The Finger of God Preserves Reputations
Like an archeologist, the Finger of God in the 10 Commandments has been sweeping away layers of dirt to expose a real "find." In the 2nd Table of the Law we have moved from the sanctity of authority, our neighbor, his spouse and property. Now we deal with his reputation. What we say about him. There's just a thin layer of dust is over our problem now because Jesus tells us that what comes out of the mouth is in the heart.
We're almost there, to the rock hard bottom of our hearts, and then abruptly we swerve away. We reduce the 8th Commandment to "don't lie." We make George Washington the poster child because he admitted to his father he had cut down his prized cheery tree saying, "I cannot tell a lie."
Is this what the 8th Commandment says? Doesn't it rather say, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor?" And don't we confess this means that we are not to tell lies about our neighbor? I'm really not doing what you think I am. I'm not shoveling dirt back over the problem. In fact, I'm trying to prevent you from doing that. Follow me.
If the 8th Commandment is no more than the Boy Scout Law: "A Scout tells the truth." Then what about the Hebrew midwives who let the Hebrew boys live contrary to Pharaoh's command? When asked about it they lied saying that the women gave birth before they got there. What about David who lied to the priest saying he needed provisions for a special mission King Saul had sent him on when in fact he was fleeing for his life from Saul? If you think the 8th Commandment is an absolute prohibition against telling lies, what about the two women in Scripture who each hid spies and lied about where they were?
Our Lutheran forefathers believed the above did right. Luther said it was permissible to lie to thieves and terrorists. Chemnitz said, "To conceal something for an honest and just cause in matters which need not be said for reasons of right or usefulness is not a lie." Ah, but I'm making you uncomfortable. You'd rather I rail against "white lies," "little lies," "half truths." You know why? Because you think you can do that. You'd go on that new show "Moment of Truth" and you'd tell the truth no matter who you hurt, savaged, humiliated, or ruined. If you think you're spouse is fat, you'd say it. If you think you're child is ugly, you'd say it. You believe you can say anything you want, anything at all as long as it's true. You believe in telling the truth even when it hurts, even when it causes others to think less of someone. In reality you have insulated your heart from the truth.
The truth is you can't keep this Commandment at all, have sinned even when you spoke the truth, and face punishments for this you can't even begin to imagine.
The finger of God exposes you haven't kept this Commandment at all. It catches you by the tongue demanding, "How come you're eager to speak the bad but not the good about people?" Then God jabs His finger in our ear saying, "How come not only do you enjoy hearing the bad you can't stand to hear the good about others?" And finally God pokes us in the heart: How many times do you introduce your gossip with the false piety of, "I don't like to gossip?" "How often have you failed to defend someone because you didn't want to be attacked?" "How come you feel silly explaining everything in the kindest way?" The truth is you haven't kept this Commandment at all.
O the damage, the hurt, the filth we've done with our tongue. And it can't be undone. You can't un-ring a bell. Even though James says bluntly, "No human being can tame the tongue," you're thinking: I'll do better next time; I'll try harder, and literally you are damned wrong. You're old Adam that loves to hear and spread gossip will never change. Even if our tongues were cut out and our ears would go deaf, still we'd want to speak and hear what is worst about our neighbor. We can't change Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll; our old Adam doesn't gradually get better and become the new man.
You can't deal with the sin and you can't deal with its punishment. How mad do you get when gossip about you gets back to you? Are you mad enough to hurt someone, kill someone? Well, God is mad enough to damn someone. The Masons take a heinous oath; if they reveal the secrets of the Lodge "May my tongue be torn outburied in the sands of the sea at low-water mark, where the tide ebbs and flows twice in 24 hours." Think that's excessively cruel? God speaks of the tongues of the damned aflame in hell forever. God speaks of the ears of those in hell alive with the anguished howling of the damned. That's what you're asking for by your sins against the 8th Commandment.
But you don't get any of it, Jesus gets all of it. Last week we read how Pilate turned Jesus over to the whole company of his soldiers and how they flogged him. This week after returning from Herod: again with the flogging, again with the whole company of soldiers, again with the on and off of the purple robe. And what's with Jesus dying of thirst yet unwilling to drink the wine mixed with gall?
