Just two weeks left in our summer worship series on the Ten Commandments. We have considered the commands of God, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, and how they still provide for us foundational tenants of the faith, which seek to provide clear direction regarding right relationship between each of us and God, and each of us with one another.
To faithfully comprehend how these ancient rules are still applicable, it takes some work to acknowledge that the community to whom these commands were first spoken was quite different than our community and world today. Understanding the text as it was first comprehended allows us to identify God’s intent in such commands, and thus makes it possible to glean more faithfully how these rules speak truth into faithfulness for us as disciples today.
Today’s Ninth Command is another good example of how mainstream Christianity has re-spoken a command without fully understanding the contextual intent of the command as first offered. The Ninth Commandment is (generally speaking) summarized by very faithful people – a list that includes myself – as being a prohibition against lying. When asked to repeat the Ninth Commandment, the modern day version most often spoken is, “You shall not lie.”
This interpretation is not wholly wrong, but it certainly isn’t historically correct. The text in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Another version, which is perhaps a better translation of the Hebrew text, a more accurate reading of the Hebrew words, is provided by the Young’s Literal Translation, which reads, “You shall not answer against your neighbor a false testimony.”
You can hear in this more literal translation the words of the court system. The verb “answer” indicates that you are speaking as if responding to a question or request. The noun “testimony” (or the more often used, “witness”) indicates that you are speaking in a judiciary process. It is widely thought that the original context of this Ninth Commandment is the public witness of one person against another, as in a public court.
Again focusing on the context of the time, we did not see large court houses like the Franklin Bacchus building here in town utilized in the early Israelite communities; especially as they traveled in the wilderness, but even after they settled in the Promised land, the early ancient near east community was a largely agrarian society. Such public legal processes took place at the most visible location in the community – at the city gates. This is the same location the Romans would later use for crucifixions, because, as the most visible location, it was the best place to give warning to all (locals and travelers) about who was in charge of the town. We see examples of such judicial process taking place throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps one of the most well known cases is Absalom, King David’s son. In 2 Samuel 15, we read that Absalom would stand at the entrance to the city and would make legal judgments on behalf of his father for all who brought a legal case to be heard by the king.
The court system – the judicial process – was an emphasis for the Ninth Commandment, because such a community-focused system was the last standing hope for community upkeep. If one can’t get justice in the court system, then truth and justice are not available anywhere.[i] In fact, the prohibition against telling false testimony was seen as such a significant detriment to community, that, like the prohibition against killing, adultery, and the stealing of people, were you to break the Ninth Commandment and speak falsely about another in a court process, you were likely to receive the death penalty yourself. Perjury (as we call it today) was considered a most serious crime.
In looking at the commandment as it was first offered to the Israelites, we can identify then two primary focuses, stemming from this origin regarding honest testimony in court. First and foremost was an emphasis on protecting the well-being of your neighbors. Especially in a court room, “the well-being of others is affected by what one says about them.”[ii]
Your mother may have taught you that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you. But let us not be so naïve as to think that words can’t get you jail time, community service, or worse when spoken in a court of law. The reality is that in a court of law, speaking information about another with no factual foundation can result in the loss of property, the loss of rights, the loss of freedom, and in some cases, the loss of life.
The second primary focus of the commandment was to protect the institutions that were set-up to protect the community. If such public institutions, such as the court system, can’t be trusted, then all public institutions begin to lose trust, and the result is chaos. Evidence given in court systems must be honest and reliable. Anything spoken about another in judicial processes must be uncontaminated by interest. “If power and interest can intrude upon truth – by way of influence, manipulation, or bribe – then truth has no chance. It is reduced to power, and the powerless are then easily and predictably exploited. … The commandment [thus] guarantees that reality is not an innocent product of power.”[iii]
If you haven’t already made the connection for yourself, let us then step through the time-machine to bring ourselves back to our modern day situation to identify how this Ninth Commandment still lays the foundation for God’s intent regarding right relationship with our Creator and right relationship with one another in community.
We should first make the easy connection to the public institutions that are set-up to ensure the protection of our communities. If any one of our public institutions is identified as a place where speaking the truth about other people is lacking in part or in whole, then all public institutions are seen as places where trust is lacking. This is perhaps one of the greatest issues of our current society. From the top governmental sectors, like the Senate and House, the presidency and its current front-running candidates, and the Supreme Court … to national and state level agencies, such as the IRS, FBI, and ICE, Governor’s offices and State Courts … to the local level public agencies, such as police departments, educational facilities, City Councils, and general and district courts … we see mistrust across the board. And we see mistrust, because absolute truth is largely missing.
