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“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” In his “Treatise On Good Works,” Luther says, “This commandment seems insignificant, and yet it is so great that he who would rightly keep it must risk life and limb, property and reputation, friends and all that he has. And yet it includes no more than the work of that tiny member of the body, the tongue, and is called, ‘telling the truth,’ which includes refuting lies when necessary, and thus many evil works of the tongue are forbidden by this commandment.” (AE 44:110)
The 8th Commandment is there to keep the tongue under control. Even though it’s a small member of the body, controlling the tongue is no small feat. James writes, “The tongue is a small member [of the body], yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire entire course of life and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison.” In conclusion, James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue… this person’s faith is useless.” (James 3:5-8; 1:26).
Don’t tell James that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,’ or that ‘talk is cheap.’ Don’t tell yourself that either. Just think about the damage and pain we have inflicted on others with our tongue. And if you can’t bring yourself to think of others, think of the way that you have been hurt by what others have said either about you or to you?
The 8th Commandment is there to protect and defend us from the human tongue, other’s and our own.
In it’s original setting in Exodus 20:16, this Commandment pertained to the courtroom. Those who were called upon to ‘testify’ were not to give false testimony. This may be hard for us to believe, but the Israelites were susceptible to bribery, and certain prejudices, and selfish motives that caused them to bear false witness against their neighbor in a court of law. Can you imagine?
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
It shouldn’t be too hard for us to understand how this Commandment naturally extends from the courtroom into our daily life in the world. How often every day do we find ourselves called upon to ‘testify’ about someone else? A name is mentioned, things are said, and someone turns to you and says, ‘what do you think?’ Sometimes we are the one who initiates the trial. How often do these little courtroom scenes take place when the accused is not even present to defend himself?
And none of this happens in a court of law. It happens in the classroom, the lunchroom, the living room, on the playground, the parking lot, the internet. It has even been known to happen in the Fellowship Hall, the Narthex and the church pew.
This ‘testimony’ of course is better known as ‘gossip.’ Last week, we were surprised to learn that God has got His holy fingers even our money and possessions, ‘you shall not steal.’ Now this morning we are shocked and disappointed to learn that God has got His holy ears turned into our ‘gossip.’ Is there nothing we can hide from God?
Here is another commandment that puts its finger squarely on the depravity of our fallen, sinful nature. Why do we speak about others the way that we do? In his Large Catechism, Luther writes, “Human nature is infected with this common disease, that one would rather hear evil about one’s neighbor than good. And although we ourselves are evil, we cannot stand to have anyone speak evil of us. Every one of us would like the whole world to say nothing about him but words of golden goodwill; yet we cannot bear it when we hear the good things spoken of others.”
“We would rather hear evil than good about someone.” “We cannot bear it when we hear the best spoken of others.” Luther has nailed us all.
So, just what kind of damage do we inflict on others with our tongue? What kind of ‘damage’ is done to us with words and talk?
I think that it is fair to say that the 8th Commandment compliments the 5th Commandment, ‘You shall not murder.” “Murder” is done with the hands and it kills the body. Giving false testimony is murder, that kills someone’s reputation and good name. And it’s murder because its done intentionally. There’s nothing accidental about it.
They just had to leave the room for a few minutes. And in that minute we say something like, “I don’t mean any harm by this but…” Or “don’t take this the wrong way, but did you know …” Or one of my favorites, “bless his heart, but…” And by the time they come back into the room, something has definitely changed. What had been warm and open is suddenly cool. The eye contact that had been there is hard to come by. What was alive is now dead.
We need look no further than to the false witnesses that testified falsely against Jesus at His trial before the Sanhedrin to see just how deadly such words and talk can really be.
The 8th Commandment also compliments the 7th Commandment – “You shall not steal.” Isn’t that also what gossip really intends to do? With our words we can rob someone of their reputation and good name. Think about how important your reputation is. If you’re not sure, just ask a child or teenager how important a reputation at school is. Even a FALSE ACCUSATION leveled against a school teacher or Scoutmaster or a pastor is enough to steal the reputation and name and trust that they worked so hard to establish.
Do you realize that this Commandment even applies to the way we talk about ourselves? We can give false testimony about ourselves just as easily as we can about others. We say things that are not true about ourselves and in doing so we kill our own reputation and name with others.
Just like all of the other Commandments, this one also has it’s ‘two-sides.’ There are those things that should NOT be said of another person. There are times when we must not speak. And there are those things that SHOULD be said of another person and times when we must speak. You don’t have to be a Penn State football fan to understand this.
In fact, just as God has laid out the law AGAINST speaking falsely about someone, He has also laid out the law FOR speaking truthfully about someone.
Jesus spells it out like this in Matthew, 18. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” The key here is that this is between the two of you, alone. Why? In love for our neighbor, we are to be concerned for both his inward fault as well as his outward honor and reputation. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Jesus says, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Finally, “if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
In the church just as in society, there are proper authorities who are appointed to speak when they should speak out for the protection and welfare of others. This is certainly a big part of what the 8th Commandment addresses.
This is what Luther has in mind when he said “that he who would rightly keep it must risk life and limb, property and reputation, friends and all that he has.” Sometimes it is dangerous and maybe even deadly to careers and friendships for authorities to speak out for the protection and welfare of others.
Luther experienced first hand when he spoke out against the corruption of the church in his day. He was the ‘authority’ who was in the position to ‘speak out’ for the warning and protection of others against false teaching and doctrine. And speak out he did. And it cost him his reputation, friends, and nearly his life.
We too must speak for those who are being gossiped and slandered. To remain silent while their reputation or good name is being stolen would be just as wrong as when the authorities do not speak out when they should. And it can be just as threatening for us to “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way possible” as it was for Luther. Again, just as a child or teenager how much courage it takes to defend the classmate whom everyone else is attacking with their gossip. They understand the ‘risk’ that Luther was talking about.
Let’s rehearse our assignment for this week. What is the 8th Commandment? “I am the Lord your God. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way possible.”
“Defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way possible.”
In the book of Revelation, John identifies the devil as one “who accuses [the saints] day and night before our God.” (Rev.12:10) The devil is the father of gossip. Jesus calls him the “father of lies.” God does not listen to the gossip and accusations that the devil makes about you. John writes, “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.” What are we doing when we gossip and ‘give false testimony’ about others but imitating the devil?
You must know however that there is One who stands before the throne of God and who “defends us, speaks well of us and explains everything in the kindest way possible.” And that One is Jesus Christ. In his 1st Epistle, John writes, “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 Jn.2:1). An ‘advocate’ is someone who speaks FOR someone else. And that someone else is you.
Paul writes to the Romans saying, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding FOR US?” (Rom.8:34).
Jesus uses HIS tongue to speak to the Father FOR US. “Father, they are not of the world just as I am not of the world… Father, I desire that they also… may be with me where I am…” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (John 17).
And the Father listens to the Son because the Word IS in perfect harmony with the will of the Father. “I and the Father are one.” And we are forgiven all of our sins, even those against the 8th Commandment. And whatever has been stolen is returned, and what was destroyed is restored and what was killed is raised from the dead.
Knowing this, believing this, the Holy Spirit works in us to repent. Repent of our gossip. Repent of our lies. Repent of our silence. In true repentance, we speak to those whom we have gossiped about and ask for their forgiveness. In true repentance we defend and speak well of our neighbor, even our enemy, and explain everything in the kindest way possible.
“I am the Lord your God. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”