The Sixth Midweek in Lent
March 31-April 1, 2009
Text: Exodus 20:16
Dear Friends in Christ,
There is an irony to the occasion of this sermon. A judge heard a suit by an atheist that argued that since atheists had no recognized holidays, Christians shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate any holidays either. The judge dismissed the suit saying that the atheists had their own holiday - April fools day. April fools day is really a liars holiday. My Uncle Arnie once, on April 1st, quietly and somberly told each of the children in turn as they came down for breakfast, that the chicken coop had burned down. They knew it was April 1st but their dad was so somber and serious that they each had to go check.
The Eighth Commandment is actually one of the hardest of all the commandments to get our brains around. It doesn’t forbid joviality and teasing. But it does require a great deal of us. The way we can see this best is to reverse commandment. Let’s forget about, for a moment, what it forbids. Rather, lets look at what it commands us to do. We are commanded to bear true witness. This command does not even allow us the option of silence. We are to bear witness to that which is true. Any attempt to silence the truth is also a violation of this command.
None of God’s commands were ever intended as a weapon to be used against others. Any attempt to use a command as a weapon is in fact a gross misuse of God’s law. In the Missouri Synod today, this is in fact the most frequent violation of the Eighth Commandment. I have rarely heard people utter outright falsehoods. But I have been warned on many occasions, when I knew I was speaking the truth, that I was in danger of violating the Eighth Commandment. What is happening in these cases? Someone doesn’t want the truth spoken. So they use the command as a weapon. In so doing they themselves violate the very command that they are claiming to uphold.
Another frequent abuse of the Eighth Commandment is the implicit slander. I remember a member of the synod’s board of directors telling me, to my face, that I didn’t know all the facts about the attempted firing of Robert Preus as president of the seminary. That if I knew everything I would understand why it was necessary and even good that Preus be removed. But none of this could be told, to protect the reputation of Dr. Preus. What he was in essence saying was that Dr. Preus was guilty of some terrible wrong doing. So while claiming that he was protecting Dr. Preus, he was in fact destroying his reputation, by leaving this unspecified charge hanging out there. Of course, in time, the facts did all come out and there was nothing to this man’s claim. It was just an out and out slander. It was a clear false witness. Yet, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a church official do just this very thing, I would be a wealthy man. You see, we are called upon to make judgements about many things. We must judge truly and honestly based upon what is known. If someone has information that would change that judgement, they must lay it out. If they are unwilling to do so, they must be silent. For their very claim of “secret” information is in itself a slander. If my judgement in the end is wrong, I have still judged rightly, since I have made my judgement based on what was known. My only obligation would be to diligently seek out all the known information. If I have done this, I have not sinned. The Church is not to trade in secrets. It is to deal openly in the light of day. When it does this, everyone can see that true witness has been born. When it is clear that true witness has been born, everyone’s reputation, including the Church’s, is protected.
The key to understanding the Eighth Commandment is to realize that we are to bear true witness to whatever situation is before us. If it is a private matter, then we can deal with it privately. But if it is a public matter, silence is not an option. If we know facts pertaining to it we must bring them forward. This is even ensconced in our criminal law. If I know something concerning a criminal matter, I must bring this forward to the court. I cannot hide it away. If I do, I can be thrown in jail. This is the most frequent way in which the Eighth Commandment is violated. Certainly there are times when someone tells an out and out lie. But most often the violation is failing to come forward and bear witness to the truth.
As we have looked at the commandments Christ spoke from Mount Sinai, we have noted that they are to serve as a mirror. We are to use the law to examine our own lives. And we see that we have not kept the Eighth Commandment. We have not born true witness as we should. In the same way we see that we have not kept any of the commandments. We are to use the law against ourselves. We are not to used it as a weapon to brow beat others. In recognizing our failure, we need to see a couple other things. We cannot do better by our own power. Second, doing better in the future doesn’t undo the sins that we have already committed. So the law, as the mirror, is to show us the utter futility of our own works. The law just sinks us ever deeper. And so the law is given to make it clear that we must turn outside ourselves for help. We must turn to Christ. For only in His death and resurrection can we find a cure for the law’s demands. It is important to know the law, so that we can rightly examine our lives. But it is also important to understand the extreme demands of the laws. We must understand the law is beyond us. It kills us. But the cross of Christ, raises us to life.