November 12, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Matthew 5:33-37 and Exodus 20:16
(part of a series on the Ten Commandments)
In a courtroom, the officer leads you up to the witness stand. There, you raise your right hand as he asks this question: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
Once you have spoken your "I do," the weight of the law rests upon your shoulders. You have promised to tell the truth. Justice depends upon it. Should you give a false testimony, and it is revealed that you knew your words to be untrue at the time you spoke them, then you will be charged with perjury, a punishable crime.
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Ex. 20:16) This commandment has been around for a long time. Of course, it's never been easy to determine the truthfulness of a person's words, whether on the witness stand or off. Unfortunately, truth can be such a relative thing: I see reality from my own perspective, you see it from yours.
"What is truth?," Pontius Pilate asked when Jesus stood before him testifying to the truth (Jn 18:38). The charges that brought our Lord to this point were, if the truth be told, on the money - at least from one perspective. Jesus was disrupting the fragile fabric of society at a very volatile moment. Were his accusers bearing false-witness? From their vantage point, Jesus was a dangerous man. But was he guilty of all the sins with which they charged him? As they saw it, he was. From Pilate's perspective, however, Jesus seemed hardly a threat. "What is truth?" was an appropriate question to ask.
Have I clouded over what appeared at first to be pretty straightforward? Truth never has been easy to discern. Of course, there are times when we, ourselves, bend the truth to fit our needs. Am I right? And there definitely are folks who have no problem with bending it so far that it breaks. Sometimes such lies are exposed. Many times they aren't. Unfortunately, we live in a world where you have to be suspicious of another person's word. Even on the witness stand, under oath.
A few words about that original commandment. Notice, it doesn't say: "you shall not bear false witness." Elsewhere it does speak of truthtelling in general, but not here. Instead, it says: "you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The wrong involves using a lie against another person.
The story is told in the Old Testament (1 Kgs. 21) of King Ahab, whose neighbor, Naboth, owned a vineyard. Ahab wanted that land for his own garden. To obtain it, he first took the aboveboard route of approaching Naboth with a reasonable deal. When that failed, Ahab's sulking led his wife, Jezebel, to try the underhanded method. A little power and, probably, a little cash "persuaded" two scoundrels to bring a charge against Naboth for a crime punishable by death. Once the owner of the vineyard was executed, Ahab took possesion of his new garden.
Apparently Jezebel knew enough of the law to abuse it. After all, in Deuteronomy 19 it says: "A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained." (v.15)
Of course, right after those words, come these: "If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other..." (vv. 16-19)
In Ahab's case, another witness stepped forward (unfortunately too late for Naboth). It was God who saw the truth, even when everyone else closed their eyes. His prophet Elijah witnessed truthfully against Ahab, face to face. Eventually, justice was done.
Interestingly enough, the ninth commandment refers not so much to false testimony itself, but to a false testifier. That is, it addresses the character of a person. How can we discern the truth a person speaks without knowing something about his or her integrity? Whether or not we agree with the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial, we must admit that the testimony of one star witness, Mark Fuhrman, while it may have been true, was tainted by his character. He was proven to be a false witnesser, even though he may have given a true testimony. A person can say all the right words, but truth is more than words.
Integrity. That's what Jesus was referring to in this morning's gospel lesson from his "sermon on the mount" in Matthew. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets," he said, "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (5:17) Then, as Matthew records it, Jesus pulled from the law, one by one, a variety of statements, prefacing each with: "you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times." (5:21,27,33,38,43)
In this morning's text he quotes this law, really a combination of several (Lv. 19:12, Nm. 30:2, Dt. 23:21-23): "You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord." (5:33) Do you hear the link to the ninth commandment? Here truthtelling extends beyond a court of law, and false witness against a neighbor. It involves being truthful about commitments you make.
When an officer of the court asks us, "do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?," the legal system is asking for a commitment. Saying "I do" commits us to the truth for as long as we sit in that courtroom. But I ask you, what happens when we leave the witness stand? Do things return, then, to "normal?" That is, are we free to be false outside the confines of the courtroom?
"No," Jesus taught us, in relation to all such oaths. "Don't swear at all," he said. In other words, be a person of integrity. Let truth be more than a word spoken with your mouth. Live your truth. If you have to swear you are telling the truth on this occasion, what does that say about all the other times you speak? Are you not telling the truth then?
This admonition led our brethren ancestors to refuse to swear an oath, whether in a courtroom, or elsewhere. Of course the legal system accommodated by changing the wording around so that we could "affirm" rather than "swear." But, you know, integrity is more than just a word. To "swear" or to "affirm," there's not that much difference, though I still choose the latter. The issue, again, is integrity.
Now, I might paraphrase the word, integrity, as "bearing true witness." However, witnessing is also more than words. It involves what we do as well as what we say. The two, word and action, are integrated, not segregated. In the old days, it was said of our brethren ancesters that "a Dunker's word was as good as his bond." That is, if brother Martin or sister Martha said they would do something, you could count on it being done. Didn't need a contract. Didn't need a Bible to swear on. Didn't have to wonder if they were telling the truth this time. If they said so, it was so as far as they could see or do.
I'd like to think such integrity is still a part of the make-up of present-day brethren. I must confess, though, that I have encountered some Dunkers whose word was not as good as their bond. Still, integrity is an ideal we need to continually lift up. Our world is desperately in need of people who bear true witness, who "let their Yes be yes, and their No be no" (James 5:12), not just some of the time, but all of the time.
That does not mean we are to be "know-it-all's," who believe we have an absolute corner on the truth. Integrity demands that we freely admit our limited perspective. "From where I stand that's what I see, though you may view things differently from your vantage point." To state more than what we truly know about someone else verges on false-witness. Opinion is fine, but it must be labeled as such. There are times when we need to openly speak the truth, but even then, as the apostle Paul instructed, it is best to do so out of love, not out of vindictiveness (Eph.4:15). In so doing we bear true witness. It becomes more than just a word.
If you've been following me through this series of sermons on the 10 commandments, you may have noticed that I seek out the positive within every negatively worded instruction. This ninth directive is not merely about refraining from what is false, it's about looking toward what is true, and seeking to live in it. How is it possible to be a person of integrity in a world of lies and half-truths? Well, it's not solely up to us, is it? Would you complete this sermon by singing the truth discovered in our final hymn? ["Holy Spirit, Truth Divine" #508]
©1995Peter L. Haynes
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