Was ist das? The Eighth Commandment: Luther’s Toughest Words

By Scott Keith

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Okay, easy enough. So, long story short, I am not supposed to outwardly tell lies about my neighbor. I can do that, I think. Then Luther does what Jesus tended to do. That is, Luther takes something in the Law that seems easy to accomplish and exposes its real difficulty.

Luther asks the toughest question ever: “What does this mean?” Or more simply put: “What is this?” Answer. “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

Piece by piece, we can see that this commandment is not as easy to accomplish as we thought at first glance. Sure, it seems clear that we may be able to avoid setting traps for our neighbor or openly defaming his name. Betrayal appears to be easily avoidable, too.

And then comes the hammer. We are called to defend our neighbor. That’s right; we are to protect and support that neighbor that we have tried so hard not to gossip about. It’s hard enough to talk crap about him when he acts like an idiot or writes a stupid blog. Instead, the call of the Eighth Commandment, according to Luther, is to come to his defense. Hmm, I’m not too sure about that.

So then, what does “defend him” actually entail? Well, Luther is not one to leave the matter unclear. Thus, he sets to making his case with even more fervor. According to Luther, we are to not only speak well of him (defend him with our words) but also think well of him. What? The commandment seeks to control not only our words but our thoughts, too? You bet your sweet bippy. Furthermore, Luther is not even done yet.

The last nail in the coffin of our sanctimony in Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment comes in the last line: “and put the best construction on everything.” So what does this mean? I think it means that we are to believe the best about what our neighbor does, writes, and says. Then, once believing the best, we apply the former imperatives to “defend” and “speak well” based on our new way of thinking. In other words, use the “best construction” when considering and speaking of your neighbor’s, your brother in Christ’s, words and deeds. And when you don’t understand what your neighbor is trying to say, then apply the words of Christ in Matthew 18 and ask him: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15)

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So why do I write this today? Isn’t this a little “legalistic” for The Jagged Word? Yeah, it kind of is. But for all of us who write blogs, read blogs, or troll social media, we need a reminder that our current way of handling a disagreement between Christian brothers and sisters is not actually Christian. It is not the “Christian thing to do” to start a social media firestorm against another Christian without first defending him, speaking well of him, putting the best construction on his words, and, when all else fails, asking him about the disagreement.

You wouldn’t know that from the maelstrom of vitriol that flows from many Christian (Lutheran) websites and social media accounts against fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. What is more common is to read, or even write, sanctimonious decrees concerning the “danger” of their words or the “impurity” of their proposed teaching.

Now, you ask, what if their words are “dangerous” or “unsafe” and their teaching truly “impure”? Then, perhaps, their words need to be dealt with thoughtfully. But ask yourself: have you first attempted to heed Luther’s words? Have you tried to put the best construction on their possibly overly simplistic attempt to communicate an idea? Have you, by that best construction, then tried to defend him and speak well of him? Or have you, like so many of us, consumed his idea like a conquering army without giving it the due diligence it deserves before reacting?

The answers are probably the same for you as they more often than not are for me. You see, I, like you, am a gossip, a scoundrel, and a dishonest fiend. Better, though, that you and I heed the words of Paul and try to be a friend to our brothers and sisters in Christ, even when I think that they may be wrong. Maybe these truly are Luther’s toughest words. “…defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

Surely we will fail. What makes us brothers and sisters in Christ is that our failure, not our success, is what we all have in common. When we fail, we follow the words of Scripture and flee to Christ. Left to our own, our failure to follow Christ’s commands makes us a body of death. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)

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4 comments

  1. I would like to see a discussion on the boundaries, here. How far does one go in putting the best construction on a racist neighbor’s speech? Can we see how Jesus always defended the Pharisees and put the best construction on their ways and words? It would seem the “best” construction may be a simple truth that a person is wrong and the best defense of that person is intercession in prayer (praying for our enemies).

    Fore example, when we pray for peace and we pray for those victimized by, say, ISIS, do we also pray for the conversion of the aggressor?

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    1. Interesting hyperbole and not at all what I intended to communicate. Obviously, the Christian needs to renounce real evil. But, I think the answer to your question can be found in both Luther’s definition of “neighbor,” and in the blog itself. This is one place where Luther answers, who is my neighbor? “Every man is my neighbor, who although he hath done me some wrong, or hurt me by any manner of way; yet notwithstanding, he hath not put off the nature of man, or ceased to be flesh and blood, and the creature of God most like unto myself. Briefly, he ceaseth not to be my neighbor. As long, then, as the nature of man remaineth, so long remaineth the commandment of love, which requireth at my hand that I should not despise mine own flesh, nor render evil for evil; but overcome evil with good, else shall love never be as Paul describeth it.” All men are your neighbor. Thus, we attempt to “overcome evil with good.” So, maybe you think your neighbor is a racist, and you are jumping to conclusions. Putting the best construction on everything means that before you play the modern day trump card of calling him a racist, you make sure that such a claim is verifiable. In other words, you do the work to understand what he is saying before you label. Labels come much too easy to us, and the internet hasn’t helped. Again, I believe we consume our neighbor’s words like a conquering army without giving those words the due diligence they deserve before reacting. Reversing that reality and considering our neighbor’s words before responding is, I think, putting the best construction on everything. So, yes, we must confront evil, but we ought to be sure it is actually evil before we do so.

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      1. Perhaps the hatred you encounter in your neighborhood is different from mine. I do not live among subtle, educated people. They mean what they say and say it often. Only a small fraction of my social interaction is online or at work. Most of what I do is in the community, door to door, and face to face. My neighbors are such,not only by this definition, but those in actual proximity, short walks, from my house. Giving due diligence to flat out hatred does not make much sense.

        For me, applying this commandment has real, personal application, in contact with people, on a daily basis. I see and hear not only the hatred but parents teaching it to children. Is this everyone around me? a majority? By no means! But when things are said, I am left to either be silent or say that something is wrong. I don’t know how often you have been loudly cursed, had you car keyed, had your child picked on for simply saying to someone “I don’t agree” or “You should not speak that way” or “that just is not true.”

        I love a good theological discussion but theology has to be practical and love has to take to the streets in order to mean something and do something. It has to be that way for a pastor, I would think. First, you get all filled up with theology and knowledge and practical advice. Then, you go out into the world and have to work things out.

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  2. Yes, we should even be praying for ISIS. God can change hearts. Look what He did with Saul, er, St, Paul.
    I do think Satan runs wild with this commandment, especially within the church. Many church workers and pastors have fallen victim to vicious rumors and slander. Lord, have mercy on us all.

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