Sticks ‘n’ Stones
Well, as I said, we’re getting close to done with the summer and with the summer series on the Ten Commandments – Ten Commitments that describe how covenant partners live and what their lives look like. They are similar to Jesus’ Beatitudes that describe normal Christian life in the broader context, first of the Hebrew tradition which has two branches or tributaries that flow from it, one is Judaism and one is Christianity. I am interested here, mainly and not surprisingly, in the Christian branch. The previous Commitments have all centred on the actions of covenant partners. This one shifts the focus from what we do to what we say, and it’s interesting that this is the only one of the ten that deals with that since we say so much (and often do so little). To the ancient Hebrew, however, words spoken were also actions that had real effects in the world.
I must tell you that I have found much help for thinking about this commitment in a book called The Ten Commandments by Patrick Miller, who is now retired from Princeton (Westminster John Knox, 2009). Pat has written on this material (and the Psalms, too) for years and years, and this book sums up a career of wisdom.
The normal translation of this verse is “You will not bear false witness against your neighbour,” and that translation is all right, although more literally it is “You will not answer against (or in the case of) your neighbour (as a) witness of falsehood.” This sentence follows those three very short ones: “No killing, no adultery, no stealing.” It’s also relatively short, but makes explicit what is implicit in those three, that it’s about one’s neighbours. That’s been the concern of all the commitments from “honour your father and mother” on, but, as I say, this one spells it out. We’ll come back to that “neighbour” in a moment.
Most of the people who have studied this sentence have understood that the context out of which it grew was ancient Israel’s legal system. The words “to answer against” (or “in the case of”) can take on the meaning of “to give testimony as a witness in a court proceeding concerning…” The defendant (as we’d say) here is “your neighbour.” In the Old Testament this term can sometimes mean Israelites, and sometimes it includes a much wider group. In Leviticus 19:18 the words “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” “neighbour” is parallel to “the children of your people,” and so means Israelites. But down the page in verse 34 this Policy is widened when it says, “the alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself.” There are only two categories: Israelites and aliens, love everyone as you love yourself. In Exodus 11:2, so-called neighbours are Egyptians, not Israelites. We saw last week that Jesus uses a very wide definition of neighbour. Since the Ten Commitments are Principles, the wider definition of neighbour also fits well here. “You will not give a certain kind of testimony against anybody.” Such testimony is called by a word that means “deception, or falsity” (sheqer). The covenant partner will not give testimony that is intended to deceive or be false because Israel’s courts depended almost exclusively on witnesses to establish innocence or guilt, since what we call “scientific” evidence was almost non-existent. The Bible, therefore, takes time to say how important it is to give right, good, accurate testimony. For example, no one can be condemned on the word of one witness, it takes two or more, and they have to agree. In much later times, Judaism would set out seven questions to these witnesses, and all had to concur on their answers for guilt to be established. Care and thoroughness was crucial. The life of the defendant depended on the integrity of the witnesses. In capital cases, the witnesses were required to be among the executioners. The penalty for false witnesses was the same as that which would have been invoked on a guilty party. The Old Testament, again and again, condemns false witness.
So is this commitment only to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in court? It’s that, but more. Deuteronomy 5 also contains a version of the Decalogue which is, for the most part, almost the same as this one, but in this particular commitment the word isn’t “false” witness, but “empty,” “meaningless,” or even “careless” witness. This is the same word used in the third commitment when it says, “You will not lift up the Lord’s Name in vain, or for nothing.” Remember that this meant that we will not coopt God into projects that are really unworthy of God’s values and nature. Although most English translations of Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20 are exactly the same, the Hebrew text isn’t. Deuteronomy widens the meaning to “You will not give unworthy or worthless testimony against your neighbour.” It is this wider form that is also found in Psalm 24 when it states that those who ascend “the hill of the Lord and stand in God’s holy place” are those who don’t not “lift up themselves up to that which is empty, worthless, nothing, unworthy.” The psalmist, following Deuteronomy, widens the reading of Exodus to mean using unworthy words, unhelpful words, against a neighbour in a more general setting than the courts. So, we need to make sure our words are helpful. And still there’s more.
