This is a topical sermon on Lying
Today’s passage is taken from Deuteronomy 5:20 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” It is continues from our sermon series on the Ten commandments and this is the ninth commandment. This commandment, just like the rest, is an important one because of 2 main factors. Firstly, it reveals to us the nature of God. And that is the “why” part of the commandment. Secondly, it tells us how to live our lives on earth. And that is the “how to” part of the commandment. I will be sharing on the background of the commandment, followed by its theological backing, then I will share about its limitations, and I’ll end off with the modern applications.
Base on the text about “giving false testimony”, we can immediately infer a judicial or legal setting for this commandment. Indeed, this is the primary objective of the commandment. Commandment 6 states that “Thou shall not murder”. Commandment 7 states that “Thou shall not commit adultery”. Commandment 8 is “Thou shall not steal”. These are all grievous sins, and if one is found guilty, the punishment is going to be harsh, or even amounting to death. The same can also be said on the earlier commandments about idolatry and blasphemy. We can recall that even in New Testament times, it is death penalty for those found guilty of such sins. Because of the severity of the charges, one needs a proper legal system to ensure that no one is unduly punished, because once the punishment is dealt, most of them are irreversible. And the way to administer justice in such matters, which is not unlike modern times, is to use witnesses. Therefore, the maintenance of justice was dependent on the reliability of the witness.
Read: Deuteronomy 17:2-7 So we see that at least 2 witnesses are needed to put a guilty person to death, and the witnesses must be the first to deal out the punishment. In this case, they must cast the first stones on the guilty person. If you are not convinced on the person’s sins, I don’t think there are many who can really do it. In a way, if the person is innocent, the blood will be on the witnesses’ hands. To make sure that such a system is not abused, investigation is also made on the witness, like the modern day cross-examination by lawyers.
Read: Deuteronomy 19:15-21 Here we can see that the penalty for a false testimony is the same as the penalty dealt if the accused is found guilty. “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” If the witness accuses somebody of a sin worthy of death penalty and later found by the judges to be lying, the false witness would be dealt the death penalty instead. Therefore, we can see that the matter of being a witness is no light matter.
Besides matters of sins and punishments, witnesses are also involved in hearing testimony and signing commercial or civil documents. Witnesses serve an essential purpose in verifying business transactions, such as sale of property, marriages and changes in social status.
Therefore, the ninth commandment sustains the validity of the first eight commandments. Without this commandment, the first eight commandments cannot be executed without abuse. Furthermore, the ninth commandment is vital in sustaining all human interactions so that property ownership is valid and marriages are verified and authenticity can be confirmed. Such legal systems rely heavily on the dependability of the witnesses and hence a trustworthy person has a good name and reputation. And that reputation is worthier than riches or gold.
But the purpose of the ninth commandment is not merely functional so that the social fabric can stay intact. The commandment also encompasses the broader issues of honesty, and faithfulness to one’s word. The issue is not just legal transactions but it also includes the nature of a lie and the place of a liar before the eyes of God. The theological underpinning behind the commandment is that falsehood itself is against the essence of God who is the eternal Truth. God is Truth, and a lie is against the nature of God.
Read Proverbs 6:16-19 Here we see that out of the seven detestable things, two involves falsehood: a lying tongue and a false witness who pours out lies. God hates liars because their lies harm their victims, but more so because lies are evil and God’s words are intended for good.
Read Jeremiah 9:3-9 Here we see that God judge against Judah because it had become a nation of liars. When lies and liars prevail in the society, there can be no trust, and no person is real, and they have to live by deception. Such a people are totally against God’s will, which is based on trust and faith. The community must be open and authentic. And the way of living should be dependence on God and hard work, instead of relying on one’s craftiness.
In this way, falsehood is not just against the essence of God; it is also against the essence of what it means to be a Man. To be a true man is live within a covenant relationship with God. A covenant cannot be built on deception but rather on trust and faithfulness. A lie would cast doubts into the expectation that truth be told. We cannot depend on a person who cannot keep or honor his word. Therefore a liar cannot remain in the covenant of God because the relationship is broken by the lack of trust. A liar ultimately deceives himself because he believes that the lie can be dependable, and more so than depending on honesty with God. A liar inherently means that he do not acknowledge God nor his justice.
Brothers and sisters, the ninth commandment reveals to us the nature of God. God is Truth, and God is the measure and standard of all truths. To indulge in lies and deception, would mean that we purposefully go against the nature and will of God and that road will lead to judgement. The ninth commandment also reveals that God is faithfulness, and he will honor his covenant with us, and what he promises, he will fulfil. If we rely on lies and deception for our living, we break this covenant and we no longer live in his will, and our being become a forgery of our own making.
