One Discloses that White Lies' Aren't the Problem
You know the courthouse is still behind this commandment. "Do you promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" they still ask. Major League Baseball careers have been ruined for lying to a congressional court. Yet we don't think lying is that big of a deal, or worse still; we think it is and we've got it under control.
That's where you're at if you think white lies are the real problem. You tell the truth no matter what the situation, no matter what the cost. Haven't you seen sitcoms where the laugh-track is all about someone who can't tell a lie? That right there should tell you you're off-track in thinking that telling no lies is a major virtue.
First you have to deal with the fact that Scripture recounts the lies of many people. The Hebrew midwives didn't expose the male babies and lied to Pharaoh about it. Rahab lied about the whereabouts of Joshua's spies. David lied to the priest telling him Saul had sent him on a mission when in fact he was running for fear of his life from him. He lied again to the priest telling him the reason he didn't have his weapons with him was because the king's business required haste. He lied before the king of Gath pretending to be crazy so he would be let go. He lied a second time telling him he was making raids against Gath's enemies when he was really making raids against Judah's. Finally the woman lied who hid David's two spies.
Reformed and Reformed minded people try to parse these passages as carefully as a teenager who doesn't want to be caught in a lie. The Lutheran says they weren't lies to begin with. Listen to Martin Chemnitz: "To conceal something for an honest and just cause in matters which need not be said for reasons of right or usefulness, is not a lie. Again, when a willful revelation of something would be a sin, it is not a lie to say or show something else which is indirect, but is lawful to use figurative language which dos not reveal the points under discussion" (Locci, II, 425). He then points to one of the examples I used earlier.
The 8th Commandment is not about telling your daughter she looks great in braces or your husband he doesn't have a beer belly. "The commandment has in view the giving of evidence in court," says Teaching Luther's Catechism written in 1959 (107). It's not so much about telling lies to your neighbor but telling lies about your neighbor. By discipline, by truth serum, by dogged determination you can make vast strides in not telling any lies whatsoever to your neighbor, but you can do nothing toward not belying, betraying, besmearing, or badmouthing him.
The fact is we are siblings of a quidnunc. Quidnunc is Latin for "What now?" It's a prying busybody, a gossip. But unlike the "seed pickers" of Acts 17:18 which were people who looked to pick up any scrap of knowledge a quidnunc only wants to pick up and pass on garbage, junk, the unseemly news about others. He or she doesn't rush to tell Jack and Jill had a healthy baby but Jane is pregnant out of wedlock. We savor sin unlike our Savior who savored sinners.
Proverbs 26: 22 says, "The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body." Proverbs 20:27 says our "innermost parts" is where the Lord searches with His lamp. Picture being in a cellar with a flashlight. As your flashlight pans it exposes the spiders, roaches, and centipedes that tasted so good but are really so disgusting. Forgetting what God has made us in Baptism, we become quidnuncs, busybodies, gossips, collecting any garbage we can about others.
Our word gossip comes from the late Old English godsibb that is God-sibling. In Middle English it became godsip. It gets to our gossip in this way. Originally sponsors at Baptisms were forbidden to marry since they were already joined in the sacred obligation of raising a child in the faith. To fulfill that solemn vow they would often be seen with their heads close together talking. The shift from God-sibling to gossip came in the 16th century when England broke from Rome (A Browser's Dictionary, 159). The Church of England denied Baptism gave regeneration, so the sacred concept of God-siblings was reduced to gossiping once the sacredness of Baptism was gone.
We are showing our Baptism didn't do anything to us, didn't change us, didn't rebirth us when we delight in the hearing and telling of things that put someone else in a bad light. It's not only wrecks in traffic that hold us fixated; it's wrecks in people's lives. We not only get to feel good because that isn't me, but we get to feel superior because we're above that. We've all said it; I know I have. "I don't like to gossip," and the "but" that follows proves we most certainly do. And if belying, betraying, besmearing, and badmouthing are in our mouths how putrid the cellars of our hearts must be because Jesus says, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks?"