In each of these levels of public agency, we find that people speak falsely on a regular basis. In each of these levels, we find that people provide half-truths all the time. In each of these community-designed agencies, organizations that were set-up to protect the people, we find testimony that speaks falsely of others on a regular and on-going basis. Anytime you have half-truths, or truths corrupted with a spin, anytime a full truth is altered in anyway so as to deceive another, what you have is false witnessing. What you have is in direct contradiction to the Ninth Commandment. “Much rumor, much undoing begins with partial truths.”[iv] And in each and every level of our political and social realm, we find the truth altered – we find partial truths rampant. Snopes and others fact-checking agencies seek to point out these false truths; they seek to draw our attention to these lies, as such statements would be most accurately defined. But truth is so hard to find in our society, that we don’t even believe the fact-checkers.
“Truth-telling is seen to be a social virtue in every sense of the term, one without which the community cannot function. Communal trust begins with truth, and the common good is not possible without a foundation of trust that is built on truth.”[v] Because there are so many lies (so many false statements and half-truths) covered up and hidden in political agendas – as a nation we no longer place our trust in the hands of the public servants who are supposed to be protecting us as a community. The foundation of community has been shattered.
Let’s look at a couple of examples we see every day in the news:
Our police officers are now being expected to wear body cameras because all to often, the testimony of our police and the perpetrators are altered to protect one’s self instead of being honest and truthful. The lack of truthfulness has set up an environment where police and entire communities lack trust in one another.
Many politicians alter the truth on a daily basis, often altering truths based on who is providing them support. “Political power is now firmly in the hands of the money power in a symbolic relationship that feeds inequity and justice. Wealth is derived from power, and power in America is exercised almost exclusively by the wealthy.”[vi] How should the majority of Americans, who are not part of the wealthy or powerful, ever find trust again in the political agencies that are supposed to be protecting and providing a safe and well-run community? The only possible way to bridge such a divide would be for an individual to refuse support from wealthy and powerful individuals and agencies. And while we have seen some individuals try this tactic, it doesn’t seem to prohibit them from altering the truth to meet their personal or platform goals.
When our political and community based agencies become places that harbor people of distrust due to their lack of honesty and truthful speech, we are left deficient the foundation of trust that is necessary for honest, well-structured, and faithful community.
The only way to turn around such hypocrisy and unfaithfulness in the very places the Ninth Commandment necessitates is for each of us to lift up and maintain truthfulness in our own lives. And in reality, most of our lives and our interactions with community takes place outside of the courtroom. We must not only set examples of such honest and faithful speech, but we must demand it of those who seek to represent us. As with other commands, reclaiming such honesty is going to be an uphill swim.
Speaking of swimming, it provides us with a great example of how far we have to go to get back to honesty in our nation and our world. Just this past week, we heard about the four Olympic swimmers who got into some trouble in Rio. When first asked about the incident, they said they were the ones victimized by some gas station owners in Brazil, who coerced with the Brazilian police and held and robbed them at gunpoint. Their public testimony, offered on an international scale, seems to have been nothing more than a false witness. In reality, as seen in the surveillance cameras, it was the US swimmers who caused the problem – vandalizing and destroying the bathrooms at the gas station. In trying to protect themselves, the swimmers nearly caused great pain for the owners of the gas station, who, had then been deemed guilty of robbery and coercion with the police, could have faced great repercussions. Not only could they have faced criminal charges, but the whole of Brazil would have had a shadow cast over them that could have caused many years of decreased tourism and a lack of trust in the character of Brazilians.
So we go back to the purpose and intent of the command as offered by God to the Israelites to claim faithful adherence today. Our truth-telling is not just about our necessity to be honest or our public institutions to demand honesty – it’s about our right and faithful participation in community: a community that is taught to care for one another, to lift up one another in love, to ensure that each person is provided for their well-being. “Viable community, according to the Mosaic Law (as listed in the Ten Commandments), depends on accurate, reliable [truthful speaking].”[vii]
As we conclude, we turn to Paul’s writing in Ephesians 4 to offer us some guidance. As it is written in the Message Bible, it reads this way, “God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love – like Christ in everything. … You have learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything – and I do mean everything – connected with that old way of life has got to go. … Take on an entirely new way of life – a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you. … No more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other.”
God’s character is reproduced in you as God seeks to perfect you in love. No matter how hard it may to speak the truth regarding another, we have the benefit of not going it alone. God has graced us with the presence of Christ and the everlasting power of the Spirit. So may we be ever faithful to the Ninth Commandment, that in the name of the Father, we may speak the truth; in the name of the Son, we may know the truth; and in the name of the Holy Spirit, may we ever claim the truth will set us free from the sin and death of this world.
Glory be to God, Amen.