But, you might question me, does it mean that we MUST tell the truth all the time? Can a Christian never lie? According to some famous theologians like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, this is so. They believe that truth must be maintained at all times, and lies can never be good. Even if lying seems like the right thing for the moment, the ultimate effect will be bad because a lie has been told. I am however more pastoral at heart, and will share with you some Jewish wisdom that will perhaps make your living a little easier.
Jewish teaching indicate that there are 5 situations where one is permitted or sometimes required to lie:
1. Lying to Preserve the Cause of Peace or in Order Not to Hurt Another Person’s Feelings The Ritva (Rabbi Yomtov ben Abraham), states in an unambiguous manner that wherever one has to be concerned about "the ways of peace" there is no prohibition of "Distance yourself from a false matter." This would probably include such statements as "you look good," "nice to see you," "thanks for the wonderful gift," "I really had a wonderful time," "You haven’t aged a bit," or "I missed you." Being told by friends that "You look terrible," "I couldn’t care less whether I saw you," "I hate your gift," "I had a lousy time," "Boy, did you age," or "I did not miss you at all" would not further the cause of peace. From the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:10-13. When Sarah overheard one of the three "guests" telling Abraham that she would have a son by the following year she laughed and said to herself that her husband was old. God gets angry and asks Abraham why Sarah laughed in disbelief saying she was old, i.e., too old to have children. Seemingly, God altered the truth in order to spare Abraham’s feelings.
2. Lying in A Situation Where Honesty Might Cause Oneself or Another Person Physical Harm The two midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, undoubtedly did the right thing by lying to Pharaoh and thereby not take part in the attempt to murder newborns. There is no question that Jewish law obligates one to prevaricate in order to save one’s own life or the life of another person. Rahab the harlot prevaricated in order to save the life of the two Jewish spies sent by Joshua to Jericho (see Joshua 2). The Midrash (Pirka D’Rabeinu Hakodosh 15) notes that Rahab told a lie yet inherited life in this world and in the world to come. In fact, eight prophets descended from her (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 14b). So if lives are at stake, there is no reason not to evade stating the truth so that harm will not come to the innocent.
3. Lying for the Sake Of Modesty or in Order Not to Appear Arrogant Judaism also commands the converse of the above insofar as one is obligated to ensure that he does not benefit from others’ misconception about his status or scholarship. The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud, Maakot 2:6) states that if one is being honored by the public as a scholar who is proficient in two tractates but only knows one, he is obligated to disabuse the misconception and explicitly state "I am only knowledgeable in one tractate, and no more." So if someone knows you are very good with the Bible, and says “John is the best in his New Testament.” You are not to say “my new Testament is good, but my old Testament is better.” Even though that may be the truth.
4. Lying for the Sake of Decency One may lie if he was asked whether or not he slept in a particular bed. The bed may be stained from an emission and this could be embarrassing. In modern context, if you heard a lady passing gas beside you, and somebody ask “Why is it so smelly?” You are not to state the truth for the sake of decency. The gentlemanly thing to do is to say “I did it, I apologize” even though it may be a lie. So now you know that some men who seem to pass gas a lot may not be the truth. They may just be very loving husbands.
5. Lying to Protect One’s Property From Scoundrels The fifth case (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 27b) describes where lies to thieves are permitted in order to protect oneself from financial harm. One is permitted to make a vow to murderers, plunderers, and [corrupt] tax collectors that the produce they wish to seize is terumah [which is only permitted to be eaten by priests and therefore of little value; an alternative explanation is that even murderers and robbers would not violate the prohibition against using terumah], even if it is not terumah, or that the property they wish to seize belongs to the Royal House, even if it does not. We have a situation where one is dealing with immoral people and the victim has no other recourse. The victim has no obligation to tell the scoundrels the truth about one’s property to protect oneself.
6. Habitual Lying Dratch (1988) claims that even when prevaricating is permissible, habitual lying will still be forbidden. Story: Rav was constantly tormented by his wife. When he asked her to prepare him some lentils, she would prepare peas. When he asked for peas, she would prepare lentils. When Chiya, Rav’s son, grew up, he would reverse his father’s request. Once, Rav said to Chiya: "Your mother has improved." Rabbi Chiya replied: "It is I who reversed your requests to her." Rav remarked to Chiya: "This is what people say, ‘Your own offspring teaches you reason.’" However, you should not continue to do so, for it says (Jeremiah 9:4): "They have taught their tongues to speak lies."
Therefore, though it may seem permissible from the above cases to lie, it is generally discouraged in case the lying may become habitual. As Christians, we make decisions, including decisions about our words, not simply as rule-keepers, but as people disposed to truthfulness. Hence we must be prepared to regret even the justifiable lie as a mark that we are “not yet fully in the Spirit of Truth”. In this broken world, sometimes a lie is justifiable. But we should remember that every lie, even the justifiable ones, is a sad reminder of our brokenness.
