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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

9th Commandment: You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor

Exodus 20:16


“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

Matthew 7:1-5


7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

After much contemplation, I decided to pair these two passages, not because they are a perfect match, they aren’t, but because when we are bearing false witness against anyone it usually comes with a heap of judgment. And when we are judging others, we are usually skewing the truth so that our judgment feels justified. Neither of these scenarios are good.

Traditionally, the commandment to not bear false witness against your neighbor was used primarily for any kind of disagreement, especially when the courts or judges were involved in deciding the matter. But how do we interpret bearing false witness in the 21st century. This commandment becomes applicable to everything we do. It can apply to spreading gossip, memes that aren’t truthful, and even postings on social media that have not been verified. If you don’t know whether it is truthful or not, then it shouldn’t be posted. And if it only serves to denigrate someone else, it probably shouldn’t be spoken or posted.

Are we guilty of bearing false witness? Yes! All the time – often inadvertently. There are times when we will repost things on social media that we have not personally verified, and without realizing it, we have just propagated an untruth. God calls us repeatedly to speak the truth in love. If I’m approaching every situation with love in my heart, the likelihood that I will bear false witness against someone diminishes greatly. But how does this relate to not judging?

Bearing false witness is the quintessential activity of judging; and we are good at it. We judge people by what they wear, how big or small they are, their politics, their religion, what they believe or don’t believe, whether they like the same things we do or not, and so on. There are thousands of ways to judge others, and when we do, we are quick to announce our judgment. It even surprises us when we get it wrong.

My dad tells the story of a black man who came into the Buick dealership in my hometown. He waited patiently to speak with a salesperson, but everyone in the showroom was rather reluctant to help the man. Finally, he had to ask someone for assistance because he wanted to buy one of their cars on the lot. The salesperson invited him over to his desk to “see if he would qualify for financing,” and the man looked at the salesperson and said, “No sir, you don’t understand. I have cash in hand and want to buy that Buick out there.” Dad said that everyone in the building looked at the man with skepticism, so that man went out to his car and brought in a bag of money. Once he did, he said, “Now do I have your attention.”

This story illustrates the point of judging quite well. Everyone looked at this black man and assumed he was in the wrong place, that he couldn’t possibly have the means necessary to buy a new car, much less pay cash for it. Everyone in the building judged this man based on the color of his skin. What Jesus tells us is that when we judge others we will also be judged. Often our judgments are about things that no one can change, like the color of someone’s skin. More importantly, though, when we judge, we really do damage to our own self-image.

Jesus goes on to describe what judgment looks like. We complain about the speck in someone else’s eye when we have a log in our own. This brings us back to a common theme throughout our study of the commandments, that introspection should always come first. Through self-examination, we should be able to determine our own failings and be willing to do something about them. In fact, if we spent more time cleaning up our own lives, we wouldn’t really have time to worry about the lives of others.

So, when do we get to complain? This is often the question I get asked when we talk about judging. Someone will confess, “I really just want to understand more clearly why they did what they did?” Fair enough. My question back, though, is why? Why do you need to understand someone else’s motives? Do their decisions directly affect you? Judging is often accompanied by our insatiable need to know things that don’t have anything to do with us. I might wonder why someone would put in a swimming pool in the back yard if they did not know how to swim. Knowing more about the situation might alleviate my judgment, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me.

This concept has been a difficult one to wrestle to the ground. We are good at making all kinds of circumstances and situations relative to our lives when they clearly are not. I have learned to ask myself three important questions before I pass any kind of judgment on others: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? Most of the time, it really isn’t necessary.

What also comes from judgment is a misguided notion that we can separate behavior or belief from the person. I heard this so much growing up, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” We are incapable of doing this at its most fundamental level. We equate folks with their behavior and their beliefs. We assume all kinds of things about people when they divulge their beliefs, much less their behaviors. We tend to look at people who behave certain ways or believe certain things as “stupid.” It doesn’t take long for us to look at them as stupid people. They become the things they believe in or the ways in which they behave.

What would happen, though, if we focused more attention on our own thoughts and actions? What if we spent our spare time working on ourselves, learning how to be the best versions of ourselves that we could be?

There is another trend that I see that is incredibly destructive. When someone believes they have a right to condemn someone else’s behavior because of how they understand the Bible. They stand firm in the idea that it is their God-given right and necessity to tell others what they are doing wrong and why. They will tell you it is because they do not want anyone to perish but want everyone to have eternal life.

This kind of God-complex is dangerous. It asserts that the individual engaged in this kind of judgment somehow has an inside track with God; knows the mind of God so well that they have been given authority to set the world to rights. Maybe I’m wrong, I’ll deal with God if I am, but I don’t believe that God has given any of us that kind of authority. What Jesus is saying in our passage today is to stay in your own lane. It is too easy to condemn others for all kinds of things. We are quick to judge our neighbor, often without any proof. And even if we do have proof, our neighbor’s behavior is between them and God. We have much work to do in dealing with our own issues. It could take us a lifetime to understand our motivations, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. I know personally, the more I question myself, the questions I have for myself. It is a perpetual cycle.

It is my hope and prayer that we will all hit the pause button on judging, that we will take a step back and focus our attention on fixing ourselves first and being of service to others. This is our highest calling. This is the more narrow path.

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