These are all related. Wine mixed with gall or myrrh was the only measure of mercy the Romans gave the crucified. It was a sedative. Jesus refused it. He must bear the full measure of God's judgment against our sins or there would be some for us to bear, and could you bear even a little? Likewise, one slapping on the mouth wasn't sufficient to pay for the sins you have committed with your mouth. One blow to the ear wasn't enough to pay for the gossip you have relished hearing. One flogging wasn't enough to satisfy God's holy wrath against our hearts that won't defend the weak and feel stupid explaining everything in a kind way. The slapping, the beating, and the whipping had to be repeated. Indeed it had to be eternal and it was because it was administered under the eternal wrath of God.
This is what should and must happen to the King of Sinners. Although the notice said only "King of the Jews" Jesus is indeed King of Sinners. He called us sinners "His people." Moreover, He was made to be sin itself, says Paul, and that makes Him King, Chief, of sinners. This is what happens to the beautiful, luxurious Green Tree when He takes the place of us very dry ones. He is whittled away bit by bit, shaving by shaving, skin layer by skin layer till naked to the flames of hell, they roast Him. And this changes us.
Read Luther's fuller explanation of the 8th Commandment in the Large Catechism. You won't find a word indicating Luther believed it meant Washington's, "I cannot tell a lie." Then go to our Apology to the Augsburg Confession where we confess what a liar is: one who does not think rightly about God or believe Him enough. When what we see in the reading today doesn't change us, it's because we're liars: we don't think rightly about God in Christ or believe enough what He does for us. The full measure of our forgiveness and therefore our freedom from the lies of sin, Death and the Devil doesn't come home to us.
What does Jesus say from the cross about you? After the Romans have thrown the whipped, beaten, bloody, exhausted Jesus to the ground, after they have pounded the nine inch nails through His hands and feet, after they have lifted Him up on the cross, what does Jesus say about you standing there in the crowd? "Forgive him/ her; he/she doesn't know what he/she is doing." Well, that's a lie. I know good and well what I'm doing when I slander my neighbor, listen to gossip, don't defend who others pick on, and can't bear to explain anything let alone everything in the kindest way. And these Romans who crucified Jesus and the church officials that looked on well knew He was innocent. Pilate said so at least 5 times.
However, Jesus doesn't lie. What Jesus says is always true. When He says baptismal water is life-giving, it is. When He says the Words of a man forgive sins before God in heaven, they do. When Jesus says Bread is Body and Wine is Blood, He isn't lying. Our eyes are lying to us when they see no more than Bread and Wine there. Likewise, when Jesus says the dead in Christ aren't dead but alive, sinners aren't sinful but forgiven, and we who know what we're doing, don't, He speaks the truth. We are to believe Him above our own eyes, ears, and conscience. We are to believe what Jesus says about our sins, about our death, and about the Devil above what anyone else says about them.
If from the cross, when all the powers of hell are gathering against Him, when His Father is turning away from Him, when He knows all this comes upon Him because you can't keep your mouth shut or won't open it when you should, if now He says "forgive him/her," what do you suppose Jesus is saying right now about you and your sins in heaven? John tells us He's advocating in our behalf; Paul tells us He's interceding for us.
You know what Jesus is doing even in those moments when your mouth opens and you wish it wouldn't or closes and you wish it would open? He's defending you; He's speaking well of you; He's explaining everything you say, don't say, do or don't do in the kindest way. "No, he didn't gossip; it was a slip of the tongue." "She was going to speak up but she got interrupted." "Dear Father, they don't know what they were doing even though this is the umpteenth time in their life they did it."
And you know what? God the Father believes every word of it for Jesus' sake. He doesn't see you as a foul-mouthed, dirty-eared sinner. He doesn't see you as a gossip, a slander, a betrayer, or a coward. He sees you forgiven, righteous, holy and pure in Jesus.
God's view of you in Jesus colors your view of others. The more you see yourself as God sees you in Jesus, the more you will be able to see others that way. The more you see and hear that God looks upon you with love and acceptance in Jesus, not treasuring up your sins, not nitpicking them out, not relishing to find them, that's how you will treat others. And that's how the finger of God promotes good reputations. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek V (20080305); 8th Commandment, Passion Reading V