False Witness: Exodus 20:16

There is probably more Scripture about lying than any other sin other than greed – and they do go hand in hand more often than not.  The first lie is in the Garden when Satan causes Eve to question the goodness of God.  In fact, in John 8:44 it says that Satan is the Father of Lies.  It is the one thing he does – the only thing he does in fact.  He lies.

Scott Peck says that the source of all lies is fear and the primary motive of the cover-up is fear.   The central characteristic of the liar is the willingness to sacrifice everyone for their cover-up.  They refuse to tolerate their own sense of sinfulness.  It is always the fault of someone else.  That’s exactly what we see in the case of the first lie, isn’t it?  The woman deceived me and I was afraid.  We lie about others only after we have lied about ourselves.

I remember an interview with Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron, years ago.  He was so self-deceived that he refused to believe he knew what he was doing.  In the 90’s there was a Ponzi scheme whose target was Christian ministries.  Jack Bennett convinced people he had an anonymous group of funders who would not only match but double the contributions of any donor to a ministry.  Donors rushed to get in the game and by the time everything was sorted out over $500 million had been lost and Jack went to prison.  However, even now, Jack contends that he was innocent.  When the whole thing broke Jack made a videotape to explain everything to those who lost money.  The explanation?  He had delegated too much authority to his staff and they had not kept him informed.

Liars lie first to themselves.  Liars sacrifice everyone else.  Liars blame others.

Scott Peck wrote “People of the Lie” to explain why there are families who spend generations protecting a lie and they figuratively – and sometimes literally – kill anyone who threatens to expose it.  It has become something so deeply engrained in the life of a family that they will do everything in their power to protect it.  This is what Peck calls evil.  It comes to reside in people and is not just a sin or two.  It literally takes over a family and that lie is passed down through generations.  The lie almost has a life of its own and it will do what it has to do to survive.

You may have lived with a liar or you may have lived in a family protecting a lie or you may have lived in a culture of lies where misrepresentation and shading the truth have become a way of life.   Michael Lewis wrote “Liar’s Poker” to describe his four years on Wall Street as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers.  It was a culture of lies where the most creative liars were highly rewarded.  It is the world described by Proverbs 29:12:  “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.”  People figure out what is rewarded and what is not, don’t they?  It is living in what Jeremiah describes in Jeremiah 9:  “Beware of your friends, do not trust your brothers.  For every brother is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer.  Friend deceives friend, and on one speaks the truth.  They have taught their tongues to lie, they weary themselves with sinning.  You live in the midst of deception.”

But, like the other commandments, it sometimes works best to flip it around and instead of saying “Don’t lie” say “Be trustworthy”.  I remember when I was a young boy riding in the car late at night with my mother and two sisters asleep.  Just my Dad and I were awake and I asked him, “What would you like me to be, Dad?”  His answer?  “Be honest”.  That was it and the effect of it was the desire to do just that.  It was not “don’t lie” but “be honest” and I think that was an important difference.  You can live life wanting to avoid something or you can live it wanting to become someone.  Being trusted for some reason is far more powerful than not lying.

And that is the focus of so much Scripture – especially Proverbs.  Be as good as your word.  Have honest scales.  Be a person of few words because the more words the more chance you’ll tell lies. Speak healing words.  Be a brother who speaks difficult words.  Speak the truth in love.  Tell the truth even when it costs you a friendship.

But as important as it is to be a person of trust this is not the full intent of this command.  It is not just about personal piety or integrity.  As we’ve said before, the commandments are not for living a good individual life.  They were given for living as part of a community.  They are about relationships – first with God and then with others.  Telling the truth, while an important personal trait, is not what God had in mind completely.  Telling the truth is part of becoming a “nation of priests and a light to the Gentiles.”  They were being prepared to value justice – not just personal honesty.  Justice is only possible when witnesses are reliable and the truth is demanded.

That is why there is a deeper level of meaning in this commandment to not present a false witness. It is a legal term and it means you will not perjure yourself when giving testimony.  In fact, the commandment is far more concerned with lying in the community court than it is in any other context.  That is why it is phrased as a legal term.  You will not be a lying witness.  You will speak the truth in public when another person’s life or reputation is at stake.

Why is that so important?  Why is telling the truth so essential?

Because maintaining the integrity of the institutions – the courts and the government – is the only way to protect the poor, the vulnerable and those who do not have the power to protect themselves. It is not just about telling the truth.  It is not even about protecting a way of life or an economic and political system.  It is about the sin of twisting the purpose of an institution from protecting people to defrauding them.  That begins with the assumption that a person will tell the truth and that the institution is committed to the truth.  As James Madison said in the “Federalist Papers”, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  But he went on to say that people and governments are difficult to control and left unchecked they will distort themselves.  They will use their power not to protect but to rule in their own favor.

