God Protects Our Reputation
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“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Perhaps the most ridiculous proverb in our culture is this one: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a dirty, rotten lie! Words can hurt us… to the core of our being. That’s why bullying is such a big issue. Child psychologists say it takes ten positive remarks to compensate for one negative remark—and I think that remains true for us as adults, too. Words can hurt. Their scars may be invisible to the naked eye, but they can last forever.
The Eighth Commandment has to do with the power of words—particularly, as it applies to one’s reputation. How does one endure being falsely accused? Remember Richard Jewell, the security guard who was falsely accused of the bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics? Or how about the young men from Duke University who were unjustly accused of sexual assault? Not only did their names get dragged through the mud, but their entire lacrosse team suffered as the program was canceled in the rush to judgment.
One of the most irreparable injuries is the loss of one’s reputation. That’s why God give us the Eighth Commandment. The Fifth Commandment protects life. The Sixth Commandment protects marriage. The Seventh Commandment protects property. But the Eighth Commandment protects something arguably just as valuable—one’s reputation. Proverbs 22:1 says: “A good name is more desirable than great riches, to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
What is a reputation? You can’t see, feel, hear, taste, or smell it, but it’s just as real. Everyone has one. And most people care a lot about it. Businesses will spend millions of dollars to create a good reputation. Politicians caught in compromising situations go into damage control to maintain theirs.
Your reputation is about you. It is what others think and say of you. A good reputation makes you welcome, trusted, and acceptable; a bad reputation does just the opposite. A reputation impacts how you will get along with other people. False witness, gossiping, and lying destroy the fabric of society. Without trust and sincerity there can be no human community.
As with any other broken commandment, the Old Testament penalties for this one were severe. Jewish law was careful about prejudiced witnesses. No relative, friend, enemy, heir, or person of disreputable occupation was allowed to give testimony. Two witnesses were required to convict a person of any crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). A false witness received the same punishment the accused would have received if convicted. If the punishment was stoning, the accusers were the ones compelled to push the convicted person over the cliff and throw the first stone. No one took lightly accusing one another of wrongdoing. Why? Because one’s reputation is his or her most important legacy. You can leave behind children. You can found an organization or establish a business. You can make a lot of money and pass on a huge inheritance. But your real value to the world is who you are, your character, your example, your influence.
This commandment protects something more valuable than property or even life itself. It protects your value as a creation of God. It protects all that you are and want to be. And it is so vulnerable. How do you protect yourself from a false accusation? How do you undo your gossip against others? A reputation built up over years can be destroyed in seconds by a false accusation. It can never truly be restored. Confidence and trust are lost.
St. James warns us, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (3:5-6). The tongue can ruin marriages and devastate children. It can destroy careers or start wars between nations. It can lead to suicide. And, it can cause extensive damage to the Church, the body of Christ.
Gossip is, perhaps, the most pernicious sin in the Church. It can be a cancer in the congregation. Think about this: When you gossip about another member of this congregation, you are attacking someone who is a member of the same body to which you are joined. It would be like your hand deciding to cut off your own foot. It would be like setting fire to your neighbor’s house when you both live in the same apartment building.
There’s a saying that “nothing ever happens in a small town, but what you hear makes up for it.” And we laugh at that. But dear friends, sometimes it’s not all that funny. And sadly, I think we could apply that saying to churches, too. Though it is seldom done maliciously, gossip, idle talk, and rumors have a way of inserting themselves into the church. And they can cause much damage to the relationships we have with one another, and ultimately to the Church’s mission.
We don’t realize the power we possess in words. Sometimes our words can’t do much good for people, but they can always do much damage. There is nothing harmless about bearing false witness, about slander, gossip, betrayal, or lying. Do you realize that the mess our world is in today can all be traced back to the telling and believing of one lie? To one bit gossip? The bearing of false witness?
Remember in the garden? Satan saying to Eve—if she ate of the forbidden fruit—“You won’t die.” “You’ll become just like God.” “God is holding out on you.” The devil’s lies and the subsequent actions of Eve and Adam opened the floodgates of evil into our world. And the suffering, the struggle, and the pain that we see all around us every day can all be traced back to those lies as God brought the consequences of their sin to bear.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
When we break the Eighth Commandment in any way, shape, or form, we line ourselves up with the devil and we declare him to be our father instead of God. And that’s serious business. Lying goes to the heart of you who are and who you want to be. It has nothing to do with what you can get away with, but how you want to live. Whose child are you? God’s or Satan’s?
In his explanation to the Eighth Commandment, Martin Luther writes: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
As with all the commandments, there is a negative side and a positive—the sin we must avoid and the good we must do. We must defend our neighbor, speak well of him, and explain his actions and motives in the kindest way. We must not communicate in ways that do not uphold our neighbor’s name and reputation. We should not spread bad reports about our neighbor—even if they are true.
A woman once complained to King Frederick the Great of Prussia about her neighbor. The king said, “That is none of my business.”
The woman answered, “But, my lord, he speaks evil of you.”
“Then it is none of your business,” the king answered.
