Lesson 8: The Eighth Commandment

Swearing in a courtroom witnessNeither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

Sisela Bok once wrote that truth is as essential as the air we breathe and the water we drink. She claimed if we cannot believe other people are telling the truth, our society collapses and we return to a world of anarchy.

Her thoughts reflect the assumptions made in this command, even though it speaks directly to telling the truth in court. At the time the commandment was written, a Hebrew could be convicted if two people claimed they saw him commit the crime. Recognizing one person might lie to protect himself or to hurt his enemy, the ancients called for two witnesses.

Even though our courts place more checks on witnesses by subjecting their testimony to a jury’s evaluation, they still consider false witnessing to be a crime. They make this clear by asking witnesses to promise they will tell the truth while placing their hand on a Bible.

Most of God’s people have realized the command extends beyond expectations in court. In the 16th century, Martin Luther illustrates this in his explanation: “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

His interpretation speaks to our present situation. A number of modern studies report trust in others has steadily fallen in the past decades, because people can no longer believe others are telling the truth. This is so prevalent that many respond to any promise cynically whether it comes from an individual or a group.

Our high school reading group recently illustrated this attitude when they discussed politics. One youth began by stating, “All politicians are crooks. None of them tells the truth.” The entire group immediately agreed. When I challenged their including all politicians in the charge, they acted as if I was naive. Although our discussion led to more realistic evaluations, it still revealed the need to test promises in times like this when people will say anything to get what they want.

One rather knee-jerk reaction to the difficulty of establishing what is true, is turning to science that is supposedly more accurate. We hear news reports about people who are released from prison after DNA tests show they were nowhere near the scene of the crime no matter what eye witnesses reported. However, we also hear of people being released after investigations show that officials manipulated DNA tests. Society still obviously depends on honesty.

In this context, Luther’s illustrations of ways the commandment guides us is challenging, especially his positive spin. Christians are not only to refrain from lying, they also are to defend their neighbors, think and speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything they say. That certainly does not work in court, politics, or the market place; but it serves as a good way to begin personal relationships.

That does not mean Christians are naive or gullible. Their trust does not extend to allowing others to lead them to make bad decisions. It does mean that Christians do not allow the deceit so prevalent in society make them cynical, fatalistic, or fearful. They are inspired to come out of themselves in order to love other people.

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