Mid-Lent 4 Seventh and Eighth Commandments
In considering how to group the commandments for these homilies during Lent, I have placed the Seventh and Eighth Commandments together because the breaking of these commandments takes something from our neighbor. Obviously, stealing takes some possession from a person. But breaking the Eighth Commandment also takes something – it takes away their reputation. Indeed, while items that have been stolen can be replaced relatively easily, a person’s reputation is a different matter. Once taken away, it is far more difficult to put in place again.
The Seventh Commandment says, “You shall not steal.” The Small Catechism explains the Seventh Commandment by saying that are not to “take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” As we consider the Seventh Commandment and those that follow, there are two Scripture texts to keep in mind. First, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Our Lord teaches us that we are to treat others the way we want to be treated.
The other text is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interests of others.” As those who are in Christ, our concern is not to be focused only on ourselves. Instead, we are to be actively seeking to help others in their various affairs.
Of all the commandments, the Seventh Commandment seems like it is the most straightforward and easily understood. We know what stealing is – it’s taking something from another person. And while the Seventh Commandment certainly forbids this, it also includes more as well. The Small Catechism’s language of “get them in any dishonest way” takes in all our dealing with others – especially business interaction. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “For as I just said, stealing is not just robbing someone’s safe or pocketbook but also taking advantage of someone in the market, in all stores, butcher shops, wine and beer cellars, workshops, and, in short, wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods and services.”
The Seventh Commandment teaches us to be fair in our dealings with others. We are to treat others just as we would want to be treated. We are not to seek opportunities to sell something for far more than it is worth, or to buy things for far less then they are worth. This may be considered “good business” by the world, but God’s Word calls it what it really is: stealing. And in a similar way, when we are being paid for work, we are to do that work as we would want others to do it for us. Doing shoddy work or wasting time at work is stealing.
As with all the commandments that occur as statements forbidding something, the Seventh Commandment also teaches what we are to do. The Small Catechism says that we are help our neighbor “to improve and protect his possessions and income.” We are to help and assist our neighbors to keep what is theirs. Beyond that we are to do what we can to help them improve their situation. Luther comments in the Large Catechism that “we are commanded to promote and further our neighbor’s interests, and when they suffer want, we are to help, share and lend to both friends and foes.” The last part of that statement reminds us that the keeping of the Seventh Commandment does not only apply to the people we like. It takes in all people – even our enemies.
The Eighth Commandment is, “You shall not give false witness against your neighbor.” This commandment poses a continual challenge in our life, even though we find it easy to ignore. The Small Catechism explains this by saying that we are not to “tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
We are not to tell lies about our neighbor. We are to speak the truth, but as we will see one can also break this commandment by speaking the truth to the wrong person for the wrong reason. We are not to betray our neighbor. Those things that our neighbor entrusts to us in confidence are not to be revealed to others.
The Eighth Commandment deals with a person’s reputation – with their good name. We are not to slander our neighbor or hurt our neighbor’s reputation. This brings us to the subject of gossip, and a truth about fallen human nature. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “It is a common pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbor.” As fallen people we enjoy hearing and sharing information about our neighbors that reveal negative things about them. Good news does not make for good gossip.
The question here is not whether the information is true. The determining factor is whether the sharing of it will help or hurt my neighbor’s reputation. In the Large Catechism Luther makes the important distinction between the possession of knowledge and the authority to judge sin. He says, “To avoid this vice, therefore, we should note that none has the right to judge and reprove a neighbor publicly, even after having seen a sin committed, unless authorized to judge and reprove. There is a very great difference between judging sin and having knowledge of sin. You may certainly know about a sin, but you should not judge it. I may certainly see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to tell others about it.” Only those who are in an office – a vocation in life – where they are charged to judge sin is to speak in a public way about it.
When you hear or learn something negative about another person, you are not to share this with others. You are to remain silent. The only thing you may do, if you are in a position to do so, is to go and speak to that person about it privately. You can address their sin and errors in a way that seeks their good. But it must be done, just between the two of you.
This is hard. The old Adam in us wants to share juicy information – information that is interesting because it says something bad about a person. Yet before we speak, we must consider whether this information will help or harm our neighbor. We must ask: If this information were about me, would I want others sharing it? When put to this test, the answer is very often is a clear no.
The Eighth Commandment also guides the way we receive information. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “Let this be your rule, then, that you should not be quick to spread slander and gossip about your neighbors but admonish them privately so that they may improve. Likewise, do the same when others tell you what this or that person has done. Instruct them, if they saw the wrongdoing, to go and reprove the individual personally otherwise to hold their tongue.” When people want to tell you gossip – bad information about your neighbor – as them whether they have spoken to that individual. If the answer is no, tell them to shut up.
We do this because the Eighth Commandment leads us to defend our neighbor, speak well of our neighbor, and to explain everything in the kindest way. Our goal must be to protect our neighbor’s reputation and speak well of our neighbor in every way we can. We don’t lie in order to do this. Instead we share only what is true that helps our neighbor. We seek opportunities to build up our neighbor’s reputation by saying what is good about them.
And when we hear things about our neighbor, or learn information, we explain everything in the kindest way. We put the best possible construction on things. We assume the most benign explanation until facts clearly prove this wrong. And even then, this is not something we share with others. Instead, where possible, we speak privately to our neighbor about it.
Most likely, we don’t struggle all that often with the overt act of stealing. But there are certainly times we get things in a dishonest way. We do not always work in the way we should. And there are many occasions when we ignore the opportunity to help our neighbor improve and protect what they have.
And when it comes to the Eighth Commandment we find that we sin all the time in this way. What James wrote is true of us: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” We slander our neighbors and gossip about them.. We hurt our neighbor’s reputation under the cover of claiming that we are only saying what is true. We believe the worst about our neighbor, and don’t seek to defend him or her.
During Lent we prepare to remember that because we do this, Jesus Christ the Son of God, allowed false witness to be spoken against him. We heard about it in last week’s reading from the Passion of Our Lord according to St. Mark. Mark tells us, “For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.” In the face of these charges, Jesus remained silent. He did because his purpose and mission was to die on the cross. After predicting his death for the third time in the Gospel, he then went on to say, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus came in order to accept the worst deal that has ever been made – one which completely benefitted us and cost him everything. Martin Luther called it “the great exchange.” Jesus received our sin and God’s judgment against it on the cross. We received Jesus’ righteousness so that now we are the forgiven children of God.
Jesus willingly submitted to this in obedience to the Father. But then on Easter, God vindicated Jesus as the Christ by raising him from the dead. He demonstrated that our Lord had carried out the great exchange in order to redeem us from sin, and that by his resurrection he had defeated death. Now we live in the confidence that through faith and baptism we are saints in God’s eyes, and that we will also be raised from the dead when Christ returns in glory.
This means that we are forgiven for the ways we fail as we break the Seventh and Eighth Commandments. Yet it also means that through the work of the Spirit we follow Jesus’ example by seeking the good of others in what we say and do. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we seek to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Because Jesus gave everything to help us, we now also look to the interests of others as we provide help and assistance.