“Truth, Justice, and the Christian Way”
Exodus 20:16 The Message): No lies about your neighbor.
Matthew 5:37: When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
Eugene Peterson: Words are sacred and inviolable…Words used about or to neighbors are as sacred as those used about or to God. Frivolous and empty talk that demeans or trivializes persons is as sacrilegious as outright lies. Language is the [covenant] community’s lifeblood; if the circulatory system is diseased the community gets sick, sick from lies and gossip alike.
William Barclay: What Jesus is saying is this – the truly good [person] will never need to take an oath; the truth of his [or her] sayings and the reality of his [or her] promises need no such guarantee. But the fact that oaths are still necessary is the proof that [people] are not good [people] and that this is not a good world.
Some of you my age and older may sense some familiarity in the sermon title. You might be thinking to yourself, “Where have I ever heard those words before?” Think back to the late 1950’s. Remember if you can some of the words used to open the television show Superman. Remember the phrase “truth, justice, and the American way.” That’s the phrase I borrowed, edited, and then used as today’s sermon title: “Truth, Justice, and the Christian Way.”
I was tempted to substitute the word “biblical” for “Christian.” Biblically speaking, truth and justice are closely related. There can be no justice in the world or in relationships when truth is lacking. The sin of bearing false witness, when stripped down to its bare bones meaning, is the sin of lying in court. The ancient Israelite judges were required to base their decisions solely on the testimony of witnesses. If one or more of those witnesses lied, the judge was then forced to make his decisions – decisions that could not be appealed – on the basis of false witness. Such justice was, in effect, injustice. No truth; no justice.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Ninth Commandment captured that basic meaning of the commandment, but with an added layer of meaning. We can lie about our neighbor without ever going to court. We can spread false rumors. We can repeat less than credible gossip. We can say nasty, hurtful things about our neighbor. More than that we can say nasty, hurtful things to our neighbor. The old adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting is false. Words used dishonestly and maliciously are destructive. Such words used in court lead to unjust verdicts. Such words used in the wider world destroy reputations, relationships, businesses, and careers. They’ve been known to tear churches apart.
None of the Ten Commandments can be totally isolated from the others. They’re interrelated. They overlap. The Second Commandment, the one that prohibits the wrongful use of the Lord’s name, is more closely related to the Ninth Commandment than we usually think. Within the covenant community – the Church – words used to purposefully hurt a brother or sister in Christ are words that have been wrongly used. Using words to hurt a fellow Christian is akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain.
That’s especially true when we use words to manipulate one another. It’s even worse, if in the process, we misuse the Lord’s name. If we casually throw out that all too often sacrilegious phrase, “I swear to God,” we’re not only speaking a possible lie to or about a person; we’re also standing on the verge of blasphemy. If we’re swearing to tell the truth, especially if we’re swearing to do so in the name of God, we’d better be speaking the truth. I’m not talking about statements made in good faith that are based on misinformation. I’m talking about swearing that something is true when we very well know that it’s not. In other words, we’d better not be lying.
When Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” he had in mind people taking oaths they never meant to keep. Faithful disciples of Jesus Christ are people who neither take God’s name in vain nor bear false witness to or about another person. If I am a Christian and I make a promise, the one to whom that promise is made shouldn’t need an oath, a vow, or a contract. If I am a Christian and I make a business transaction, the one with whom I make it should not have to read the fine print. There shouldn’t even be any fine print.
If I am a Christian, I do not use vague, easily misunderstood phrases when I tell a person what I will or will not do or when I tell that person what my expectations of him or her are. For example, I don’t hire you for one job knowing that I expect you to do another. I let my yes be my yes and my no be my no. And when I say something “is,” all parties involved should be very clear about what “is” is, even if I am the President of the United States.
For me the Ninth Commandment boils down to the following realities. Don’t swear to be telling the truth when you know fully well that you’re lying through your teeth. Don’t promise to pay me back when you know that you never intend to. Don’t promise me that you’ll be coming to church some Sunday when you know that you’ll probably never darken the door. We preacher types get a lot of such promises from folks we try to help. Haven’t had one of them kept yet.
Don’t stand in front of a church and promise God and the congregation that you’re going to raise your children in the faith, and then never so much as bring them to Sunday school. Don’t take vows of ordination to a church office and then blow off most of the meetings. Don’t make vows of church membership and then willfully neglect to give God a meaningful amount of your time, talents, or money. It’s not so much a matter of not making promises that you can’t keep – we are all providentially hindered from time to time. It’s about making promises you, by choice, won’t keep.
Back to those words in the sermon title again: tell the truth. Be honest. There is no righteousness if we are not in right relationships with one another. Those relationships cannot be right if they are in any way unjust. There can be no justice apart from the truth. No relationship can be right unless everyone involved in it is, to the best of their limited human knowledge, telling the truth. Lying is a no-no.
So too is gossip. Relationships, especially relationships within the Body of Christ, cannot be right when folks are going around lying about one another, sharing juicy innuendoes about each other, or keeping alive the truth of old sins that have long been repented of. There are times when some truths need to be kept within a limited circle of trusted brothers and sisters in the Lord. Not everybody has to know everything about everyone else. There are times within the Body of Christ when we need to practice some judicial m.y.o.b. – that’s shorthand for “mind your own business.”
Related to that is the twin prohibition against hypocrisy and hyper-criticism. Don’t be a hypocrite, living one life in the daylight while living a far different one after dark. Don’t be hyper-critical of other folks in the church, constantly finding fault with your fellow Christians. Nobody’s perfect, not even the critics. Furthermore, not all criticisms, even constructive ones, need to be broadcast abroad. There’s no person more detrimental to the life of the church than a hyper-critical tattle-tale, unless it is a hyper-critical tattle-telling hypocrite; that person who constantly points out the motes in the eyes of others while blithely ignoring the beam in his or her own.
We have to use our words wisely, with tact and sensitivity. We are instructed by Scripture to use our words to build up rather than tear down. Even when hard truths must be spoken they need to be spoken in a spirit of love not with an attitude of condemnation.
We have to speak our words honestly, saying what we mean and meaning what we say. Or as Jesus so much better put it, letting our yes be yes and our no be no. Not making promises we don’t intend to keep, nor using such vague wording when making them that no one can tell whether we’re keeping them or not. Admitting errors. Correcting words when we discover that we have misspoken them. Apologizing when we’ve said something false or hurtful. Stamping out rumors. Not engaging in gossip. Not using the truth to hurt another person.
Remembering what Eugene Peterson wrote about the sacredness and inviolability of words. “Language,” he wrote, “is the [church’s] lifeblood; if the circulatory system is diseased the [church] gets sick, sick from lies and gossip alike.” You shall not bear false witness – no lies about your neighbor. No manipulation of words in an attempt to manipulate another person. This is the Christian way, the way of truth and justice. Amen.