"The 9th Promise: Truthfulness"

Psalm 15; I Peter 3:8-18

Rev. Dr. Lisa Rzepka

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The National Geographic podcast titled “Overheard” opens with this quick trivia question: What do the third law of Hammurabi's code, the Ten Commandments, and US code, Title 18, section one thousand one, all have in common? They all prohibit lying. As the podcast reports with good reason: because it turns out as humans, we lie ALL. THE. TIME.[1] Which explains why lying is written about so much in the Bible. Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister. Jacob lied to steal Esau’s birthright. Cain tried to lie to God. And, that’s just in the book of Genesis. By the time the pithy sayings in the Book of Proverbs were put to papyrus, we are given such encapsulated wisdom as:

The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush,

but the speech of the upright delivers them. (12:6)
Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (12:18)
Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. (12:19)

  • Modern proverbs also speak to truthfulness: “There's one way to find out if a man is honest: ask him; if he says yes, you know he's crooked.” ― Mark Twain
  • “Better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.” ― Khaled Hosseini, author of the Kite Runner
  • “Honesty is a very expensive gift, don’t expect it from cheap people.” ― Warren Buffett

In terms of our next reading, the audience of the letter from 1 Peter are believed to be a group of Christians that have endured hardship in the form of lies and slander, verbal abuse and even physical beatings. Historians have noted how name-calling and insults were simply part of ancient culture, especially between representatives of opposing groups. (Sounds pretty current don’t you think?)

It’s even in the Gospels, like when the religious leaders call Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus in turn calls them white-washed tombs and vipers’ offspring. I Peter, however, takes a different approach. He does not focus on shortcomings of either group – rather, he praises the audience for their standing in Christ. His letter intends to offer a microcosm of Christian faith and duty - it’s in the spirit of helping his hearers stay strong even in the midst verbal and physical abuse.

Listen again for a Word from God in 1 Peter, chapter 3, verses 8-18. Suffering for Doing Right:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For “Those who desire life  and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil  and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,  and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God, Amen.

According to recent research -- We all lie. The ubiquity of lying came into research only in the last couple of decades. One study of approximately 150 people found that the subjects lied on average one or two times a day. They also found most of the untruths to be innocuous, intending to hide one’s inadequacies or to protect the feelings of others. [2]

Think for a moment why people lie: There are lies that are told to avoid punishment....

The Nat’l Geographic story says we start this type of lying as early as two or three years old. An example was a story told by a woman who said she liked to eat crayons when she was little. Her mother told her not to, of course. So, the little girl would sneak into the closet to chomp on the colors of the rainbow. She thought she could get away with it.

Her mother asked, “Have you been eating crayons again.”

“No” she replied. At two years old she didn’t realize that her mother was on to her the minute she changed her diaper.

Lies are told that are intended to influence large numbers of people…think car commercials or drug and tobacco advertisements. There are lies to gain an unjust reward... to save face or to avoid embarrassment... or sometimes we lie out of desperation. What would you do: Say you are the widowed parent of three children. You have no immediate family or close friends to turn to. A severe recession has left you jobless for 18 months. Your skills are not in demand. Six months ago, you started looking outside your field, willing to take anything. But even minimum wage positions were scarce and didn’t pay enough for one person to live on, much less four. You’re deep in debt and have filed for bankruptcy. The stress has triggered your diabetes; you have no medical coverage. You are three months overdue on the rent and have been served with an eviction notice. It’s been hard to keep a cheerful, hopeful attitude for your children, who so far don’t know the extent of the family’s precarious position.

Now a job you applied for 12 months ago has come up. The salary is higher than any you’ve ever received, and the benefits package would cover your whole family. You are told the choice is between you and one other person, but you have to swear in writing that you have never taken illegal drugs. Trouble is, you have. You used to smoke marijuana, not a lot, but pretty regularly. You have never taken any other illegal drug and you don’t use pot anymore either — but that hasn’t changed your opinion that it is absurd and hypocritical that weed is illegal when alcohol and nicotine aren’t.

So, do you lie on the application?[3]  Being honest isn’t always an easy decision.

The Jewish Torah, the first five books of our Bible, is clear.
Not all lies are the same. The Talmud, which is a Jewish commentary on the Torah, poses a fictitious question to prove the point, “How does one praise a bride while dancing before her at a wedding?”

