Sermon for October 13th, 2013
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 16Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 17You shall not murder. 18Neither shall you commit adultery. 19Neither shall you steal. 20Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
Ten Laws, One Love: You Shall Not Bear False Witness
An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are getting a divorce—forty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Dad, what are you talking about?!?” the son asks.
“We can't stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about all this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, “Oh no they're not getting a divorce,” she shouts. “I'll take care of this.” She calls Phoenix and yells at her father, “You are not getting a divorce! Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing.”
The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. “Ok,” he says. “They're coming for Thanksgiving and they're even paying their own airfare! Now...what do we do for Christmas?”
This is the ninth, and second-to-last sermon in our series on the ten commandments, and today's commandment (if you didn't already guess it from the joke) is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” or as it is most commonly interpreted, “You shall not lie.”
We Presbyterians are an honest people, aren't we? None of you ever lie, right? Good, because I'll be standing here by the exit at the end of the worship service, and as you leave I'd encourage you to tell me what you thought about today's sermon!
It's amazing the lengths we'll go to in order to be polite, and at the same time not to lie outright—whenever I preach a good sermon, most of you are kind enough to tell me so; but every now and then I know when I've missed the mark, because people will come up to me after the worship service and say, “That sermon was really...interesting, Pastor.” Or, “you did a great job with the children's message today pastor, and the prayers, and all those announcements...” Or sometimes, “Well Pastor...how 'bout those Cowboys?”
Actually, I'm thankful for that sense of politeness—usually we both know how the sermon went, so brutal honesty is completely unnecessary, I promise. Yes, honesty can sometimes be brutal. Every husband knows that when he is cornered with the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” this is not the time to grow an ethical conscience and stand on the integrity of your words...if you're lucky, and the dress does not indeed make her look fat, you may tell the truth. Otherwise you have a simple choice: You can either lie through your teeth, or lie on the living room sofa for a few lonely nights.
Of course, it's not just men. There was a woman who drove eighty miles out of town to visit a friend who lived out in the country. At some point while they were visiting, the woman discovered that she had locked her keys in her car. So she called her husband, who, after much grumbling, agreed to drive out with the spare keys. The woman and her friend waited. And then, just a few minutes before he arrived, it occurred to the woman that she hadn't checked all the doors to the car. She did. And sure enough, one of the back doors was unlocked. As she was getting her keys out, her friend said, “He's going to be so mad that he drove all the way out here for nothing! What are you going to tell him when he gets here?” The woman looked at her friend, looked at the car, looked at her friend again, and said... “The truth!” And then she put her keys back in the car and made sure all the doors were really locked this time.
It's hard, sometimes, to tell truth. But to be honest (no pun intended), I'm not entirely certain that's what the ninth commandment is asking us to do. It usually gets interpreted as “You shall not lie” but that's not what the commandment actually says. It says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” It would have been pretty simple for the ninth commandment to actually say that—it would have fit right in with the last three commandments, all remarkably brief: Don't kill. Don't commit adultery. Don't steal. Don't...lie. But instead we get “don't bear false witness against your neighbor. That's a lot more specific, and as we'll see later on, it's even more specific in Hebrew than it is in English.
Now before we run off to the other extreme, I'm not saying that you should throw honesty out the window—there are many places where the Bible lifts up honesty as a virtue, and many places where God shows disapproval for lying and deceitfulness. In the New Testament, Ananias and Saphira withhold their giving from the church, then lie about it, and God immediately strikes them dead—but we'll save that fun little story for our annual stewardship campaign later this year! Suffice it to say there are consequences in scripture for lying, regardless of how we interpret the ninth commandment.
But sometimes the scriptures also send a different message. There are several instances in the Old Testament where God actually encourages the Israelites to engage in deceptiveness and trickery, particularly towards their enemies in battle.
In Exodus, the scriptures celebrate two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are commanded by the Pharoah to kill all the male babies born to the Hebrew women.
Exodus 1:17-19: But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’
In other words, they lied. They lied to save the lives of the Hebrew children. And how did God respond? Verse 20-21: “So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.”
God's chosen people, Israel, were founded and named after a trickster, a deceiver who lied to his father in order to get his father's blessing—a blessing that God honored, despite the method in which it was obtained.
Even Jesus, while I don't think he ever lied, was certainly as good as any husband at evading a direct question. Listen to this interchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I?
