Saturday, April 26, 2008

OK, But Isn't the 8th More?

Keeping any commandment perfectly is impossible, and keeping the 8th Commandment more so, especially as one's "community" enlarges. "Putting the best construction on everything," and the extent Luther applies this in the Large Catechism is especially difficult. Here are two pertinent quotations:

For there is a great difference between these two things, judging sin and knowing sin. You may indeed know it, but you are not to judge it. I can indeed see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to report it to others. Now, if I rush in, judging and passing sentence, I fall into a sin which is greater than his. But if you know it, do nothing else than turn your ears into a grave and cover it, until you are
appointed to be judge and to punish by virtue of your office.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. (LC 1.266-267)

Thus also among ourselves should we adorn whatever blemishes and infirmities we find in our neighbor, and serve and help him to promote his honor to the best of our
ability, and, on the other hand, prevent whatever may be discreditable to him. 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 (if it be not notoriously evil), 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 that explain and pervert it in the worst way; as is done now especially with the precious Word of God and its preachers. There are comprehended therefore in this commandment quite a multitude of good works which please God most highly, and bring abundant good and blessing, if only the blind world and the false saints would recognize them. For there is nothing on or in entire man which can do both greater and more extensive good or harm in spiritual and in temporal matters than the tongue, though it is the least and feeblest member (LC 1.288-290).
At face value then, we are, essentially to ignore and "cover over" the sins of others. What an amazing gift this would be, if we were to mind our business so that we do not accuse each other of sin. This is the way of Christ, who says, "Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. (Mar. 4:24 NKJV). If we judge others, then, Christ our Lord judges. If we are harsh, He says that He is harsh. If you are gentle and overlook the faults of others, then with such generous measure Christ will pour out his forgiveness in you. This is beautifully good news.

In this light then, the injustices, sins and criticism we make of anything should be silenced. This would be easiest if we withdrew from the world and kept our community small; we would have less to know, and less temptation to speak about the wrongs around us. But the more we know, the larger our community, the greater our information, the harder this becomes. This indeed, is part of the reason why Christians fled to the desert in the 3-5th centuries (and still today). The Desert Fathers speak eloquently on this.

But most of us live in community--larges ones at that. And some of us especially have been given place to speak about the wrongs we see. And in public matters, there is even more reason to speak. The Large Catechism continues:
Thus you see that it is summarily forbidden to speak any evil of our neighbor, however, the civil government, preachers, father and mother excepted, on the understanding that this commandment does not allow evil to go unpunished. Now, as according to the Fifth Commandment no one is to be injured in body, and yet Master Hannes [the executioner] is excepted, who by virtue of his office does his neighbor no good, but only evil and harm, and nevertheless does not sin against God’s commandment, because God has on His own account instituted that office; for He has reserved punishment for His own good pleasure, as He threatens in the First Commandment,—just so also, although no one has a right in his own person to judge and condemn anybody, yet if they to whose office it belongs fail to do it, they sin as well as he who would do so of his own accord, without such office. For here necessity requires one to speak of the evil, to prefer charges, to investigate and testify; 275] and it is not different from the case of a physician who is sometimes compelled to examine and handle the patient whom he is to cure in secret parts. Just so governments, father and mother, brothers and sisters, and other good friends, are under obligation to each other to reprove evil wherever it is needful and profitable. (LC 1.274-275)
And most famously,
All this has been said regarding secret sins. But where the sin is quite public so that the judge and everybody know it, you can without any sin avoid him and let him go, because he has brought himself into disgrace, and you may also publicly testify concerning him. For when a matter is public in the light of day, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying; as, when we now reprove the Pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. For where the sin is public, the reproof also must be public, that every one may learn to guard against it. (LC 1.284)
Often our spiritual life would still be better if we were to refrain from speaking about scandals and sins and public stupidity and falsehood. There is spiritual danger in doing it--it leads to cynicism, depression and pride. That is pretty dangerous.

But it is not sinful per se. And some of us have the duty, especially in these matters.


  1. Anastasia Theodoridis said...

    Public wrongs have to be pointed out, as every prophet did, because it's up to the public to correct them if it can.