To Be Able To Trust (Exodus 20:16, Acts 4:32-5:11)
When you look at the Ten Commandments, do you ever wonder why they’re ordered the way they are? Wouldn’t it make more sense to rank them according to their severity, from least to most serious? After all, our judicial system considers murder worse than theft. Even within a category of crime there are degrees: first degree murder is worse than involuntary manslaughter, and grand theft auto is worse than petty theft. As citizens, we are conditioned to view lawbreaking in degrees of crime and punishment. But back to the commandments. Why do adultery, theft, lying, and coveting come after murder in the “you shall not” list? Could it be that the Law handed down from God to his people through Moses is not simply about public safety and the protection of property? We’ll revisit this in a moment.
In Jewish law, according to Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” One person might bear a grudge against a neighbor and accuse him or her of wrongdoing simply out of spite. But if two or more people witness wrongdoing and are willing to testify, their testimony is enough to convict the wrongdoer. Of course, as we saw in last week’s story of Ahab and Jezebel, witnesses can be persuaded to testify falsely against an innocent person, so the law is not perfect. The commandment, however, is clear: you shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. Perjury is a prosecutable crime in the modern court system.
We like to think that there are degrees of lying, just as there are degrees of theft. Our legal system differentiates among the criminal forms of falsehood: perjury is bearing false witness in court; calumny is filing a false police report; defamation is spreading lies about someone to damage his or her reputation. But other than those, lying is not illegal. And we all do it. We tell little white lies to protect ourselves or to spare another person’s feelings. We lie to avoid unpleasantness or to keep the peace with our spouse or other loved ones. We lie to get ourselves out of a bad situation. Is lying really so wrong? At least it isn’t murder, right?
God gave Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments, not simply to ensure public safety and the protection of property but to enable his people to live in harmony with God and each other. Every commandment is equally important, and every sin addressed by the Law is equal in God’s eyes because each one has the same result: broken relationship. Living in community requires trust, and lying violates that trust. The account of Ananias and Sapphira is instructive because their offense doesn’t seem so bad to us. Living in a community of believers who shared their possessions was hard. Following the example of Joseph from Cyprus, they sold a piece of property but then, unlike Joseph, held back a portion of the proceeds for themselves. This was not wrong—there was no law prohibiting it—and they did not specifically tell the apostles they were giving all when they actually weren’t, according to scripture. But apparently they made it appear that they were giving all, which was a lie. Peter saw their deception and called them out. “You have not lied to men,” he said, “but to God.” And their lie cost both Ananias and Sapphira their lives. Under God’s Law, there are no degrees of lying or theft or killing. Any violation of the Law has the same result—broken relationship—and the same penalty: death.
The Good News is that Jesus has paid that penalty for us. Even though we continue doing wrong, if we confess our sin and accept his gift of salvation, we can never be prosecuted in the court of heaven for our transgressions against God. With grateful hearts, we must respond with humility and a desire to follow Jesus more closely. In the face of such love, how can we do otherwise?