Then he asks Jesus again in verse 37: ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
I think it may have been in sheer frustration trying to get a straight answer that Pilate ultimately throws his hands up in the air and says ‘What is truth?’
It's not just the Bible, either. Throughout all recorded history, we have taken those among us who are the most skilled at telling us the most beautiful lies, and we have called them writers, authors, poets and playwrights. “Literature is a luxury, says G.K. Chesterton, but fiction is a necessity.” The most visionary artists and dreamers—those who can look at an empty canvas, or an empty field, and see something amazing that simply is not there—they are practicing what's known as self-deception. But we have another word for intentional self-deception that helps push us forward, helps us turn untruths into truths: We call it inspiration.
Pontius Pilate's question is a good one. What is truth? Truth is a value, a principle It's an important one. It's absolutely foundational to people, and societies, and to God. But there are other values and principles that are also important to God, and I don't think all values and principles are equal. There is one that trumps even a value as important as truth, and that is Love.
We've been looking at all of the commandments in the light of Jesus' greatest commandment: To love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. So love is the greatest commandment of all. Love God. Love each other. Love yourself. And I believe that love—not honesty—is at the heart of the ninth commandment, too.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Let's take a closer look at this verse. Up until this point I've brought out a word or two from the original Hebrew whenever it was needed, but today we're going to have to look at the whole sentence, all five words. I'll go slowly. If you're following along in the outline, remember that Hebrew reads from right to left:
לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁוְא׃
The first word, לֹֽא (Lo) means no.
The second word, תַעֲנֶ֥ה (tha'aneh) means to answer or respond. Notice how it's reactive, not proactive. You answer or respond only when someone has spoken to you, or asked you something, or asked you for something. This is the word translated as “bear” but it has more to do with conversation than it does carrying anything.
The third word, בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ (b'reachah) means neighbor, friend, brother, companion; specifically “to your neighbor.”
The fourth word, עֵ֥ד (ayd) means testimony, witness, or evidence.
The last word, שָֽׁוְא׃ (shav), means empty, hollow, lightweight or vain. It's the same word that appears in the third commandment, don't take God's name in vain, or don't carry the name of God lightly. This is the word usually translated as false—and there is another version of the ten commandments in Exodus that actually does use the Hebrew word for false, but here in Deuteronomy it has quite a different sense to it.
So, putting it all together, a very literal translation of this verse is “Don't respond to your neighbor with an empty testimony.” When someone comes up to you with a request, don't put him off, turn her away, or fail to take him seriously.
This is far more difficult for us, as busy Americans, to do than even the whole “no lying” thing. What do we say when we see someone for the first time in the morning?
“Hey, how are you?” “I'm fine, how are you?” “I'm doing alright.” “Good. See you later...”
Empty, hollow, words. Come to think of it, they're usually lies, too. Lies of convenience, because we are too busy with our own lives and list of things to get done to really stop and listen to each other, to hear the testimony of each other's lives.
Don't answer your brother with shallow testimony. Don't respond to your sister with callous disregard. That's not love. Worse, it's loving your neighbor far less than your self, instead of loving your neighbor as yourself.
Michael Simants, who preached here last Sunday, was telling me how strange it has been for him and his family to transition back from a Middle Eastern culture into a Western one after so many months. Western culture is a time-oriented and task-oriented culture. We have places to go, things to do, and all on a tight schedule. Middle Eastern culture is more relationship-oriented, people oriented. It's considered an insult not to stop and talk to someone for 30 minutes when you first see each other in the morning. The meeting or the class doesn't start at a predetermined time, the store doesn't open at posted hours. Instead, all these things start...when all the right people get there.
Michael also reminded me of something I'd heard before—the Chinese character for the word business (busy-ness) is made up of two symbols: the symbol for “heart,” and the symbol for “disappear” or “lose.” The Chinese understand that when we are too busy to see and respond to the needs of our neighbor, we may be getting a lot done, but we are also losing our very heart and soul.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
How do we do that?
Well we could start...by stopping...and saying hello.
And when your neighbor, your friend, any person you share space with on this planet—when that person comes to you with a need, a request, a longing for company, or just a “hello” of his own...
Let your answer be whole-hearted. Let your testimony be gracious. Let your witness be true, in the fullest sense of that word.
Then (and only then) they will know that we are Christians by our love.