Some of you may remember the heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson. He seemed less brash and braggy than most boxers. In his obituary (back in 2006) he was quoted as saying: “You can hit me, and I probably won’t notice, but you can say something to me and hurt me very much.” That’s a complete reversal of the old saying, “Sticks ‘n’ Stones may break my bones, but words (or names) will never hurt me.” (Miller: 345)
Patterson was more right than the old adage. Words can hurt at least as much as a punch, and carry deeper, more long-lasting, scars. The Old Testament uses the word “violence” (chamas) to describe some words used as a “witness” against others. Exodus 23:1: “…You will not join hands with the wicked to act as a violent witness.” In another place Deuteronomy 19 sets up a procedure to deal with times when a “violent witness arises to testify against a person falsely” (v. 16). Both of these passages are dealing with our topic of “false witness.” Words can do terrible violence to others.
In a book that’s over 30 years old called Lying, the Swedish born American Sissela Bok wrote, “Deceit and violence – these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.” (Lying (1979): 18). Words that are not only false, but careless and empty are not only deceitful, but do true violence to others. In the political season into which we are quickly coming, I should note that propaganda spin also do violence and are false, careless and empty and fall outside the parameters of this commitment.
Again, the parameters of life set up by this negative, “no false, misleading, deceitful, cunning, conniving, violent witness,” can be filled by using helpful, care-full, supportive witnesss?” What this commitment is really driving at in our world is that our words are chosen with care to be constructive rather than destructive, doing kindness rather than violence to others. We have already gone far beyond the original context set out by Exodus of telling the truth in court to suggest some contemporary ways in which this commitment applies – or at least at what it takes aim.
Quite often this commitment has been said simply to be about “telling the truth,” and you haven’t heard me say a word about that yet. Well, that’s because this commitment is not directly about truth-telling as such. And, frankly, the Bible counsels care in this business of telling the truth at all times. Speaking the truth, as an end in itself, is a deceptive goal. I think we have sometimes used “telling the truth” as a mask to justify hurting one another. I sincerely hope that we have gotten by the time where it’s encouraged as psychologically healthy to tell everybody the whole truth about themselves “no matter what or where.” I have only seen harm come from this, as it easily becomes an excuse to be vicious and wound others.
We always need to remember that truth is from our perspective, and that means, quite frequently, it’s only half-truth, which is more dangerous than a full-fledged lie. Half-truth is the birthplace of rumours and can easily be used to deceive others. It is clearly outside the parameters of “no false witness.” Over my ministry I have seen great harm done in churches by such rumours and half-truths, done in the name of “telling it like it is.”
We have taken a good hard look at Ephesians 4 during the month of August. This is the third time this month that the chapter has supplied the Epistle lesson. This time, we are focusing a little earlier in the chapter on part of one paragraph, and I’ll only read part of that:
14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…
The topic here is how mature Christians get along together in the community of faith, first, and, then in the world. Such mature people don’t fall for cunning and “spin,” but get along together by “speaking the truth in love.” That’s a way we mature together to become more like Jesus, which is just different language for being good covenant partners. Again, Pat Miller wrote that speaking the truth in love is an act of loving both God and neighbour. Let me simply quote to you what he wrote because I can’t do better:
There are forms of speaking the truth that are incompatible with Christian faith. Speaking the truth is done in love is done in the Christian community…If it is the truth that hurts, then it needs to be rethought. How does the truth spoken truly become an act of love lovingly enacted? (Miller: 384).
As one who has worked in and around churches all my life, I could not agree more. If it doesn’t help, don’t say it.
Giving Jesus the last word is a good thing for Christians to do. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cuts through all the rigmarole of how we tell the truth. Given that we do it in love, he says that we don’t need to swear by a bunch of stuff – whether God-stuff or people-stuff – he simply says, “Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.” Make your words clear and helpful, and don’t go on about it. Be helpful, be supportive, be nurturing, be wholesome. And, for heaven’s sake, keep it short!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.