The Eighth Commandment
September 26, 2010
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor,
but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
As with every one of the Ten Commandments, the Eighth Commandment was given to the ancient people of Israel as civil law. It forbids such civil offenses as slander, liable, defamation of character, and so forth. To bear false witness is wrong because we should tell only the truth. It is wrong because it does harm to our neighbor.
St. Paul summed up for us the requirements of the Second Table of God’s law in these words recorded in Romans 13:8-10.
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet, and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
The Eighth Commandment does not simply forbid us to lie. It forbids us to hurt our neighbor by what we say. It teaches us that we may not speak about our neighbor in such a way as to damage his reputation. The law of love requires this of us. The commandments show us how to love one another. Since we are so centered in our own wants and needs and cares that we forget what is helpful to our neighbor, we don’t know how to love one another as we should. This is why God gave us these commandments. They tell us what love requires. Love protects our neighbor from harm. Love protects our neighbor’s family, so God gave us the Fourth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Love protects our neighbor’s physical wellbeing, so God gave us the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Love protects our neighbor’s marriage, so God gave us the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Love protects our neighbor’s property, so God gave us the Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” Love protects our neighbor’s reputation, so God gave us the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The commandments require us to love our neighbor, not as we choose to love him, but as God chooses for us to love him. We must regard our neighbor’s honor as just as valuable as our own. We must seek to protect it with the same fervor and commitment to the task that we would devote to our own good name. This is what the law of love requires of us.
To do what is good is to do what benefits the neighbor. Those who believe that they can justify themselves do good works for their own benefit. Those who believe that God justifies unworthy sinners entirely by his grace for Christ’s sake do their good works for the benefit of their neighbor. They do not do good works to help themselves. As we sing: “Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never.”
The Pharisee in the Temple believed that he was righteous on account of his own virtue. He did what he did for himself. He did not extort money, he did not cheat, and he did not commit adultery. But this was not because he loved his neighbor, rather this was because he loved himself and thought that by avoiding these sins he would gain some kind of benefit or merit. He was working for his own merit. That’s why he did good works. But he despised his neighbor. He did not love him. So he had not yet begun to obey any commandment of God. God’s commandments require us to love our neighbor. As St. Paul reminds us, “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The Eighth Commandment requires truthfulness, sincerity, steadfastness, discretion, gentleness, and the ability to keep quiet. The truth is what will help our neighbor. Sincerity in our speech, and not double talk, will benefit our neighbor. Steadfastness makes it possible for our neighbor to depend on us when we make a promise. Discretion, or humility in the way we talk about ourselves, will help our neighbor know what we really can and cannot do for him. Gentleness in how we say painfully true things about our neighbor will help him accept criticism as an act of kindness. The ability to be quiet and keep a secret is necessary if we are ever to come into possession of information that could hurt our neighbor if it became widely known. Every virtue is a virtue because it is for the love of our neighbor.
There is probably no place in the New Testament that so clearly teaches our duty under the Eighth Commandment than that portion of Matthew 18 that is often cited as the basis for church discipline. It was written primarily to teach us how to show mercy to our neighbor by protecting his good name. Here is what Jesus said.
Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18)
If your brother sins against you, you should go to him and confront him alone, just between the two of you. Why? Why not tell someone else about it? Why not take it to somebody who can help you get justice, someone who can right the wrong for you? Because you love your neighbor, that is why. Because you care about the reputation of the one who has done you wrong, and you would rather protect his reputation than to obtain justice for yourself. Our Lord spoke this famous portion of Matthew 18 after he told the story about the lost sheep and right before he told Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven times. The purpose of these words are not primarily to set down instructions on how to excommunicate somebody from the Christian congregation, but to show us Christians how we may protect our neighbor’s good name. His reputation is precious, even when he deserves to have it sullied. We have no business giving him what he deserves unless we want God to give us what we deserve.
We bad-mouth our neighbors because we don’t want mercy for them, at least not from us. We harbor evil thoughts about them and explain what they do in the most damaging way. We assume they meant us harm, and so we interpret their actions to make them look bad. Then we share our judgments with others to see if they won’t agree with us. And so we talk trash against those whom God tells us to bless.
Yes, we do. The Bible says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) But we hate our brother and refuse to rebuke him because we haven’t the courage to face him with his sin. So we hate him instead. And then we express that hatred by repeating to others the wrong he did. And so we bring our neighbor into disgrace in the eyes of others when we could have gone to him privately to seek peace and reconciliation. But that would have required us to give up our hatred of him and that we don’t want to do. We all had better listen to the warning of St. John, the Apostle, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)
We say we don’t hate. We say it, but if we let God define hatred for us, our words show us to be liars. God wants us to help our neighbor retain his good name, but we choose to repeat the very stories that would hurt our neighbor’s good name. That’s hate. Hate isn’t feeling. It is doing. Just as love isn’t just a feeling. It is action. And this is where we have failed to be and to act as God’s law demands. No other commandment is so openly and cheerfully defied among Christians than this one. It is as if we who hold God’s truth to be so precious may with impunity turn around and treat the truth about our neighbor with contempt.
“God be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s what the tax collector prayed, and that man went home justified. God himself declared that sinner to be righteous. His plea for mercy met the willing heart of a gracious God to absolve him entirely, to set him free, and to pronounce him righteous. He pleaded for forgiveness and received it. God gives us this forgiveness for the sake of Christ’s suffering. Jesus bore the wrath of God against all liars and cheats and slanderers. Jesus bore the anger of God against every offense committed by you and me and against you and me. He did this to take away our guilt and our shame. He does this by actually taking away our sins. He bears them, and so they are gone. They cannot hurt us. They cannot ever accuse us. They are forgiven, as surely as Jesus bore them, our sins are forgiven. We are saints.
And this is because of God’s mercy. It was a mercy none of us deserved. We deserved shame. We lay before the whole world helpless in the sin of our own doing. The doctrine of original sin is not that it’s all Adam’s fault and we get blamed for what he did. It is that we are all complicit in Adam’s disobedience. We were there with him approving of his sin and doing it with relish. We are guilty with Adam and Eve. Every time we show unconcern about our neighbor’s good name we say “amen” to Adam’s decision to eat the fruit that God said he should not eat. So we do not deserve God’s mercy.
But we most certainly have received God’s mercy. Not only did God place all our sin upon Jesus so that he bore it and removed it, God has also placed the forgiveness of sins in the gospel that we hear, the baptism with which we have been washed, and the Supper of Christ’s body and blood given to us to eat and to drink. God has made these precious means of grace to be for us his pure and boundless and unfailing mercy. We know we have done wrong, and here in the gospel and the sacraments of Christ God tells us that he has set that wrong aside and we need not worry about it, fret over it, or even think about it because he has taken that wrong away.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is precisely what the Eighth Commandment tells us to do for one another. It calls for mercy, mercy we have already received. It tells us that just as God no longer accuses us, so we must stop accusing one another. Just as God speaks words of kindness to us, so we should speak words of kindness to one another. Just as Jesus pleads for our good name before his Father in heaven by appealing to his intervention for us and his obedience offered in the place of our sin, so we lay our neighbor’s sins where Jesus invites us to lay our own: on Jesus who takes them away. He did. So they have no place in our hearts, or our words. The sins of our brothers and sisters are forgiven, even as our sins are gone, blotted out by the blood of the Lamb. And so we don’t talk about them any more. God won’t, so neither will we. Amen