A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28)
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many of you were taught this as children. The idea is that words do not have any inherent power, no real affect on our lives. I think we all know, at least deep down, that this is simply not possible. Words can and do have power, not because we are weak, but because words are vital to who we are. Remember how we were created! God simply said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Genesis 1:26). With the breath of those words breathed into the nostrils of the first man, Adam became a living being. Words, then, have power. They have the power to lift up, and they have the power to tear down. This is why God gave the eighth commandment.
On the surface, the eighth commandment (“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor”) seems only to address lying in court. But, as with the other commandments, God’s will is not limited to narrow and specific situations. Just as the fourth commandment (“Honor your father and mother”) does not deal only with parents but also with all authorities; just as the fifth commandment (“You shall not murder”) does not only deal with killing someone but also with physical protection; so too the eighth commandment deals not only with lying under oath but with speaking kindly about others. This is why the meaning of the commandment is this: “We should fear and love God so that we do not 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.” Words have power, and God knows that our reputation is important.
We like the thought of others speaking well of us, but how often do we ignore the opportunity to speak well of others! Luther observed, “We cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others.” Why? In our sinful nature, we would rather hear and speak what is wrong with others than know what is good. We would rather gossip than build someone else up. ‘Good’ is boring. Gossip is juicy and exciting.
But, gossip is no victimless crime. Even more, it is easy to take away someone’s good reputation, but it is much harder to restore it. Gossip – whether true or not – hurts our neighbors and makes us guilty concerning the commandments of God. Luther described it this way in vivid detail: “Learning a bit of gossip about someone else, they spread it into every corner, relishing and delighting in the chance to stir up someone else’s dirt like pigs that roll in manure and root around in it with their snouts.” Yuck! Yet, how often do we revel in rolling around in the muck!
This is exactly how people in the time of Jesus assaulted our Lord. The religious leaders said he was in league with Satan. They raised up false witnesses to try to convict him of crimes punishable by death. When he was on the cross, they mocked him with their words. How did Jesus respond? He died for their sins! He forgave them, refusing to attack even his worst enemies on the cross. Instead, he bore their sins as a sign of God’s love!
Brothers and sisters, we have an opportunity every day to imitate our Lord and Savior Jesus. We can refuse to gossip. Instead, we can choose to build others up in the eyes of others. We can refuse putting the worst construction on the words and actions of others. Instead, we can assume the best of people, even if we do not know their hearts. And if someone else is gossiping to us, we can follow Luther’s advice: “Therefore, if you encounter someone with a worthless tongue who gossips and slanders someone else, rebuke such people straight to their faces and make them blush with shame.” While that may sound harsh, remember how powerful words are, and remember how important our reputations are in the world. Because we are connected with our Lord Jesus, we choose the way of love. And “whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” (Proverbs 17:9). God’s love indeed covers us. He has forgiven us. What a blessed opportunity to show that love to others!