TEXT:  Exodus 20:16; John 8:42-47


            Like many of the other commandments, the command not to bear false witness is simple on the surface and complex and far-reaching underneath.  The terminology is legal.  When you are called upon to be a witness in court, don’t be false.  Tell the truth.  Not the statement that is technically true, but the whole truth as you know it.  “So and so did not kill the man” may be technically true, but if the person was standing next to the person with the gun, aiding in the crime, you have not told the whole truth.  You have borne false witness.  And of course it goes without saying that if the person DID do the act, you have no business proclaiming in public that he or she did not.

            That’s the simple part.  Don’t lie, don’t embellish, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.  At least it’s simple to understand and to realize when you’ve broken the commandment.  It is by no means easy to always tell the truth, even in that.  If telling the truth is going to put someone you love in prison; if telling the truth is going to put you in prison; or even if truth-telling is going to result in lesser consequences of embarrassment or loss of relationship, it takes a lot of courage to speak the truth.

            But we have only begun to talk about the commandment when we talk about our witness in court.  To bear false witness is to misrepresent reality to the world.  It isn’t about what we tell ourselves so much as it is about what we proclaim to the world through our speech and actions.  And that opens it up to every move we make and every word we speak to another.

            This ties in very closely to the last commandment on stealing, which recognizes that God is the owner of all things and we exist on this earth as stewards.  We don’t own the earth, family members, money, the bodies we live in…none of it.  It all belongs to God and we are the trustees to use those things for God’s purposes. 

            When we don’t act as stewards; when we appropriate God’s stuff and treat it like our own, we are not only stealing, we are bearing false witness.  When we say, “It’s my body, I can do with it as I like,” that is false witness because it’s not true.  When we chop down even a single tree just because it’s in the way of our plans and we think we have a right to do with trees as we wish, we are bearing false witness.  It’s God’s tree.  If it’s okay with God that we cut it down, fine.  Down it goes.  But if we act like it is ours, we have told a lie.

            When we do not treat others like God’s beloved, we are bearing false witness.  Domestic violence is false witness.  Racism and hate speech are false witness.  Those words and actions proclaim that another person has less value than other people.  You don’t have to go further than Genesis to see that is wrong.  Every human being is made in the image of God…every human being.  When we treat someone as less, or when we act like we are superior to others, we have borne false witness.

            This reaches extremes in suicide and murder.  Both make claims that someone is unfit to live.  That is false witness.  We can’t go beyond God’s reach.  There is always forgiveness, there is always redemption, there is always unconditional love for every person on the planet.  To say a life has no value and must be ended, whether it is our own life or the life of another is a lie.

            I could go on all morning with the list because, in fact, every single sin you can name is a false witness, unless as you sin you shout out, “I’m sinning now…this is not what God intends!”  That is why I chose part of one of Jesus’ more confrontational speeches as the Gospel lesson this morning.  This is the one place in the Bible where we are taught what evil actually is, rather than just seeing what evil does.

            The devil, says Jesus, is a lie.  He is a lie himself and is the father of all lies.  Elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that he, by contrast, is the truth.  When you want to know whether something is evil or good, the first question to ask is, “Is it loving?”  The second question to ask is, “Is it the truth.”

            All evil, great or small, begins with a lie.  The great evils of the Holocaust and of slavery began with the lie that some people are inherently better than others…or that those who look different are not people at all.  From the lie that God will not save those who don’t believe the right things came the great evils of the Inquisition and the Crusades.

            When we tell a lie…when we tell the world that things are one way when they are really another…we have participated in evil.  And it’s not always easy to tell whether we have spoken truly…even in the small things…because our culture is very focused on what is technically true, not what is true for the soul of the world or what is true in the eyes of God. 

            I recently was asked to fill out a questionnaire that asked for a time when I had lied and felt it was the right thing.  I answered with a time I had told a child that a completely scribbled drawing was beautiful.  As a technical question, it was a lie.  It wasn’t a lovely picture, it was a bunch of scribbles.  The child will have to improve a good bit before being admitted to an art school.  But, as I thought about it, I’m not so sure it was a lie in the larger sense.  I think in the eyes of God all creation is beautiful, and I may have spoken a profound truth in the midst of thinking I was lying.

            On a much larger scale it is hard to separate the truth from the lie because so much of our world has been built up around fundamental lies.  I did a search on the internet on the false witness commandment.  In page after page of results, almost all of them were talking about political speech.  All parties do this.  We have begun with the foundational lie that winning is the most important value, and therefore as long as what we say furthers that end, we think it is good.  We make promises that no one can hope to deliver, proclaim that those who vote differently from us are immoral, and set ourselves up as the savior of the world.  It’s all false witness.

            On the way back from Florida in January, I heard a speech on the radio given by Dr. James Joseph, Ambassador to South Africa.  It was a speech on ethics and diplomacy, and his fundamental question was whether or not it was possible for morality to enter into diplomatic discussion.  I was floored by the question…apparently I still have corners where I am very naive.  He talked about how upset South African diplomats would get with Nelson Mandela when he would agree to what was right when it went against the national interests of South Africa. 

In his experience, no country does that.  A diplomat is assigned to put their country’s national interests above all else, even above doing what is good and right for the world at large.  It was so common that here he was giving a speech and asking people to consider whether it might be possible to have a moral diplomacy.  I had always assumed that our diplomats were being guided, at least in part, by some sort of moral compass.  According to Ambassador Joseph, however, this is not the case.  If what is good for my country happens to be morally right, that’s a happy coincidence, but a coincidence only.  And when some, like Nelson Mandela, try to act differently, there is outrage and even threats.  That was an eye-opener.

Don’t let anyone tell you that it is easy to tell the truth in this world.  If you try to tell the truth in too large a forum, people will kill you.  They killed the nun who was trying to protect the Amazon rainforest.  Her crime?  Telling the truth that the laws designed to protect it were being broken by armed militias.  Jesus told the truth that God was much more interested in love than legal wrangling.  But legal wrangling had earned a lot of people a lot of power, so they killed him for threatening to take that power away and give it to the poor.

Telling the truth about important things will get you in trouble.  But telling a lie, even about trivial things, will get you and everyone you know in more trouble still.  Telling a lie…bearing false witness…makes reality appear to be something different than it really is.  If people accept our new version of reality, then we have to keep creating lies that are in keeping with the new reality.  Soon we aren’t just telling lies, we are living lies, and we are moving father and farther from God in the process.  And the further away we go, the harder it is to tell lies from the truth.  The lie becomes the reality in which we live…evil thrives and grows, and atrocity will soon follow.  That is the story of much of human history.

But we do have glimpses of how lives and even entire nations can be altered when even one person will dare to tell the truth.  Rosa Parks told the truth that she was as good as any white person when she refused to move to the back of the bus.  Mother Teresa told the truth that all are worthy of God’s love and care as she took care of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  They weren’t people with exceptional talent and ability.  They were simply people with great love and great courage who elected to tell the truth.

That is what God is asking of us in this commandment.  We don’t need great talent.  We don’t need to be in positions of great power.  All we need to do is, with great love and great courage, in word and in deed, to bear witness to the truth.  “And what is truth?” Pilate asked of Jesus the night of his trial.  If he had only been listening.  Jesus had already told his disciples that he was the truth.  Truth is not a what, but a who.  Jesus is truth.  God is truth.  Which means the keeping of this commandment wraps us right back to the first one…to have no other gods.  Put God first.  That is truth.  Amen.


© 2004, Anne Robertson

Return to