The school of Shammai says: Describe the bride as she is.
The school of Hillel says: Describe the bride as beautiful and full of grace.
The school of Shammai retorted: But suppose she is blind or lame. Is one to say, “O bride full of grace,” seeing [that she is not physically whole] and that scripture declares “Keep away from anything false” (Exodus 23:7 in Mishpatim).
The school of Hillel replied, “Would you criticize a purchase your friend makes in the marketplace or would you keep it to yourself? The Sages inferred that we should always endeavor to be pleasant to other people.”The principle is clear: If no one gains unjustly by the lying, the “lie” does not taint us. We have a responsibility to keep private things private.[4]

When this question was posed to the Bible study group this past Wednesday, their response was the same as the school of Hillel: Lying may be okay IF the lie does not hurt someone or give someone an unfair advantage in a situation.

Most of us may remember shorthand version of the ninth command as “You shall not lie.” The command is actually “You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor.” The command is intimately relational and gets to the heart of life together. Someone once said, “Stealing takes away something someone has. Lying takes from people what they are: their reputation, their understanding, the quality of their lives. And the interesting thing is that it takes those things from the one who lies as well as from the one being lied about.[5]

Consider a young man named Alexi Santana, who entered Princeton University in the fall of 1989. The University’s the admissions committee had found the young man’s life story extraordinarily compelling. Alexi had barely received any formal schooling. He had spent his adolescence almost entirely on his own, living outdoors in Utah, where he’d herded cattle, raised sheep, and read philosophy.
Running in the Mojave Desert, he had trained himself to be a distance runner.

Santana quickly became something of a star on campus. Academically he did well, earning A’s in nearly every course. His reserved manner and unusual background suffused him with a mysterious appeal.
When a suite mate asked Santana how his bed always seemed to be perfectly made, he answered that he slept on the floor. It seemed perfectly logical that someone who had spent much of his life sleeping outdoors would have no fondness for a bed. Except that Santana’s story was a lie.
About 18 months after he enrolled, a woman recognized him as somebody she’d known as Jay Huntsman at Palo Alto High School in California six years earlier. But even Jay Huntsman wasn’t his real name. Princeton officials eventually learned that he was actually James Hogue, a 31-year-old who had served a prison sentence in Utah for possession of stolen tools and bike parts. He was taken away from Princeton in handcuffs.[6]

Sir Walter Scott famously wrote, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave...when first we practice to deceive.” 

Hogue may have been suffering from a case of Truthiness.
Remember comedian Stephen Colbert made popular the term “truthiness?” The dictionary definition is Truthiness is the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.

Truthiness or disinformation or false narratives also known as lying, works to conceal the real self even from oneself. When lying becomes easy, and make no mistake, a good liar is smart, it’s been said that “the truth turns to putty in the mind.” It’s moldable, malleable, so that one doesn’t even recognize what the real truth is. Lying is often a sign that there is something deep within we don’t like about ourselves.[7]

Colbert’s use of truthiness especially targeted “spin” or half-truths in the public sphere. The truth, even when it is half-truth, becomes corrupted truth and can be used to deceive. Then it is lying. Much rumor, much undoing begins with partial truths. Thus, reporters and writers, political leaders and their representatives should be mindful of what they are doing to the community as well as what they do to themselves…their reputations. Full truth instead of half-truth needs to be on our minds in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, and wherever people gather together.

Half-truths about our neighbor can be as violent in their effects as the intended false witness.[8]

This ninth command shines a light on the fact that Speech Is Sacred. Speech is sacred because it is godlike. Words create our world. Words influence people’s lives. The sacredness of speech can give new life, or it can take it. It can hold promises and guarantees or it can make the world a harsh place to be. Speech builds hope and community, or it can destroy it.

The Promise of Truthfulness is that Honesty is the glue that holds humanity together. It’s speech like “I have a dream…that one day…this country will rise up to live out its full potential.”[9]

That’s God speech.
It’s the kind of glue that brings people together.

Let us pray:
Sacred God and Source of All Truth
In Jesus, the Christ you offer the Way, the Truth and the Life.
We pray for truth and integrity in all facets of our lives and in our world.
May the truth be spoken by us and affirmed in others, that in seeking truth, the world will know your eternal Love. Amen


[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/podcasts/overheard/episode-2-little-liars.html (9 Aug 2019)
[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/06/lying-hoax-false-fibs-science/#close (9 Aug 2019)
[3] https://web.engr.uky.edu/~jrchee0/CE%20401/Josephson%20EDM/Making_Ethical_Decisions.pdf  (5 Aug 2019)
[4] Chittister, Joan. The Ten Commandments:  Laws of the Heart (p. 103). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
[5] Ibid. p. 104
[6] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/06/lying-hoax-false-fibs-science/ (10 Aug 2019)
[7] Chittister, Joan. The Ten Commandments:  Laws of the Heart (p. 103). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
[8] Miller, Patrick D.. The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[9] https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf (11 Aug 2019)