“Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16, Common English Bible)
In an episode titled “Greater Good,” from the first season of the drama-comedy Boston Legal, Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner) represent a large, drug company in a civil suit. The two lawyers disagree on a key ethical issue surrounding the lies about a clinical trial for a new drug.
The doctor who participated in the clinical trial is conflicted. Shore wants her to be truthful about the potential harm the new drug may have caused its patients. Crane, on the other hand, wants her to be quiet about it. Shore reminds the doctor that when she testifies in court, she will be under oath. Mr. Shore’s intention, of course, is to persuade the doctor to speak truth.
Warren Wiersbe stated that truth “is the cement that holds society together.” A quick look at our society today and we see a lot of cracks in the cement. Politicians seem to be caught in a lie every day. Clergy have been brought up on ethical charges for lying about the nature of relationships. Swimmers were caught in an olympic lie in Rio (more on that later).
Perhaps it was the divine knowledge that truth is the cement of a society is why one of the commandments on Moses’ tablets was about being truthful. “You shall not bear false witness,” the commandment says.
Or, as we teach in Sunday school, “Do not lie.”
This commandment is the basis for swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. While the lawyer Alan Shore may not be a spiritual character, he does have a moral compass. In “Greater Good” Shore’s moral compass is telling him that the truth needs to be told. No matter the risk.
Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim writes about this commandment: “At stake is justice for anyone who uses the judicial system.” In the lawless, wilderness society of the ancient world, this law’s intent was to protect all people in a system that could be unjust. We do not have to look far to see that this is still an issue of great importance today. Young, white men getting reduced sentences after committing rape, while young, black men receive longer, harsher sentences for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.
The intention of not bearing false witness was to hold a society together.
Then, there is Ryan Lochte.
The Olympic swimmer was taught in a lie. . . . . about a bathroom door.
CBS Sunday Morning contributor Paul Mecurio calls it a “product of our environment.” Since the beginning of time there has always been lying. It could be argued that much of history has been shaped by these lies.
We get it, right? We do not want people to think ill of us, so we tell a little white lie about our career or our family. Then, there are those moments around the water cooler gossiping about our co-workers. Or, as in Lochte’s case, we may have had a little too much to drink and then went on national television.
It is almost easier to lie, especially when the truth hurts. To tell the truth is not always easy. You risk upsetting someone you care about. There is the risk of being the topic of choice when you are not around. Then, there is the additional risk of being branded as not being a team player. All because you spoke truth.
The ancient law goes beyond the legal context.
It speaks to character – the character of the person speaking, as well as the character of the persons being spoken about. It is a directive against deceptive, slanderous or empty talk, efforts to deceive, causal gossip or rumor.
Here’s the thing: the commandment to be truthful is about relationships. This is the heart of being people of faith. We are called to be in beloved community with one another and with God. Where lies destroy relationships, truth-telling strengthens.
Here’s the other thing: in Exodus, and throughout the sacred text, “neighbor” means “anybody.”
Do not bear false witness about anybody.
When we lie, we are doing harm to our neighbors. Whether it is our spouse, our parents, other church members, co-workers, or people of another country. Everybody is our neighbor, whom we are called to love. Lying chips away at that love.
Back to Rio. When Lochte and the other swimmers lied about what happened to the gas station bathroom door, they were doing harm to themselves, their teammates, and their Brazilian neighbors. They were showing disrespect. It is easy to say that when a high-profile person like Ryan Lochte lies, along with other high-profile figures, it is a produce of the environment, and shrug it off as if it is normal.
But, we are people of faith.
The prophet Zechariah told the people, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace.” (8:16, ESV). And the writer of Ephesians wrote, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (4:25, ESV).
To love others is to be truthful.
It means to take the risks to share the truth in love, not hide behind lies. This is a tall order. And, it will not be easy. But, Jesus never said it would be.