I was recently reminded how important it is to keep the Eighth Commandment, and how challenging that can sometimes be. The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Commandments protect our neighbor's life, wife and property from us (and ours from him), and they are considerably assisted in this good work by the significant consequences that perpetrators of murder, adultery and theft are likely to suffer. Perhaps there would be less false witness of the "garden variety" type, if all forms of gossip, innuendo and misrepresentation were dealt with as firmly as lying under oath in a court of law. Yet, I know how easily I can fall into the trap of speaking out of turn, putting not the best construction on things but assuming the worst, and not explaining things kindly but cynically.
We ought to speak to and about our neighbor in the way that Christ Jesus speaks to us in love, with grace, mercy and peace, and in the way that He defends us and testifies on our behalf unto righteousness and life. But that is often not the case, even among Christians. For my own part, I do not always speak with such evangelical eloquence. I ought to know better.
There are people in the South Bend area who barely know me, including some who have never met me, who have formed impressions and opinions of me on the basis of what they have heard about me. "Oh, that Pastor Stuckwisch, he's 'too Catholic' (sic), or he's too conservative, or he only wants to find fault with other people, or he's opposed to Lutheran education," or whatever. Consequently, there are people (near and far) who have written me off and rejected me, who prefer to avoid me and have nothing to do with me, because they've already drawn their conclusions from such and sundry comments. Not only that but, in some cases, people who don't really know me at all, have passed on these assessments with apparent impunity.
It is hurtful to be treated in this way. So, as I say, I ought to know better, and I ought to do better in speaking to and about my neighbor. I can't control the way that people speak concerning me, and I finally have to trust the Lord to vindicate me with His righteousness, even if none of my neighbors defend me, speak well of me, or explain my actions charitably. As the Lord does defend me, speak well of me, and cover me with His charity, so should I do and speak for my neighbor.
The old saying goes, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." That is rubbish. Broken bones can heal more readily than the wounds that words can cause. Sometimes those very real hurts and consequences go well beyond personal feelings. When someone bears false witness against me, not only is my name and reputation damaged, but the confidence that my parishioners need to be able to have in me as their pastor is jeopardized, and that is ultimately a far more serious offense than any other sort of hurt, because it undermines the Gospel. I would sooner be martyred outright than to have my integrity and veracity thrown into doubt and tossed up for grabs. A Christian has to believe that his or her pastor is speaking the truth and acting faithfully according to the Word of God. Even small misrepresentations or "spins" on the truth can cause great harm to faith and life.
In the same way that my good reputation as a pastor is important for the sake of the Gospel, so is it all the more important that I not bear false witness against my neighbor. All of my speaking needs to be a confession of the Word of God; not only saying what He has said, but saying it according to the order that He has established, that is, within my proper vocations and stations in life. If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. The way that I speak to and about my neighbor in general, informs the way that people will expect me to speak from the pulpit and in the confessional. It is imperative that they be able to trust what I say as the very Word of God, and also that what I say is not simply true but truly evangelical. Even the Law that I preach must finally serve the truth of the Gospel.
The Gospel never bears false witness. It testifies the righteousness of Christ on our behalf, and so declares us "not guilty." That contradicts the sin and death that we find and feel in ourselves, but let the Gospel be true and the accusation of the Law a liar. This is no deception, but grace. Which is why the "truth" of gossip is a lie, and the forgiveness of sins bears the truest witness.