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Luther’s Catechism: Talking the 8th

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

What does this mean? 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.

The Story

Imagine a man standing well into the background of a great commotion. He’s not among the throngs being incited to extremes, but he’s as curious about what’s going on as any other normal “nosey body.” Part of him wants to form an opinion of what’s happening, and share his view with his “world” of influence. The other part sincerely simply wonders, “What the devil is going on there?”

So he strains to see a very average, normal-looking man standing between a group of men holding rocks, and a very weary looking and scared woman, who’s sprawled across the dirt. He doesn’t need to speculate too much. He knows what’s probably going on. This woman is some kind of harlot, and was caught red-handed. These men are probably doing their duty in stoning her for her sin. But what of the man in the middle? He’s seen him around, but doesn’t know too much about him. The rumors are flying of course, but what he hears can’t possibly be true. He’s probably just some new kook that has a lot of words and no truth.

This observant man can’t hear what’s being said, or what the stranger in the middle stooped down to do, but now, he witnesses the group of men who are surrounding this apparent whore, drop their rocks and slowly walk away one by one. The man who stood between them is offering his hand to help the woman up. He is standing entirely too close to her. Doesn’t he know who she probably is? He sees him mouth one last thing to her before moving on. Life is back to normal for the moment, and the crowd is now fully dispersed back into the regular hustle and bustle of the town.

This man, who watched from afar, is curious about this stranger, who seems to be entirely too familiar with people, and especially people of questionable moral character. Instead of talking to him, getting to know him, and finding out why he did what he did, he begins to investigate by asking question to those a little closer to the action.

“He told the men, that they’re the biggest sinners in the world, and God won’t let them into his kingdom when they die!” – Said a man who felt they should have stoned them both.

“He told that woman, it doesn’t matter if you sin. Do whatever feels right for you!” – said an angry teacher of the law.

“He threaten to throw a stone at them, if they threw one at her!” – said a seemingly frightened woman, when prompted by her husband.

This man, seeing from a distance what transpired, and hearing the testimony of these witnesses, including at least one revered teacher of the law, made the decision to keep his distance from this troublesome stranger. On top of that, because of all this knowledge he’s compiled, he feels compelled to sound the alarm, and warn people who get too inquisitive about this stranger who befriends harlots and shames good respectful men of the community.

The Point

I’m not a very sophisticated writer, so you’ve probably already caught on to two things. One, this is a bird’s-eye view of the story of the woman caught in adultery, with some embellishment of course. Two, this is about not having enough direct relationship with someone to make an honest and informed decision about who they are, and what their agenda is.

So my question is, how often do we do that? Better question is how much more, in the joy and rapture of what is social media, do we do that? In a time where opinions pour out from information orifices everywhere, it seems the only way to truly know what’s what is to speak directly to the source. When we do that, we still may still end up disagreeing with the person, but we’d probably stop demonizing them, which tends to be the trend these days.

Considering some of my associations, some of you, if you care to read this, are probably already making up your minds. You’d be right that some of my pastoral friends come to my mind, but it’s with good reason. I’ve had the time to talk with some of them personally. I’ve seen them preach, not just from a conference hall, but from a real live pulpit. I’ve seen them teach in a study session, and I’ve given them my own concerns and heard their very biblical AND relational response. It becomes clear that they are not the caricature some have made them out to be.

Whether labeled, “Radical Lutherans” or “Soft-Antinomians”, if the majority of your understanding of any person is based upon a modicum of information, derived from a stray article of theirs, a sermon they preached, or what’s even more dangerous, someone else’s verbal or written critique, then you could be way off the mark. In fact, you might even be sinning.

WWLS (What Would Luther Say?)

Luther’s small catechism on the eight commandment calls us to first, NOT tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation. A different translation uses the term “deceitfully belie.” I think not having all the information, and making a judgment based upon those very limited facts is a fairly straightforward picture of deceit. You might say, “I didn’t know all the facts.” But you could’ve found out. You choose not to. Whether it was deliberate act, who can truly know but you.

The great thing about the small catechism is that Luther doesn’t just tell us what to refrain from in the commandments, but what to move towards to, and that is acts of love and respect for your neighbor, friend, or family member. He tells us to defend them, and think and speak well of them, and find a way to put the best construction on everything. Here’s an example of the best construction:

“Before I dismiss this person based on a few writers, and maybe a couple of tweets, let me talk to this person personally, let me hear their words, and take them at face value. Let me wrestle with my biases over them and try my best not to shrink down the box I’m looking for them to check off to the point of impossibility. Let me then be an encouragement, speak well of him, and see what he is saying in the best light.”

I’ve walked out of churches because of my biases. I’ve burned a few bridges, and found them unfortunately, impossible to rebuild. I own that. Just me. I’ve also walked into new churches carrying that same baggage with me, waiting for an opportunity with eager anticipation to slap down on its theology or pastor because of a stray word or thought. I’m thankful I’ve got a good pastor who’s both faithful to the word, and has enough patience with me, to help guide me through it.

I’ve seen people in theological discussions, not accept the right answer, because it came from the wrong mouth. This happens in matters of politics, and all of life as well. Heck, I’ve been that guy too! This is an eight commandment issue for us. I know none of us can claim a moral high ground according to the commandments. But as much as we are able, we should seek the high ground. We should seek the best construction.

I invite you to do that. If it relates to anybody in your life, whether down the block, or on the ‘net, reach out with Luther’s encouragement to defend them, or at least think and speak well of them.

Not the easy road for sure.

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