Lenten Devotional: February 19th
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
The admonition not to bear false witness against one's neighbor was addressed to the danger of being testified against falsely in the court of law. The word "neighbor" implies that the children of Israel were not the only ones included in the protection of lying; those with whom they shared the land were also included.
We are not to lie at someone else's expense, whether you like them or not, whether they are your people or not; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. The philosopher Nietzsche claimed that lying was the basic necessity of life, but the ninth commandment makes exactly the opposite point - that truth is essential to human society.
That is not to say that bending the truth is wrong in every single circumstance. There are moments when not telling the truth might be ethically necessary, though those moments are rare. Think of an African-American person in hiding from a lynch mob in the southern United States during the 19th century. If someone knocked on the door and asked, "Is the man hiding here?" the answer ought to have been, "No, I have not seen him." If the SS was after a Jewish person in Germany or the Netherlands, the answer should have been the same; whatever it takes to protect the safety of the innocent.
However, playing loose with the truth has a terrible effect on society. As George Orwell put it in his novel 1984, "We get to the point when anything could be true," and perception becomes reality. When that happens, a society is sunk.
Abraham Lincoln once asked his advisors, "If you call a sheep's tail a leg, how many legs will the sheep have?"
"Five," one of his advisors guessed. "No," said President Lincoln, "calling a tail a leg will never make it so."
There is also a more powerful truth-telling we are asked to engage in. In John we are told that the truth will set us free. To be truly free we need to tell the truth about the pain and hope of our lives.
Tell the truth about what keeps you up at night and what breaks your heart. Tell the truth to the people who you are in relationship with. The truth about grief that won't go away, anger that still simmers, anxiety that overwhelms, depression that isolates, lost hope and lost chances.
And then tell the truth about resurrection from the dead, light in the darkness, hope that abounds, justice that is coming, and love that never ends. This is the kind of truth that sets you free.
O God, I confess that I have lied when I could have told the truth. I have also not always told the truth to myself and those closest to me about my pain. There are other times that I have not embraced the truth of resurrection and hope. In the midst of my lies, teach me how to tell the truth about many things so that I may be set free! Thank you that you are a truth-telling God who we can always count on. Amen.
Rev. Brent Barry, Pastor, NorthPark Presbyterian Church