Livingthe Truth

Reading: Deuteronomy 19.15-21; Romans 12.9-21
I have heard that what we call Irish jokes are told in Ireland against the Poles. Jokes told against other groups of people can be hurtful. Some of the best humour turns back in some way on oneself.

A man is told by his doctor that he is dying of an inoperable brain tumour, with only weeks to live.

"We do have hope," the doctor says. "We can attempt a brain transplant. However, it is very experimental, and very expensive."

"How much would it cost me?" the patient asks.

"Normally a man's brain transplant is $100,000. You are in luck - we have a woman's brain available, and that one is only $10,000."

Confused the man asks, "Why is the man's brain so expensive?"

The doctor replies, "Because it has never been used."

The third commandment forbade the careless and improper use of "the Lord's Name. The ninth is aimed at protecting the integrity of our neighbour's name - "Do not accuse anyone falsely" (Ex. 20.16) - or in the more familiar words of the King James, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour".

The Sacredness of Truth

The Hebrews weighed their words very carefully - with a kind of concrete and abiding reality, once uttered. Think of Isaac's grief when he realised that he had been tricked into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau (Gen. 27). For us words have much less significance unless they are in writing and duly signed. But God is truthful (note Ex. 19.8) and expects his people to be truthful.

This command was not just about lying in general, but about perjury against one's neighbour. This was taken very seriously. The Law said, "if someone has made a false accusation against a fellow-Israelite, that person is to receive the punishment the accused would have received" (Deut. 19.18.19).

John Stott has written, "Perjury is an extremely heinous offence... False witness can be  borne in the context of the home, the work-place or the wider community, in the form of slander or malicious gossip. The prohibition of false witness carries with it the complementary responsibility to be a true witness. Truth matters to all the followers of Jesus Christ, for he claimed to be himself the truth and said he had come to bear witness to the truth. Lies and subterfuge should be abhorrent to us" (Christian Basics, Eerdmans, 1969).

Personal integrity, inter-personal relations and society as a whole all depend on truth. To lie is to destroy all basis for communication and to make a mockery of human relations. We need to live on the basis of "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".

It is not enough for us to avoid deliberate lying. In protecting our neighbour's name, we need to avoid passing on the half-truth, the distorted truth and the half-baked speculation. We human beings seem to get a sort of vicarious satisfaction out of exposing the sins of others. We are apt to pre-judge people, to "read between the lines", to see what we want to see or expect to see. These things influence our version of "the truth", even first-hand, but especially second- or third-hand. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus has told us to love our enemies. Only a transformed attitude can make us willing to believe something different about them, or at least to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Judge not…

So often we "play god" with people and their character. That is why gossip is so dangerous. Inevitably what is merely suggestion and inference tends to become part of the "attested facts" as the story is passed on. Jesus warns us, "Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way as you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others" (Mt. 7.1,2). We ourselves are accountable to God, and ought not to pass on stories, even when we deem them to be true.

It is quite possible to refrain from false witness and yet, within the strict limits of "the truth" as we see it, to bring discredit on our neighbour's name. Paul reminds us that, as Christians, we must always "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4.15). For the key-note is not simply "the facts", but love as well. Love, Paul tells us, "is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth" (1 Cor. 13.6).

Jesus told Pilate that he had come into the world "to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me" (Jn. 18.37). In reply, Pilate asked, "And what is truth?" We are not told if he received an answer, or even waited for one. But we do notice some brief attempt to deal honestly with the case of Jesus at this point. He could readily discern the false accusations brought against him.

Yet his question remains an important one - "what is truth?"

For Pilate truth was what might ultimately prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. It was something to be sought as the evidence given, sometimes distorted or false, was sifted through. The truth might be kind, but it could also be cruel or unpalatable; it might be encouraging, but it could be crushing and depressing.

Pilate, however, recognised that Jesus was speaking about "truth" in the absolute. It is not simply that he speaks with honesty, but he "bears witness to the truth". Hence Pilate's question.

The Truth, finally and absolutely, is to be found in God, his character and his purposes for this world, his saving acts and his Kingdom established in the hearts and lives of people. In one sense the law, with its condemnation of human sin tells us truly about our human sinfulness. Yet finally the truth is only clearly and fully seen when we are saved, forgiven, renewed in Christ. So, John tells us, "God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (Jn. 1.17).

Paul says that he cannot any longer judge anyone by human standards. He has to view people in terms of their potential "in Christ". "Anyone", he writes, "who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5.16,17). This did not blind Paul to the realities of their sin or rejection of God, or to God's ultimate judgment on those who finally reject his love and grace.

Happy with the Truth

The Scriptures lead us far from the negative command not to accuse anyone falsely. The love to which we are called "is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth."

As Christians, we should never be bearers of the evil tale. That leaves no opportunity for explanation or reply. But, even worse, it is always in the danger of being distorted or partial - it can never be the absolute truth in the Christian sense. "The truth" is not just what that person has said or done, but God's love for that person, Christ's death on the Cross, the forgiveness and renewal that Christ has made possible.

Love is an inclusive principle, not exclusive. It cannot rejoice when the truth is thwarted. Love will ever seek the truth, and will meet its contradiction, not with gossip, but with redoubled prayer, overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12.21).

In J.B. Phillips' paraphrase, love "does not compile statistics of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when Truth prevails" (1 Cor. 13.5b,6). So love will not be a bearer of bad news, but of the Good News.

"Do not accuse [or bear witness against] anyone falsely", the ninth commandment says. And Paul is challenging us to bear positive witness to the Truth, in a sense that is absolute, powerful, restoring and renewing. Let us be sure that our witness to this Truth is clear.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 23 August 1998
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, (c) American Bible Society, 1992.

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