The five situations demonstrate that Jewish law does not take an absolutist approach to evading the truth and, indeed, will obligate the individual to lie in various circumstances, for instance, lying to save a life or to bring peace. This, by no means, makes light of the seriousness of lying. The bible is very clear that God hates liars. The extreme importance of honesty is appropriately summed up by the Jewish belief that the first question a person is asked in the hereafter at the final judgment is (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a): "Have you been honest in your dealings?” That should be a fair warning to us all not to abuse the examples that I have listed. The examples are meant as a guide as to when we must be careful in telling the truth, and not just follow the commandment blindly.
Lastly, I wish to state that it is not enough that we refrain from telling lies. In this day and age where marketing and publicity prevails, we must be advocates of truth. I shall list down some areas that we should work towards, in making the world more in line with the will of God. Our response to today’s world is to work on ourselves, our households and our communities. One of the first priorities is human relationships and the quality of our community life together. We can pursue critical thinking and discernment in the company of others. We can help each other clarify and communicate with each other. Weaknesses in my knowledge and skills are compensated by your strengths, and vice versa.
Today, I wish to focus on 3 key areas that we can all work towards to change ourselves, our family, our environment and eventually, impacting the world. Firstly, we live in a society of gossip. Major publications like newspapers, magazines and entertainment news on TV feature celebrity gossip to appeal to people’s curiosity. Just imagine how much ordinary conversation among people would be left if we removed talk about the weather and gossip about others? God has given every person in the world a true being and a reality. When we gossip, or promote gossip, we are taking this right away and making others believe in a fake reality of the person.
The only justifiable reason for passing information of a personal nature about others is that doing so promises to help those people. If sharing information about others leads to more prayer or more care, then it is probably legitimate. Still, we must be sure that what we pass on is true, and that means we must interact with the person concerned. We must always remember, as stated earlier, that even if something is true, it may not be right to share it with others. It is worse to speculate on people’s actions, tastes, relationships and attitudes. It is bad enough to think about such things in a negative way. We anger God when we pass on such speculations to others, for gossip can destroy lives.
What are some of the practical steps to take to avoid spreading untruths? To start, when someone wants to share gossip with you, cut the person off and say “I don’t think we should be talking about this person behind his/her back.” When someone pries and probes for your information about someone else, decline to say anything. Try to lessen your reading about celebrity gossips or entertainment news of a gossip nature. This is setting a good example.
If someone has a problem, we should speak about it to God in prayer and speak to that person directly. We must be slow to speak and to condemn or judge and quick to listen. We must speak the truth in love. That means that it is in a way that helps and builds up the person. Or else, we should at least keep quiet.
Secondly, we must avoid a very common form of false witnessing, and that is stereotyping. Just like gossips, when we stereotype people, we are replacing a living reality with an image that is unfair and misleading. When we hear them, we must protest and immediately introduce evidence to undermine the power of the stereotype. The media or hate groups introduce many of the stereotyping, and we must learn to reject them.
An example is that of women drivers. I know there is a negative stereotyping of women drivers. I have even heard of women drivers complaining about women drivers. If treated lightly, it is spread like a joke. But if it is ingrained into our mindset, it can promote impatience with female drivers, and even lead to accidents. This is only a small matter compared to other stereotypes that can lead to racism or gender oppression. But stereotyping whether big or small is promoting a false image of an actual reality, and that is giving a false witness. The next time somebody tells you women drivers are lousy, say that you know a lot of good women drivers, and you know a guy call Xiaohui, and he confess that he is a lousy driver.
The last area I would like to share on is advertising. Where is the line that we draw when we are not just reporting the facts, but trying to sell an idea? Where is the line when we are persuading people to buy a product? Are we being a false witness when we stand behind an idea that is misleading? It does seem unethical to fail to disclose the failures or negative features of a product. The same can be said if you are a housing agent, insurance agent or shop owner.
Of special importance is when we are witnessing for Christ. We must not overly inflate the promises, hopes and possibilities. We must not say that people who believe in Jesus will be happy all the time, or that their problems will disappear, or that they no longer need modern medicine. We don’t need to know all the doctrines or to memorize the bible by hard. But whatever we share, we ourselves must believe it to be the truth.
To conclude, Witnesses is something that is very valuable for a society to function properly, whether in the ancient legal system, or in the modern context. As Christians, we must be good witnesses because God is the truth, and our covenant with him is base on trust and faithfulness. Truth telling has its limits, and it must not destroy peace or cause others to be harmed or shamed. But that should not stop us from trying to tell the truth all the time, and refrain from gossip, from stereotyping, and from false advertising.