If you trace the effect of false witness through Scripture you will see that it is almost always connected to a perversion of justice and taking advantage of the poor, the widow and the orphan.  God says time and again that he will be a witness against those who do this and who allow false witness to go unpunished.  He will testify against those who have used institutions and twisted their purposes to take advantage of people.  He will expose those who have caused people to lose faith in the integrity of their leaders by perverting justice and using institutions to defraud innocent people.  False witness is not just an ethical issue.  It is not just a personal issue.  It is an infection that spreads and eventually destroys justice and righteousness.  And it is justice and righteousness that God desires.

Again, false witness describes the importance of institutions and their integrity.  When injustice becomes a part of the fabric of institutions and they are used to perpetuate it then the social contract dissolves.  Habakkuk 1:4: “Therefore the law has become paralyzed and there is no justice in the courts.”  That is exactly what happened in Israel.  Powerful people figured out ways to use the institutions to benefit themselves at the expense of the poor.  They took their land through deception.  They stole what little belonged to them and put them into debt slavery.  They made it legal to exploit them.

But justice does not only mean making sure everyone gets exactly what they deserve based on the law.  It is deeper than that.  It means to practice grace and mercy towards those who have no power to secure it for themselves.  It means to protect those who are helpless.  The perversion of justice is to make it acceptable to use what was intended to protect to take advantage of people.

You will not give false testimony or use the courts to defraud the helpless is at the heart of justice and righteousness.  What is biblical justice?  Why does Isaiah 1:7 say, “Seek justice”?

Micah 6:8:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Proverbs 24:24-25: “Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent” – peoples will curse him and nations denounce him.  But it will go well with those who convict the guilty.”

Isaiah 61:8: “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.”

Zechariah 7:9-10: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”

Deuteronomy 27:19:  “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”

Proverbs 21:3: “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

I like the way Tim Keller describes it in Generous Justice.

Justice is Care for the Vulnerable

The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.

This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”

In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest. Today, this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and many single parents and elderly people.

The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”

Justice Reflects the Character of God

Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them.”

We are not asked to give them an advantage. Leviticus 19:15 says, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

We are not commanded to make reparations. We are not required to relieve them of every hardship.

However, we are expected to take care of the defenseless and to do whatever we can to keep ourselves and others from taking advantage of them or benefiting from their situation. God calls himself as a witness to testify against those who do and who make it possible for others to do the same.

So, here we are at Thanksgiving and Christmas when we celebrate the generosity of this season. What can we do for the vulnerable in our own church and community? What can we do to not simply avoid lying but to make sure we value honesty, integrity, and faithfulness in those places where we have influence? What can we do to encourage a culture of telling the truth in a culture of misrepresentation and lies? What can we do to be open to others telling us the truth?

I know it seems overwhelming to reverse what seems hopeless. Just this morning I was reading an editorial written by a friend in South Africa.

“It’s infinitely depressing. Especially when we all had such high hopes, the Constitution was the best in the world, our banks worked, our leaders knew they weren’t born to be rulers.”

But, for me, I keep going back to a story I read years ago, “The Man Who Planted Trees” and the impact of one person who kept at something so seemingly insignificant for decades – planting trees. That is what it means to be a witness to the truth.  We cannot fix the world but we can be light in the darkness.

Let me close with a story.

“Chester Arthur the son of a Baptist minister was selected to be the Vice-President of James Garfield’s as a way to secure the electoral votes of N.Y. where Arthur was a political pawn of the powerful Roscoe Conklin machine. It was said that Arthur was rarely at work before 11. and was known for his parties and elegant clothing. He was very wealthy having made his money selling and collecting fines on illegal imports as a customs official in New York the largest and busiest Customs House in the country. He could not have been more unlike President Garfield who was known as a hardworking and incorruptible politician. On July 2 1881 a man supporting Arthur’s faction of Republicans shot President Garfield. As he shot the president the man shouted “Arthur will be president.” Garfield held on to life as Arthur hid in seclusion.

Toward the end of August a letter came to the house from someone unknown to Arthur named Julia Sand. The first few lines echoed what many people seemed to think of Chester Arthur: “The people are bowed in grief Sand wrote, but—do you realize it?—not so much because [Garfield] is dying as because you are his successor.” In other words Sand said Americans were upset that Arthur might become president. The letter continued “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant [sleeping] half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you now is the occasion to let it shine. . . . Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!” With these words Arthur became the President determined to reform. During his administration he instituted reforms and changed corrupt practices that everyone assumed would only become worse when he entered office. When he died one journalist wrote “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur and no one ever retired more generally respected alike by political friend and foe.”

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