“A Charitable Esteem”
“A Charitable Esteem”
Sermon on the 9th Commandment
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
March 14, 2021
I am outside because this commandment, in its original context, spoke especially to a judicial setting. “Do not bear false witness” under oath. When serious matters of life and law are on the line. And, I like this setting because it is in the center of the Georgetown square, and so we are readily reminded that the 10 commandments were never intended to be this insular set of rules for the religious people to do their thing but when we live into them at their fullest…we shine forth with the light of life in ways that impact in every direction and every facet of life.
1 Corinthians 13:6-7: “(Love) it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
About three years ago I was walking through the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, VA – annually ranked as one of the top 10 botanical gardens in the US. Just a stunning place, full of color and life.
And I end up following a class full of elementary school children. They are walking up the path, talking and laughing and then all of the sudden something has caught their attention and they stopped entirely to take it in.
I’m still actually 30 or 40 feet behind them at this point and can’t quite see around the bend what it is that has caught their attention. Maybe flowers or a bunny or maybe a little pond?
Turns out they cannot get enough of this really big ditch. Apparently, the Botanical Gardens had some kind of minor renovation underway and so there is this large, open ditch – and some recent rains had made thick and muddy.
And the kids are all hunched over this mud pit and pointing down at it. They are grabbing some of it as the teachers try and keep them moving.
Here is this space with so much stunning beauty and color – and it is the mud that is captivating.
I’m certain I would have been the same at that age, but then it hit me later when thinking back to that moment…I wonder how much I’ve changed. Or we’ve changed.
Because actually even if we are walking many of our days amid God’s great goodness and provision and beauty… the mud frequently gets our attention.
It goes without saying that so many of the words these days between right and left, red and blue and the various us and them we can think of…they are mud-slinging words.
In particular, I am speaking of the ‘mud-slinging’ that is “bearing false witness” about the other person or side or spouse.
“Bearing false witness” need not mean saying flat-out lies about that person or that side. It could.
The Larger Catechism explores the ninth commandment in great depth, and at one point responds to the question “What are the sins prohibited by the 9th commandment?”
Among other things we read, “speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end… slandering, backbiting, tale-bearing (gossiping), scoffing, reviling… misconstruing intentions, words, and actions…aggravating smaller faults…unnecessary discovering of infirmities (digging for dirt on weaknesses)…raising false rumors…
All of those and more count as the ‘mud-slinging.” Bearing false witness against our neighbor.
We’ve gotten to such a point with the mud that in preparing this sermon I realized, I don’t need to go and find an example for us. There’s plenty of it to go around in our private and public discourse. And in part, there is a lot of it because – the thing about mud – it is effective.
Proverbs 25:18: “Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow is one who bears false witness against a neighbor.”
In other words, when you pick up mud against that person and you throw it…This is going to do war-club damage. This is going to cause a cutting pain. This is going to leave them with a wound.
When people talk about the U.S. being in something of a “cold war” right now – this is what they mean. The mud is fast, furious, and effective weapons.
I think one could make a strong argument that the 9th commandment is the single most relevant commandment to the ills of our society today because currently we are plagued by continual and growing false witness about one another that hinders so much of what we need to be working on together. And at the same time, one could argue it is the commandment that is our smallest problem, really.
John Calvin keenly observed that, “slander is often praised under the pretext of zeal and conscientiousness. Hence it happens that this vice insinuates itself even among the saints, creeping in under the name of virtue.”
In other words, we are often praised and thanked for being mudslingers because it shows our zeal. Just how much we care (about our side). And so what is in fact a boldface breaking of God’s way actually rarely gets called out but gets called a virtue.
So yes, mud is frequent because 1) it works, and 2) it is often seen as praiseworthy.
But… then I recall the couple of children who actually started stepping into the ditch.
And the teacher yells for them to pull back, and when they start to do that, one of the boys gets his foot gets stuck for a moment because it has sunk below the surface. And that hints at the great danger of too much time spent in the mud.
Listen to how C.S. Lewis put it:
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?
If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils…(eventually) we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
The problem with looking for mud about one another even wanting it to be there whether it really is or not…the problem with delighting in a little half-true, a little gossip, a little unfair framing of their side…the problem with stepping further and further into the mud is that you get stuck there and then become mud yourself.