Ready to turn the corner? Ready to get out of this dank, damp cellar filled with the sewage of our unregenerate heart? Ready to move from the 10 Commandments convicting us to describing us? They can be read that way. Not as imperatives but as descriptions of those whom God controls. God is saying of us, "You will not give false testimony against your neighbor." Hear not the commanding voice of God but the describing voice (Fire and the Staff, 204). But how can that be me? How can that be you?
One liar, one gossip, one busybody can destroy a family, a business, a church. Actually just one lie can. The book A 1001 Arabian Nights tells of a slave who only told one lie each year. His master found this intolerable. He put him up for sale at a great discount. The buyers wanted to know why such a great discount. He told him because he told one lie a year. That didn't seem like such a big deal to one man so he bought the slave. Things went fine until one day that slave was sent to his master's wife and lied to her that he had been killed. She went berserk with grief and completely destroyed their home. But there was no way to punish the slave since he was purchased under the condition that he could tell one lie a year (263-266).
Shouldn't such a liar be driven from the group, punished, whipped, beaten, even killed? And so Jesus was. Remember earlier in the Passion Readings when the high priest had Jesus slapped, Jesus asked, "If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike Me?" You know why Jesus was struck? Not because He spoke the truth but because you lie about your neighbor. You've got to understand that Jesus is being given up by God the Father to be the sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the whole world. You've got to understand what Isaiah 53 says, "It pleased the Lord to bruise Him;"
The church leaders wanted Jesus taken out of the way and crucified not to pay for their sins or anyone else's but because they were jealous of His popularity with the people and because He convicted them of their unbelief toward God and lack of love toward man. Pilate's role was to establish that Jesus really was innocent. He wasn't put to death for any sins or crimes of His own. God the Father is the One who sent the Son into this and He did so for us and for our salvation.
Jesus never belied, betrayed, besmirched, or badmouthed anyone, and wonder of wonders He didn't allow anyone to do that to you or anyone else. In fact, Jesus defended us, spoke well of us, and explained everything in the kindest way. Mull that around. When Satan accused Job, the Lord didn't accept his accusations. When Satan accused the high priest, the angel rebuked him and covered his real sins with Christ's righteousness.
In our Passion Reading Jesus makes no effort to defend Himself; that's because He's winning the right to defend you before heaven's throne. In our Passion reading Jesus is spoken of as someone worthy of beating, whipping, crucifying, and dying. Yet He wants not one tear shed for Him. Jesus bears all this so you don't have to. He is spoken of sharply and hatefully on His deathbed, so you don't have to listen to the whispers of demons, guilts, and fears on yours. You will all be on your deathbed someday, and if you don't think all your sins, failings, crimes, and guilts will be wanting to have their say, you're naive. But I'm telling you that you don't have to listen to any of it because Jesus already took every sling, every arrow, every accusation they could launch at you.
Finally, if Jesus explaining everything in the kindest way doesn't push you around the corner to hearing the 8th Commandment as descriptive rather than as imperative, nothing will. With no medicine to deaden the pain; no forgiveness to lessen the guilt; no grace, mercy, or peace to even dampen the flames of hell, what does the crucified Jesus say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Father forgive her she doesn't know how badly that gossip hurts her friend. Father forgive him he doesn't mean to be happy about how badly that other man fell.
Did you notice how many people before the suffering, crucified, and dead Jesus suddenly speak the truth? The centurion confesses the dead Jesus is the Son of God. Pilate won't deny that Jesus is the king of the Jews. And for the first time some disciples publicly own Jesus. We aren't shown any of them in the crowd shouting, "Don't take Him away! Don't crucify Him! Give us Jesus not Barabbas!" But at the cross we find the faithful woman and one lone apostle.
Why? Because at the cross as nowhere else Jesus is defending sinners, speaking well of sinners, explaining everything about sinners in the kindest way. Jesus is nailed to this cross winning the right to truthfully say about sinners like us: "These are my God-siblings; these aren't gossips. I can't see one place in all their lives where they have ever belied, betrayed, besmirched, or badmouthed anyone, and you can't either because I've carried all their sins away from them."
Go down into the cellars of your heart now, and what you will see there is Jesus and the new creation which He created in His image truly righteous and holy. This person doesn't give false testimony against a neighbor anymore than Jesus ever did. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers V (20120321); 8th Commandment, Passion Reading 5