My earliest memory of encountering the Ten Commandments was in Mr. Orth’s Sunday school class in the junior department.
Some of them were relatively easy to understand: “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t worship other gods.” Some required a little interpretation: I didn’t know what “covet” meant, and a “graven image” was a little obscure.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain at that time meant mostly not using two particular words together, and there was something about adultery that suggested I shouldn’t ask further about that.
The one I found particularly intriguing was, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The language was a little complicated for my mind at that point, but I was satisfied when told that it essentially meant, “Don’t lie.”
I have since read and heard interpretations that suggest how this is related to testimony given under oath, elements of formal agreements and contracts, “white lies,” and other specifics that give it formal application – lots of loopholes that help us get around the problem of “false witness.”
I have often wished that Jesus’ calls in Matthew 5 for higher obedience to the commandments had included this one.
He offers there expanded interpretations on killing, adultery and other rules that render those concepts much more comprehensive than a surface reading would suggest.
How would you think he would have completed the sentence, “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness,’ but I say unto you ….”?
One of the ironies in our current public thinking and conversation has been the passion on some fronts for the display of the Ten Commandments in public places as an affirmation of our common commitment to the values they point to.
Accompanying that passion often seems to be a rather blatant disregard for misrepresenting the person, position and perspective of the “neighbor” in order to gain support for one’s own agenda or goal.
Unprecedented amounts of money are being spent explicitly and intentionally to “bear false witness,” not only in the obvious political contests on all levels, but also in efforts to gain market share in the world of commerce.
If the message is successful in “making the sale” of a candidate, perspective or product, the integrity of the message itself seems to be irrelevant – just “part of the game.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t help being intrigued, almost amused, by the passion to display that so easily ignores the admonition to obey.
Maybe “bearing false witness” can be limited to formal testimony given under oath, while deliberate and carefully designed misrepresentations designed to accomplish what is seen as a worthy purpose (personal gain, political advantage, maintaining an economic status quo) are exempt from this commandment. That rationale seems a little shallow.
And, I can’t help wondering what Jesus would say if he were watching (do we suppose he’s not?) features of our current context, as Matthew reports him doing in his day on the way the commandments were treated, especially by the “righteous.”
It’s not just killing people, he said, but also holding others in contempt. It’s not just committing adultery in the obvious sense, but regarding another human being as an object and a means of gratification. What might he say about bearing false witness?
I wonder if it might be something like this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor;’ but I say to you, If you misrepresent your neighbor in order to mislead others into supporting your efforts to gain power or keep the fruits of injustice, you have broken the integrity of the covenant you claim to embrace. And, if you let yourself be misled by this false witness and make decisions on the basis of it, you too have participated in this breach of the covenant.”
It appears that we are entering a season of intensified efforts, funded by resources that stagger the imagination, to mold and shape public opinion in particular directions.
Many of these efforts will be “false witness,” if that term refers to information that is crafted without primary regard for accuracy and truthfulness.
Those who craft and offer this witness will have to answer for their efforts. The rest of us will need to be especially diligent and discerning as we hear and respond to it, lest we by default contribute to its success.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).