You shall Not Bear False Witness Against your Neighbor (Exodus 20:16)
One of the several U.S. presidential hopefuls was recently lecturing inside a church. He was telling the good church folk that President Obama and the U.S. Government will soon be allocating health care resources out to older people (or have death panels to decide who should live or die.) A prominent Christian radio preacher had spread the word that “for patients over 70 years of age, advanced neurosurgical care will not generally be indicated.” And this presidential hopeful was picking up on this scary message. “Well, who should we be allocating these resources to? We shouldn’t be allocating it to 70-year-old people who have strokes, according to Kathleen Sebelius,” he said. The frightened church folk angrily nodded in agreement and rose to lay hands on this man and pray that he becomes the next president of the United States.
The problem is that professional medical groups have called these statements bogus. Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, has rejected such statements regarding 70 year old stroke patients being refused health care. Her good name has been falsely tarnished with this lie, but it is still being passed around.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons issued a joint statement insisting that no such federal government document exists. The groups stated that such suggestions run counter to their responsibility as health care professionals, and they asked radio host Mark Levin to remove the radio clip from his website. But these two leaders who claim to be “Godly” men with “values” have continued spreading these frightening lies to the good church folk, even though they know that they are false. While emphasizing that their group has all the “values”, have they forgotten the value of telling the truth?
Have we Christians become sloppy about bending the truth? In our culture we generally tend to think of bending the truth (lying) as benign and funny, something that people can tell about media stars and politicians. But God feels very differently about lying. In fact one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16) forbids us to make false statements about our neighbor.
God gave the Ten Commandments to a tribal people. The Jews, who first received the Ten Commandments believed that they should not tell lies about another fellow Jew. But they didn’t think of foreigners as “neighbors”.
So when we read in Luke 10:25-37 where a lawyer asks Jesus what the definition of a “neighbor” is, we are amazed. Jesus answers him by telling the story of the “Good Samaritan”. The Jews hated the Samaritans and had probably never thought of them as their “neighbors”. But Jesus is telling the lawyer (and us) that everyone is our neighbor. And followers of Jesus were to help everyone in need and be honest with every human being. Jesus was expanding the definition of “neighbor” to mean every person in the world. Ephesians 4:25 reads: “Therefore, having put away all falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
A close cousin to lying about our neighbor is gossiping about him, and that is also condemned in the Bible. The gossiper reveals embarrassing or shameful things about other people, usually with the intent of aggrandizing themselves. One of many scriptures concerning gossip is Proverbs 11:12-13. It reads: “A person who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a person of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”
Words are very powerful. There is no way to draw a firm distinction between words and deeds. One of the Ten Commandments tells us that we are not to murder another person. But Jesus tells his followers that if we call our brother a “fool” we are also guilty of murder. (Matt. 5:22) How can this be? We know that hateful gossip and false statements often lead people to violence and murder. Could that be why Jesus compared a person who spews out hateful words to a murderer?
This year in Dallas, Texas, twenty-five older black men have been released from lifelong prison sentences. Even though proof was lacking, each of these men had been accused and imprisoned many decades ago of the crimes of rape or murder. Even though each man had insisted that they were innocent, these poor men had been behind bars for most of their adult lives, unable to raise money for an attorney or a decent trial. With the T.V. cameras rolling it was a joyous thing to see the expression on each of their faces as they were finally given their freedom and reunited with their families.
The Innocence Project had raised funds to take DNA samples from these prisoners. And when the DNA samples came back, these men were finally able to prove that their DNA did not match the DNA of the real perpetrators of their alleged crimes. Several of these innocent men had already been executed for their “crime” and several more had died while in prison, before the truth came out.
Of course our Justice System and our courts can make mistakes. But when a community is anxious for the District Attorney to find a criminal and solve a crime, couldn’t the truth be stretched to find a likely suspect and pin the crime onto him or her? How many more innocent people are still languishing in prisons around the world today because gossip and false witness have been used against them? Words are powerful.
Jimmy Carter in his book “Sources of Strength” p. 101-102 says: “So when Jesus tells us that hatred spewed out in verbal form is akin to murder, he isn’t exaggerating: he is expressing a fundamental truth, though one we’d prefer to overlook. Jesus’ words are still revolutionary today because they challenge our human tendency to built our lives in an egocentric, self-satisfied way. The things I do, the decisions I make, are usually chosen to meet my own needs and to promote my own self-image.” But then he continues: “But Christ challenges this complacent self-image. He demands more of us. We can’t just fulfill the letter of the God’s commandments, but we must fulfill its’ spirit, in our words …” Our words!
Jesus’ message is revolutionary. We are to enlarge our understanding of words such as justice, honesty, love, and compassion. We are to “never cause anyone to stumble” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:14)
The Bible says that we are Christ’s ambassadors –His witnesses. God is making His appeal to the world through us. (cf, 2Cor. 5:20) How is the world drawn to Christ through us when we and our Christian leaders gossip and spread scary untruths about those we don’t agree with? How will people find Christ in churches that spew out political hatred along with the gospel? Scripture says that “They will know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love.” (John 13:35) We can do our job better as Christ’s ambassador – be a better witness for Him to the world- if we put away our judgments and gossip and just practice loving folk into the kingdom.