If we are aware of something negative about our neighbor, but have no authority to act up upon it, we should remain silent. Mind your own business. But if it is your business, follow Christ’s words in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Here we have an excellent teaching for governing the tongue. Do not too quickly spread evil against your neighbor and slander him. Instead, admonish him privately, that he may amend his life. Likewise, if someone reports to you what this or that person has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish that person personally, if he has seen the deed himself. But if he has not seen it, then let him hold his tongue.
Far from making our neighbor’s sin against us public knowledge, Christ instructs us to deal with him privately. Our goal is to win our brother, not to point out his shortcomings. Our goal is to build up the body of Christ, not to tear it down. If someone sins against you, go to him or her personally, privately. To be certain, this is not easy, and it will create a few uncomfortable moments for both of you. But if you don’t feel it’s important enough to deal with personally, if you don’t feel your case is strong enough to present yourself, then perhaps that it is a good indication that the manner should best be left alone.
It should not be your pastor’s job to run around the congregation putting out fires between members. He is not a fireman. Neither are the elders. If someone hurts you, if someone offends you, the strategy that Jesus gives you to deal with it is not to run out and tell someone else about it—not even your pastor. Go and tell the offender you’ve been hurt. Work it out “just between the two of you.” By the way, a phrase that is handy in those times is this: “I forgive you.”
This approach is especially helpful in regard to the pastoral office. A pastor’s integrity is the capital on which he does the Lord’s business. If people get mad at the pastor and instead of coming to him and working things out they decide to bad-mouth him… that hurts the entire ministry in that church. And the price they pay personally is that they can no longer hear the Word of God from their pastor, because their hearts become hard to anything he has to say about God.
In no way am I saying I (your pastor) won’t do dumb things or that my (his) way is always the right way or that you’ll never get upset with me (him)—or I (he) at you. But if that happens—if you get upset at me (him), whether it’s my (his) fault or yours—we (you) have to work it out, or you will starve spiritually. You will not be able to hear the Word from me (him). All you’ll see is the flawed vessel, not the pure contents of the Word of God. And chances are, the conflict will end up causing collateral damage in the church as others are dragged into the fray.
So much for what we must not do. What should we do to help maintain our neighbor’s good reputation? We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we defend our neighbor against false accusations. When we take his part, speak up for him, especially in his or her absence.
We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we refuse to listen to gossip. The ear can sin as well as the tongue. Martin Luther put it this way: “The slanderer has the devil on the tongue, and the listener has him in the ear.” Gossip would never spread if it didn’t have an eager audience.
We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we speak well of our neighbors. Point out their good traits. Praise their good actions and qualities, rather than piling on the criticism.
We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we explain everything in the kindest way. The old advice is to “put the best construction on everything.” Take everything you hear in the best possible way. Look at everything in the best possible light. Assign the best motives to the actions of others. If you make the effort to do this, I guarantee you will save yourself a lot of trouble and anguish. Usually, when someone is grumpy with you, it is not because he has it in for you, but because of something bad that happened to him at work or at home. Instead of taking offense right away, it is good to be patient and try to understand where the person is really coming from.
St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoice with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres… Love covers over a multitude of sins.”
How’s that for a scandal? The Church is engaged in a “cover-up” business! It’s true! We are called to cover one another’s sins. Actually, Christ has already covered them with His atoning sacrificial death. When we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
That’s a great thing about using the liturgy. Corporate confession and absolution is the great leveler. Each week, as we confess our sins together, we are confessing that we are really not any better than our neighbor—we are all poor, miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We have all violated God’s commandment against false testimony. We have all sinned by what we have said to and about others. We have all been eager to hear “bad news” and rumors about other people. We have all failed to protect our neighbor’s reputation and explain things in the kindest way.
But despite all of this, we also all hear the same absolution, the same Word of forgiveness and grace covers each of us. Our Lord Jesus Christ, by His innocent suffering and death, has atoned for our many sins. St. Peter writes in his first epistle: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:22-24).
That’s how God looks at us. He knows you and me at our worst. He’s seen us when we did things nobody knows about, not even our spouse or best friend. But as we heard last week, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). When God sees us—He sees His Son Jesus. Talk about putting the best construction on things!
Jesus stands at our side to defend us. He tells the accuser—Satan—all sins have been paid for by His death on the cross in our place. He covers us with His perfect life so we can stand in God’s presence holy and perfect. We are completely forgiven. The Father knows all we’ve done and all we’ve failed to do. Yet, in grace, He adopts us as His own children. He calls us “precious in My eyes, and honored” (Isaiah 43:4).
Our heavenly Father wants you to think of those around us in the same way—to love them, forgive them, as He would—and, as Luther emphasized, “defend [them], speak well of [them], and explain everything in the kindest way.” This is how you protect your neighbor’s reputation, and in so doing, build your own—as a Christian, a little Christ, being the light and salt of the earth.
Through the cross of Christ, you see your neighbor in a new light. God has cleared your name and his or her name as well. You see your neighbor as one of those beloved children, like you, for whom Christ also gave His perfect holy life into death. You see your fellow Christian as one who, who like you, has also been washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed with His righteousness in Holy Baptism. You see your neighbor as a fellow guest invited to the Lord’s Supper, one with whom you share a most intimate fellowship—Christ’s very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. You trust and believe that you and your neighbor are both covered in Jesus’ words of absolution: You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.