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Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbour

Sermon Nine on the Commandments of God, from Delight in the Law of God

by Father James Thornton

We are at the ninth in our series of discussions on the Commandments of God. Today’s subject, the Ninth Commandment, is especially useful for us because we live in a world that is utterly immersed in lies, perhaps more so than at any other time in history. Yet, God commands us to be truthful at all times. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”[1] In their narrow sense, these words refer to speaking a falsehood about another person. To accuse another falsely, to perjure oneself, to slander, or to gossip—these are most specifically violations of the Ninth Commandment. Yet, as with the other Commandments, it is clear that much more is suggested by these words than is evident from a more narrow understanding of them.  Let us examine some of the ramifications of the Ninth Commandment.

The Ninth Commandment of God deals with falsehood, forbidding the speaking of falsehood, of lies. Since Adam’s fall from God’s Grace, mankind is inclined towards the doing of evil. Let us recall that the Fall of Man resulted, in the first place, from the lie of the Evil One, viz., that disobedience to God would bring about beneficial things, which it did not. The inclination to evil manifests itself in myriad ways, but certainly one of these is man’s proclivity to lie, to serve or to enhance his own interests through the use of falsehood. As was already noted, we live in a veritable Age of Lies. Men today lie about things both great and small. Rare indeed is the politician who does not lie, and lie often. Rare indeed is the advertiser who does not lie about the products he promotes, exaggerating their benefits and ignoring their limitations and deficiencies, while, at the same time, doing the opposite with regard to the products of rivals. Turn on the television or read through daily newspapers, and one is inundated with lies, gossip, and rumors.

There was a time, not too long ago, when fear of God excluded, in most cases, the possibility of lying under oath. No longer is that true, perjury having nearly become the rule rather than the exception. Judges—in the past mostly God-fearing, upstanding, Christian men—today more commonly sneer at Christ and the things of God, making their rulings in accord with their career objectives or some ideological or anti-religious bias. Love for the law and love for truth, so cherished by our forebears, are rapidly disappearing. In contrast to the Zeitgeist, to what is nowadays called “political correctness,” men who fearlessly speak the truth are denounced and ridiculed, and usually driven quickly from public life. Most men and women today eschew unvarnished truth, finding it discomforting, inconvenient, or embarrassing. For the naïve, contemporary public life is thus akin to entering a house of mirrors, where nothing appears as, in fact, it really is.

God is Truth and, therefore, hates the lie above all else. Listen to Christ’s words when speaking to the Pharisees: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.”[2] The devil, Christ says, is “the father of Lies,” without a particle of truth in himself. And so it is that Christ God, the speaker of truth alone, was, and is, hated by the enemies of truth. As Christians, as witnesses of truth, as truth-bearers, we are expected and required to uphold truth, at all times and in all places, without exception.  St. Paul writes: “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.”[3] To bear false witness against another man, to accuse him falsely or testify against him falsely, is a most grievous offense against God, one which, unless sincerely repented of, must spell everlasting catastrophe for the liar.

To bear false witness by attempting to damage the reputation and good name of another through slander and gossip is equally evil and, in the spiritual realm, infinitely more injurious to the liar than to the victim, for it will place the liar in company with the father of lies for all eternity. As St. John Chrysostomos reminds us, “Wherefore not those that are slandered, but the slanderers, have need to be anxious and tremble.”[4] To speak lies through gossip and slander in a casual manner, murdering another’s reputation thoughtlessly, without concern for the injury done, is also an extremely serious evil, one which soon becomes a terrible and soul-destroying habit, broadcasting, as it does, destruction, hatred, and strife in every direction. Even worse, once spoken, the gossip and slander take on, so to speak, a life of their own, becoming uncontrollable and unstoppable, like a runaway nuclear chain reaction, annihilating truth as an atomic explosion annihilates life. For all of this, for all of this, for the engulfing disaster that gossip and slander inevitably become, the foul tongue of the initial speaker is wholly responsible, and will be so judged by God. St. John Chrysostomos writes that, “mouths made bloody with human flesh are not so shocking as tongues like these.”[5]

And let it not be thought that gossip is permissible if we imagine the accusations to be true. Unless there are sound reasons for speaking to someone of some unpleasantness about another person—for example, to protect oneself or others against serious danger or some criminal activity—, we should mind our own business and say nothing harmful against any man. It is not our place to judge others. Christ admonished us, "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged."[6] He further warns us, “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”[7] We do not judge others since, as Saint Dorotheos of Gaza states, "You may well know about the sin, but you do not know about the repentance."[8] Lastly, listening to gossip and slander is also reprehensible, sanctioning the evil by our attentiveness to it. To those who gossip, the Christian response should be, at the minimum, “Gossiping is a sin and I do not wish to hear it.”

Two things must the Christian man or woman bear in mind at all times with regard to the Ninth Commandment. The first of these is always to speak truthfully, never to lie. We read in Holy Scripture, “Lying lips are abomination to the Lord: but they that deal truly are His delight.”[9] Let us always deal truly with everyone, with all of our brothers and sisters. If some petty situation requires that we avoid giving offense in speaking the truth, let us rather say nothing. The second thing to bear in mind is that we must always guard our tongues. If we were to gather together all of the sins of the world and categorize them, perhaps the greatest number of sins would fall under the label “sins of the tongue.” Guard your tongue, lest, as St. John Chrysostomos writes, you make “the judgment seat dreadful to thyself.”[10] By our words, we will be judged on Judgment Day; by our words we will be saved, or by our words we will be condemned. Let us always be mindful of our words.

Endnotes

[1] Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20; St. Matthew 19:18; St. Mark 10:19; St. Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9.

[2] St. John, 8:44-45.

[3] Ephesians, 4:25.

[4] “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” trans. Rev. Sir George Prevost,. rev. Rev. M.B. Riddle, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Ed. Philip Schaff. 1st Ser., Vol.X: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 270.

[5] Ibid., p. 138.

[6] St. Luke 6:37.

[7] St. Matthew 12:36-37.

[8] [St.] Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, trans. Eric P. Wheeler (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 135.

[9] Proverbs 12:22.

[10] “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” p. 158.

From the highly edifying new book Delight in the Law of God, by the Rev. Dr. James Thornton, pastor of Holy Trinity Eastern Orthodox Church in Oxnard, California. Posted on Nov. 18, 2009.