In the ninth commandment, and thus at the end of the law, we find mention of the neighbor for the first time in that law.
The first four commandments speak literally of God. The fifth makes mention of father and mother. Six, seven and eight are quite general in their brief, forceful commands. But nine and ten make mention literally of the neighbor.
We would, in the treatment of the matter of Love and the, Neighbor’s Name, be inclined at once to try to determine who that neighbor is. That makes good sense apparently. How can we speak of the neighbor’s name unless we know who that neighbor is? And unto whom must we show love? Is it not to that neighbor in his name? But the words of Jesus urge us to go more deeply into the matter and to have another approach. You will recall that a certain lawyer once tried to tempt Jesus with the question, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And when Jesus told him to love God with all his heart, his soul, his mind and, his strength and to love his neighbor as himself, he asked the question, willing to justify himself, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told the parable of the Merciful Samaritan and applied it with the question, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among thieves?” The lawyer answered, “He that shewed mercy on him.” Whereupon Jesus said unto him, “Go, and do thou likewise.” The plain thrust of Jesus’ words is that we are to ask ourselves the question, “Whose neighbor am I?” From a practical point of view that must be our approach to the problem. All too quickly we assume the position of the lawyer in order to try to escape our obligation. It removes it a little farther from us to ask the question as to who is our neighbor. It brings it at our own feet and presents us with our own calling more forcefully to ask the question as to whose neighbor we are.
We are neighbor, then, to every man, woman and child whom we may meet in one way or another. We may meet them personally and physically upon the street as the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan. We may meet them upon the printed page or over the phone, the radio or television. Their needs may be made known to us by the sight of our eyes, by the sound in our ears, by the doleful cry or by the touching letter. They may stand before us in their names only, or they may stand physically before us. They may be there in their names by the printed page or spoken word. And the telephone makes such a convenient means of gossip and lengthens the back fence to stretch it across city limits and state lines, if not continents, to ruin the neighbor’s name. Of course, the written letter is also such a powerful tool for widening the scope of backbiting and slander, of gossip and character assassination. Therefore we are neighbor to so many people, because today we can get in contact with so many people near and far.
Our neighbor is the man next to us; and we are neighbors to those who are next to us. We are neighbors to every man that crosses our path and to every man whose life’s pathway we cross. However, he is neighbor to us and we are neighbor to him as long as we can remember him. We may have met him but for a few moments, and we may never see him again or even hear of him again. But that does not mean that we may speak evil of him just because he is no longer on the scene. Death does not even take away the fact that he was our neighbor. We may not after the neighbor’s decease speak the evil against him that we did not dare to do in his lifetime, anymore than we may do so about him in his absence, when we did not dare in his presence.
A man has a name in this life; but we can sin against him after he is dead, if we bear false witness against him in gossip, backbiting, slander and the like. We do not hurt him, as we could while he is alive. But we sin against him nevertheless and against his family as well that is still living. And, of course, we sin against God when we speak evil of the departed, whether they be saints or sinners. Exactly because when a man dies his soul is still in existence (and he is not like the beast whose soul is in its blood and is destroyed when its blood is shed) he still is a person; and when we misuse his name, we do sin.
By the name of the person we mean the revelation of his person. The person stands before us in his name. Mention the name of a man, and you touch his person, you refer to a person, you call the attention of others to a definite person. We sometimes use the word name also in the sense of reputation. A man may have a good name or a bad name. And then we mean a good reputation or an evil one. We need but mention a person’s name in connection with a sin, and we have attached sin to that person. Now, there are times when we have to do that. The judge in the courtroom must point out the guilty party by name. He does not simply pronounce that a crime has been committed, but he designates the culprit by the use of his name. However, then that man does not get a bad name. He had that name and deserved that name because of his deed. The judge simply declares that justice demands that this name be known for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty.
