I am currently teaching a class on the Small Catechism and we are dealing with the commandments. The following article is based upon notes from that class.
“And it is especially an excellent and noble virtue for one always to explain advantageously and put the best construction upon all he may hear of his neighbor, or at any rate to condone it over and against the poisonous tongues that are busy wherever they can pry out and discover something to blame in a neighbor, and then explain and pervert it in the worst way;…”
The words above were written by Martin Luther 500 years ago as he reflected on the meaning of the eighth commandment. To refresh your memory, or perhaps to alert you to it for the first time, that commandment reads as follows:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
I find no surprise in the fact that our society is increasingly characterized by the use of the ‘poisonous tongue’. Now that we have thrown the commandments overboard as relics of a bygone era of religious superstition and moral fussiness, we are ‘free’ to express ourselves in all our liberated, humanist glory. And the current state of affairs is what this liberated glory looks like. We are making a high virtue of shamelessly assigning the worst possible motives to others. Social media, broadcast media and the political environment are an ugly morass of blaming, ridicule and fault finding where people freely employ the poison tongue against others, hiding behind shields of fake, self-justifying virtue.
Martin Luther wrote of this tendency without mincing words:
“Those, then, are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but proceed to assume jurisdiction, and when they know a slight offense of another, carry it into every corner, and are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure [baseness], as swine roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout.”
Of course, this ugliness has a way of backfiring as we see all too frequently. The one who lives by the poison tongue, dies by the poison tongue. Such is life when we turn society into a pit of writhing serpents.
The commandments not only call for prohibitions, however, they also point to what is protected and affirmed. So Luther wrote of this commandment,
“And it is especially an excellent and noble virtue for one always to explain advantageously and put the best construction upon all he may hear of his neighbor,…”.
I have learned a great deal about this from Christian people and others I have known who, rather maddeningly, have had the gift of actually trying to put the best construction on what others say and do. They have been an examples to me of how we can actually look at others in this way and in doing so, begin to build bridges of empathy and understanding that actually help to bring people together.
So, dear reader, you and I have a choice to make in the midst of daily life; we can revel in the perceived faults of others (while minimizing our own) and join in the herd of muck rolling swine, or we may look kindly and with understanding on others and in so doing join our tongues with the chorus of goodwill that actually serves to bring goodness to bear in our relations with one another.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”