To the question “What’s so bad about a little lie?” One lie leads to another lie leads to being immersed in mud. We cannot flip a switch and control the bearing false witness that goes on in our radio and cable shows, or in our politics, or even in any other person…but we are the church. And we are called to be salt and light in this world… what does it look like to pull our legs from the mud, drop it from our hands, and as 1 Corinthians puts it, “rejoice in the Truth”?
The Larger Catechism has this to say about truly following the essence of the 9th commandment:
Q. 144. What are the duties required in the Ninth Commandment?
A. The duties required in the Ninth Commandment are: the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor…a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities
Not just “don’t lie or tell half-truths or make generalizations about that person and those people,” not just “avoid the mud”… but proactively have a ‘charitable esteem ’for them.
- Regard them with a benefit-of-the-doubt.
- Regard them as people made in God’s image.
- Regard them maybe not as likable but as people you want the best for.
“Yes, but what if that person, that family member, that part of the country deserves no such regard?!”
- How quickly we forget how God in Jesus Christ sees us.
- How quickly we forget our failures and foibles, our judgmentalism and our secret past and secret present.
- How quickly we forget God knows it all.
Think about how the really short book of Jude ends. There is this benediction you may have heard before: “Now to Jesus who is able to keep you from falling, and who makes you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing…”
When Jesus presents us before God with all of our history and all we have going on in our hearts – we are presented as a people without blemish.
Talk about undeserved, charitable esteem.
When Jesus approaches us the guiding assumption is that, as Romans 1 declares, kindness leads to repentance. Grace upon grace presents us without blemish and is so unfairly good and kind that it breaks our selfishness and our lies, and it changes us.
Might it be the same for our neighbors?
What would it look like to look upon our neighbor, our spouse, our family member, those people with…charitable esteem as Jesus has done for us?
That day at the gardens…there was behind those children on the walkway an elderly woman with a camera. And she was standing in front of a nearby fern of some sort and she was debating about how to take a picture of it. She could not have been more than a foot from this fern, and she was so reluctant to just ‘snap ’the photo.
She kept turning her camera this way, then that way, then she moved up and then a little down. She was looking for the best angle.
- The angle that would really capture the light coming on and through this fern just so.
- The angle with the best background for bringing out its beauty.
- The angle where you could really see the unique gift of this particular fern.
True…maybe she would eventually take some photos of angles that showed areas where there was room for growth; browning or dead spots. But it was obvious she was not going to settle on anything less than first getting the angle of most charitable esteem.
The church is not only a people who refuse to join in the finger-pointing and the gossip train and the half-truths that make much of mud. The church is not simply a people walk or some kind of middle pathway wherein we just avoid lying. “We won’t even look in our neighbor’s direction or speak a word or thought about them.”
The church is who sees others with a charitable esteem, and therefore they are people reluctant to snap too quickly a photo on the other person or people.
In fact, we believe that because Jesus Christ is alive and risen there really is a great amount of stunning beauty and color alive in this world and even in the most unlikely of places (and people) if you’ll work the angles.
“Jesus, help us see one another as you see us.”
And, as Jesus often modeled, questions are one of our best assets for exploring the angles of any person, situation, or movement:
“Why do you believe that?”
“What do you fear most?”
“What do you hope for?”
“What is your experience with that?” “What was that like growing up? Do you think it shaped you?”
Honest questions are a refusal to click too quickly. In fact, we click only when we start to see an angle where something of the light of Jesus really is shining right through that person’s being (whether that person even sees it or names it as such).
And perhaps eventually we click on other angles, inquire about those other angles, maybe stand against some of what is in those other angles…but certainly only as we are also fully appreciating the angle of charitable esteem where Jesus at work.
And to be sure…Charitable esteem for those close to us and those far from us…it takes humility and patience. It is messy. It is hard.
Few of us are naturals with seeing life through a grace-filled lens. And even those with much experience must humbly admit that at best all of us only see reality “through a glass darkly,” as Paul puts it. The grace of charitable esteem is not easy or natural.
But…we are assured we walk our days in the garden on God’s resurrection life…there is a lot of color and life in our midst and even especially in the unlikely spaces and people. More, we are assured that Love himself abides in us. And, we are assured that Love absolutely delights in the Truth. Finds joy in the Truth.
So what do you say? Shall we drop the mud, humble ourselves, and work the angles in love?
Has not Jesus done no less for us? Amen.