When the law, then, says that we may not bear false witness against the neighbor, it means that we may not give him a bad name. Under NO circumstances may we give him a bad name. He may have one—and do we all not have one before God?—but that bad name must not be due to the fact that we have borne false witness against him. When I say, Wemay not give him a bad name, I mean, we as neighbors. The judge in the court room, the elders in the consistory room, the parent in the home stand in a different relation to the one accused of sin than a neighbor does to a neighbor. Sin must be reported to the authorities, and thus a potentially evil name must be given. We say potentially evil because there are times when we must leave the possibility that the accused can defend himself and is not worthy of that evil name, which from our point of view seems just and which we report in concern for truth and righteousness. This does not mean that you quickly rush a matter to the consistory or to the earthly judge. You can sin against the neighbor that way. We better be very sure of our facts before we witness anything against the neighbor, whether it is true or false witness. We better be sure when we witness against him that we speak a true witness, and that means that we investigate thoroughly and do not act upon some gossip we heard from a neighbor and which has presented us with only one side of the matter. But it is possible that we are ourselves eyewitnesses of a matter that looks all wrong to us, or which we deem to be a sin against us, that the ruling body, having sifted-the evidence and having heard the explanation of the accused, finds not to have been a sin after all.
To prevent such a false witness the witness ought first to contact the party against whom he plans to witness. The explanation given to him might remove the offence or, if a private sin, obtain the confession that would make reporting and witnessing to the authorities unnecessary, and in fact wrong. A minister is seen at one o’clock in the morning riding with a strange woman! His consistory ought to know that! And Sunday we celebrate the Lord’s Supper!’ How can that man serve? And so the consistory is alerted and witness is brought against him. Had he been approached first, he could have explained the whole matter away to the satisfaction of this “witness.” This was simply a former parishioner passing through, who had requested his assistance in transporting her from one depot in a strange, large city to another depot, from the airport to the bus depot or the like. O, it was true witness in as far as the fact goes that he was seen with that woman. But a false construction was placed upon it and it was a witness against his good name unjustly. We better be sure of our facts, and that means, surely, that we contact the neighbor against whom we intend to witness or believe that we must witness. What seems to us a potentially bad name may not be such after all. And then we will obtain the name of not dealing with the neighbor in love.
The ninth commandment implies the right to witness. But we insist then-that it must be witness before the proper parties. If it is a private sin, one must first bring it to the attention of the one who has offended. He has a right to that. And, if it is a private sin, no ecclesiastical body will listen to it, unless the offended has first labored with the offender. But how much more evil to witness against the neighbor to those who are not in authority and thus not in a God-ordained position to pass judgment in the case. It may be true witness. It may even be a very grievous evil that has been committed. But it is not love to witness of it in a wider circle than that of the offended and offender and any other eyewitnesses of the deed. The reason for this is obvious. We must do all in our power to deliver from that sin. We must not want that neighbor to continue in his sin any longer. But, therefore, we must not make it hard for him to confess and to turn from his evil way by exposing it to more eyes and to more ears. The more public we make the matter, the more difficult we make it for the offender. Love does not want to make it harder but to bring to repentance as soon as possible.
Gossip, slander, backbiting are seeking revenge and are sinning against the one who sinned against us. All these reveal a heart that is itself not right with the offender. And all these, therefore, also reveal a heart that is not right with God. “Vengeance is Mine, I will recompense, saith the Lord. “Hebrews 10:30. But we deny Him this right when we gossip and slander and backbite. We are going to beat Him to it. We are not satisfied with His slow justice and are not content to wait for the judgment day. We want revenge in this life. We want to get even, rather than to get a confession, and conversion.
The same is true of a public sin when there is gossip, backbiting and slander. When we witness against a neighbor whose sin is known far and wide already, and we do our best to see to it that others also know about it, we sin against God and that neighbor. For a few more to know about it will not now make it more difficult for him to confess. In fact he may know absolutely nothing about your backbiting and gossip. And yet it is a sin against him and against God. For it is not an act of love to that sinner. True as the witness may be, so that in self-righteous defense you may deny slander, it still is not love that speaks of one’s evil to a neighbor. That must be done only to the authorities; and, we must add, to the properauthorities, to those who have direct rule over that individual in that particular case of sin. If we speak with each other of the sin of another, our heart is not right towards that object of our speech. In His fear we will not want to bear any witness against any man to a neighbor that will cause that man’s name to become evil. Love does not rejoice in sin or in relating sin to another. Love will do that only to the proper authorities for the sake of the salvation of that individual. All other reporting, spreading to neighborsis sin as well as the sin that is being spread by this gossip, backbiting or slander.