Scripture’s answer is that we not be a false witness. Do we place enough value on the truth that we are willing to stop harmful rumors? Or do we relish in knowing a bit of dirt? Are we beyond lifting ourselves up at the expense of an opponent whom we demonized? Are we willing to set the example and not only tell the truth, but to use the truth for the benefit of others and not as a weapon to destroy someone? As members of Jesus’ Church, we have our marching orders. Are we going to obey them, or will we be sucked into the pettiness of looking out only for ourselves and then, on the Day of Judgment, stand guilty before the throne? Amen.

©2007 Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church of Hastings

[1] 1 John 1:8.
[2] John 8:44; Revelation 12:9. cf, The Anchor Bible Dictionary.
[3] 1 Kings 21.
[4] Proverbs 22:1.
[5] Luke 10:25-37.
[6] This command is in the Old Testament, the teachings of Jesus and of Paul. See Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14.
[7] John Calvin, Sermons on the Ten Commandments, Benjamin Farley, translator (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 210.
[8] Matthew 5:21-30.