When I have the opportunity to teach youth about the Ten Commandments, I always delight in teaching the commandment we Lutherans number as eight (since others number the commandments slightly differently, it’s the one about bearing false witness). Most young people as well as many adults seem to think this refers only to courtroom behavior. They are often surprised to discover that the commandment extends to lying of all sorts including the old standby, gossip.
I will admit that some gossip is not, technically, a lie. Martin Luther was happy to point out that even spreading the truth in a malicious fashion was a breach of the intent of the commandment.
It's easy to understand why God would include such atrocities as murder, theft and adultery among the commandments. With a bit of explanation, it’s certainly not difficult to include the dishonoring of parents and the coveting of people or possessions. The misuse of God's Holy name and the need to honor a Sabbath day of rest and renewal are among the easiest to break, but the inclusion of something as common as gossip and lying seems almost too unimportant to be a commandment.
Most of us at one time or another have been the victims of malicious gossip. On rare occasions it can be easy to clear up the misunderstanding and clean up the mess, but most of the time gossip takes a severe toll on our lives and reputations. Somewhere in the seventh grade, a nasty "friend" started a silly rumor, complete with an uncomplimentary "nickname". It took several years and a great deal of emotional pain to get beyond the life cycle of the rumor and the name.
Even now, dozens of years later, simply remembering the insult and injury of that gossip brings back difficult memories. Whoever came up with that silly phrase about "sticks and stones…." obviously never lived through the experience of name calling, rumor and gossip.
I have seen people's self-esteem and reputations destroyed by gossip. I have heard of congregations and Pastors that have been nearly ruined by the same. Nearly every class argues that gossip is harmless and "everybody does it". Not a single hand has ever been raised when I ask if anyone has ever taken the time to check out the gossip they have heard (and passed on) with the person who is being maligned. When I suggest that it is their Christian responsibility to do this, they react as if I had asked them to do the impossible.
There was a woman in a former congregation that loved to spread gossip. She lived with the telephone against her ear, trafficking in gossip all day long. I soon discovered that taking a few moments to visit with her and set the record straight could often save weeks of trouble. To be honest she really didn't enjoy hearing or passing on the truth, but when confronted she could be persuaded to set the record straight.
If you are one who delights in "telling stories" and passing along the things you have heard, it may be time to take a good hard look at the commandment that covers that particular sin. God knows only too well that the value of our reputations can be as significant as life itself. Just ask anyone who is picking up the pieces of a life ruined by a whispered lie.
- Pastor Scott