Truth and Justice
Posted by Ros Clarke, 16 Mar 2018
Ros Clarke explores the ninth commandment as part of our series of Lent blogposts on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer.
The ninth commandment
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? Perhaps a teacher assumed wrongly that you were involved in causing trouble. Maybe your parents sometimes jumped to false conclusions. Or, more seriously, you might have been legally charged with a crime you didn’t commit.
It’s a horrible thing when it happens. We rightly rush to defend ourselves, to provide evidence that we’re innocent, to speak up against the accusations. But even if we can prove that we didn’t do it, the whole thing leaves a bitter taste. Why were people so quick to believe wrong of us? Don’t they know us better than that?
A false accusation is always hurtful and unpleasant. A false accusation made deliberately is much, much worse.
When your brother lies to your parents, telling them he saw you break that plate.
When someone you thought was your friend goes telling lies to a teacher, so that you get stuck with a detention you’ve done nothing to deserve.
When a person stands up in court and gives false testimony condemning you.
That’s not just a lie. That’s a lie which damages lives, breaks relationships, and destroys society. That’s a lie whose victim is justice itself. And without justice, there is anarchy.
God tells the Israelites that they must not give false testimony, not only because he cares about truth, but also because he cares about justice. Their society is to be built on truth and justice, because their nation is to bear witness to God himself.
How is the ninth commandment a mirror?
This commandment reflects those two fundamental aspects of God’s character: truth and justice.
“God is not human, that he should lie,
not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?” Numbers 23:19
God’s honesty is absolute. He cannot lie. He does not break promises. He will not bear false witness.
God is a judge who will always judge justly. He knows all the evidence. He is not deceived by false testimony. His justice is absolute.
But we are human beings and we do lie, change our mind, break our promises. First the serpent, then Eve, and finally Adam, distorted God’s words to them in the garden. Twisting the truth, not telling the whole truth, and abandoning the truth altogether, the devil is the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44), and our sinful nature makes us like him.
How is the ninth commandment a deterrent?
Leviticus 23 expands on this commandment, showing us why it is such a serious matter:
“Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness. Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit. If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 23:1-9
Why might we be tempted to bear false witness or act unjustly? Exodus 23 suggests:
It’s an ugly list, isn’t it? Injustice is an ugly thing, arising from ugly motives. The lie may seem a small thing. It may feel easy as it slips out of your mouth. But the lie is always a symptom of a black, sinful heart.
Don’t bear false testimony because it’s yourself that you will condemn.
How does the ninth commandment set a standard for our behaviour?
The commandment tells us not to bear false testimony against our neighbour. We know who our neighbour is, as Jesus illustrated so powerfully in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37): everyone. God’s standards of truthfulness and justice must be applied across the board.
Paul tells the Colossians that lying is incompatible with being a Christian:
“But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Colossians 3:8-11
As we become more and more like our heavenly Father, we cannot continue to imitate the father of lies.
As we are joined into God’s family, we cannot continue to show prejudice to some of that family. There is no difference: Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, black or white. Christ is all and is in all.
Questions for reflection:
1. Why does God give this commandment?
2. Look at the list of reasons given in Exodus 23 for bearing false witness. Which do you find hardest to resist?
3. What steps could you take to work positively towards truth and justice in your community?
Prayer: God of all justice, who sees and knows all truth, forgive us for our deceitfulness and injustice. As those who are being renewed in your image, make us honest and just in all our dealings. May we be known as people who are trustworthy and fair, bearing witness to your truth and justice. Amen.
Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society
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