The story in this picture had a happy ending, but many people have been hurt or even destroyed by false witnesses, telling evil tales about them. This is the sin God condemns in the 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). This means not only that we should not lie, but that we should say nothing – even if it is true – to harm our neighbor, unless it is our duty to testify against him in court.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
In his Large Catechism on the 8th Commandment, Dr. Martin Luther says:
“This commandment forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure…our neighbor. For to bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue. Now, whatever is done with the tongue against a fellow-man God would have prohibited, whether it be false preachers with their doctrine and blasphemy, false judges and witnesses with their verdict, or outside of court by lying and evil-speaking.This is also the clear teaching of Christ, who says, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Jesus defines a person who passes judgment on others as a hypocrite, who ignores the “plank” in his own eye while complaining about the “speck” in his brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5). In John 8:7, Jesus stops a crowd of sinners from passing judgment on a sinful woman, by saying, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
“It is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor. Therefore, to avoid this vice we should note that no one is allowed publicly to judge and reprove his neighbor, although he may see him sin, unless he have a command to judge and to reprove. Now, if I rush in, judging and passing sentence, I fall into a sin which is greater than his. But if you know it, do nothing else than turn your ears into a grave and cover it, until you are appointed to be judge and to punish by virtue of your office.”
Jesus also teaches in Matthew 18:15-20 that Christians are to correct each other, when they see their brothers and sisters stumbling into sin. This can even mean excluding an unrepentant sinner from the church. This is done not to harm them, but to lead them to repent. It is Jesus’ will to “keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24).
Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth, suffering and dying for us, was to justify us before God. Jesus covers up our sins with His righteousness. He testifies before God that we are righteous because of Him. This is why Jesus holds up the Eighth Commandment in his teachings in Matthew 7 and 18. He does not want Christians to accuse each other, but to cover each other’s sins - just as Jesus has covered ours. As Luther writes in his Small Catechism, God’s love leads us to love our neighbor, so that we “defend them, speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything.”
IMAGE: Botticelli, Sandro (1444-1510). The Calumny of Apelles, 1495, 62 x 91 cm. Location: Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY