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Note: This commandment was given to protect one’s name and reputation. Communicating in ways that do not uphold our neighbor’s name and reputation break this commandment. The greatest violators are false preachers who, by their false doctrine, speak ill of God and His name. If we are aware of something negative about our neighbor, but have no authority to act, we should remain silent and not speak of it. However, when the proper authorities call upon us to speak to the matter, we will do so honestly. Also, if we are aware of something that requires the attention of public authorities, we will share it with them. Luther clearly states that civil magistrates, pastors, and parents must act upon hearing of something requiring their attention. Luther carefully distinguishes between secret sins and open, public sins. Secret sins should not be made public. However, when the error is open we have every right, even the duty, to speak publicly about it and to testify against the person involved. Speaking publicly about another person’s public error or sin is not bearing false witness, nor is it a violation of Matthew 18. Luther concludes that putting “the best construction on everything” is a fine and noble virtue.

254 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
255 Over and above our own body, spouse, and temporal possessions, we still have another treasure—honor and good reputation [Proverbs 22:1]. We cannot do without these. For it is intolerable to live among people in open shame and general contempt. 256 Therefore, God does not want the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished, just as with his money and possessions. He wants everyone to stand in his integrity before wife, children, servants, and neighbors. 257 In the first place, we must consider the plainest meaning of this commandment, according to the words “You shall not bear false witness.” This applies to the public courts of justice, where a poor, innocent man is accused and oppressed by false witnesses in order to be punished in his body, property, or honor.

258 Now, this commandment appears as though it were of little concern to us at present. But with the Jewish people it was a quite common and ordinary matter. For the people were organized under an excellent and regular government. Where there is still such a government, instances of this sin will not be lacking. The cause of it is that where judges, mayors, princes, or others in authority sit in judgment, things never fail to go according to the way of the world. In other words, people do not like to offend anybody. They flatter and speak to gain favor, money, prospects, or friendship [Proverbs 26:28]. As a result, a poor man and his cause must be oppressed, denounced as wrong, and suffer punishment. It is a common disaster in the world that in courts of justice godly men seldom preside.

259 To be a judge requires above all things a godly man, and not only a godly man, but also a wise, modest, indeed, a brave and bold man. Likewise, to be a witness requires a fearless and especially godly man. For a person who is to judge all matters rightly and carry them through with his decision will often offend good friends, relatives, neighbors, and the rich and powerful, who may greatly serve or injure him. Therefore, he must be quite blind, have his eyes and ears closed, neither see nor hear, but go straight forward in everything that comes before him and decide accordingly.

260 Therefore, this commandment is given in the first place so that everyone shall help his neighbor to secure his rights and not allow them to be hindered or twisted. But everyone shall promote and strictly maintain these rights, no matter whether he is a judge or a witness, and let it apply to whatsoever it will. 261 A particular goal is set up here for our jurists that they be careful to deal truly and uprightly with every case, allowing right to remain right. On the other hand, they must not pervert anything by their tricks and technical points, turning black into white and making wrong out to be right [Isaiah 5:20]. They must not gloss over a matter or keep silent about it, regardless of a person’s money, possession, honor, or power. This is one part and the plainest sense of this commandment about all that takes place in court.

262 Next, this commandment extends very much further, if we are to apply it to spiritual jurisdiction or administration. Here it is a common occurrence that everyone bears false witness against his neighbor. For wherever there are godly preachers and Christians, they must bear the sentence before the world that calls them heretics, apostates, and indeed, instigators and desperately wicked unbelievers. Besides, God’s Word must suffer in the most shameful and hateful manner, being persecuted, blasphemed, contradicted, perverted, and falsely quoted and interpreted. But let this go. For this is the way of the blind world, which condemns and persecutes the truth and God’s children, and yet considers it no sin.

263 In the third place, which concerns us all, this commandment forbids all sins of the tongue [James 3], by which we may injure or confront our neighbor. To bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue. Now, God prohibits whatever is done with the tongue against a fellow man. This applies to false preachers with their doctrine and blasphemy, false judges and witnesses with their verdict, or outside of court by lying and speaking evil. 264 Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on, and of which much could be said. For it is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil more than hearing good about his neighbor. We ourselves are so bad that we cannot allow anyone to say anything bad about us. Everyone would much prefer that all the world should speak of him in glowing terms. Yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others.

265 To avoid this vice we should note that no one is allowed publicly to judge and reprove his neighbor—even though he may see him sin—unless he has a command to judge and to reprove. 266 There is a great difference between these two things: judging sin and knowing about sin. You may indeed know about it, but you are not to judge it [Matthew 7:1–5]. 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 that is greater than his. But if you know about it, do nothing other 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.

267 People are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but go on to assume jurisdiction. When they know about a slight offense committed by another person, they carry it into every corner. They are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure, just as swine delight to roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout. 268 This is nothing other than meddling with God’s judgment and office and pronouncing sentence and punishment with the most severe verdict. For no judge can punish to a higher degree nor go farther than to say, “That person is a thief, a murderer, a traitor,” and so on. Therefore, whoever presumes to say the same things about his neighbor goes just as far as the emperor and all governments. For although you do not wield the sword, you use your poisonous tongue to shame and hurt your neighbor [Psalm 140:3].

269 God, therefore, would have such behavior banned, that anyone should speak evil of another person even though that person is guilty, and the latter knows it well, much less if anyone does not know it and has the story only from hearsay.

270 But you say, “Shall I not say something if it is the truth?”

Answer: “Why do you not make your accusation to regular judges?”

“Ah, I cannot prove it publicly, and so I might be silenced and turned away in a harsh manner.”

“Ah, indeed, do you smell the roast?”

If you do not trust yourself to stand before the proper authorities and to answer well, then hold your tongue. But if you know about it, know it for yourself and not for another. For if you tell the matter to others—although it is true—you will look like a liar, because you cannot prove it. Besides, you are acting like a rascal. We should never deprive anyone of his honor or good name unless it is first taken away from him publicly.

271 “False witness,” then, is everything that cannot be properly proved. 272 No one shall make public or declare for truth what is not obvious by sufficient evidence. In short, whatever is secret should be allowed to remain secret [1 Peter 4:8], or, at any rate, should be secretly rebuked, as we shall hear. 273 Therefore, if you meet an idle tongue that betrays and slanders someone, contradict such a person promptly to his face [Proverbs 10:31], so he may blush. Then many a person will hold his tongue who otherwise would bring some poor man into bad repute, from which he would not easily free himself. For honor and a good name are easily taken away, but not easily restored [Proverbs 22:1].

274 So you see that it is directly forbidden to speak any evil of our neighbor. However, the civil government, preachers, father, and mother are not forbidden to speak out. This is based on the understanding that this commandment does not allow evil to go unpunished. Now, in the Fifth Commandment no one is to be injured in body, and yet Master Hans (the executioner) is excluded from this rule. By virtue of his office he does his neighbor no good, but only evil and harm. Nevertheless he does not sin against God’s commandment. God has instituted that office on His own account. God has reserved punishment for His own good pleasure, as He threatens in the First Commandment. In the same way, although no one has a personal right to judge and condemn anybody, yet if those who serve in offices of judgment fail to judge, they sin just as surely as a person who would act on his own accord without such an office. For in matters of justice necessity requires one to speak of the evil, to prefer charges, to investigate, and to testify. 275 This is no different from the case of a doctor who is sometimes compelled to examine and handle the private parts of the patient whom he is to cure. In the same way governments, father and mother, brothers and sisters, and other good friends are under obligation to one another to rebuke evil wherever it is needful and profitable [Luke 17:3].

276 The true way in this matter would be to keep the order in the Gospel. In Matthew 18:15, Christ says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Here you have a precious and excellent teaching for governing well the tongue, which is to be carefully kept against this detestable misuse. Let this, then, be your rule, that you do not too quickly spread evil about your neighbor and slander him to others. Instead, admonish him privately that he may amend his life. Likewise, if someone reports to you what this or that person has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish that person personally, if he has seen the deed himself. But if he has not seen it, then let him hold his tongue.

277 You can learn the same thing also from the daily government of the household. When the master of the house sees that the servant does not do what he ought, he admonishes him personally. But if he were so foolish as to let the servant sit at home and went on the streets to complain about him to his neighbors, he would no doubt be told, “You fool, how does that concern us? Why don’t you tell it to the servant?” 278 Look, that would be acting quite brotherly, so that the evil would be stopped, and your neighbor would retain his honor. As Christ also says in the same place, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” [Matthew 18:15]. Then you have done a great and excellent work. For do you think it is a small matter to gain a brother? Let all monks and holy orders step forth, with all their works melted together into one mass, and see if they can boast that they have gained a brother.

279 Further, Christ teaches, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” [Matthew 18:16]. So the person concerned in this matter must always be dealt with personally, and must not be spoken of without his knowledge. 280 But if that does not work, then bring it publicly before the community, whether before the civil or the Church court. For then you do not stand alone, but you have those witnesses with you by whom you can convict the guilty one. Relying on their testimony the judge can pronounce sentence and punish. This is the right and regular course for checking and reforming a wicked person. 281 But if we gossip about another in all corners, and stir the filth, no one will be reformed. Later, when we are to stand up and bear witness, we deny having said so. 282 Therefore, it would serve such tongues right if their itch for slander were severely punished, as a warning to others. 283 If you were acting for your neighbor’s reformation or from love of the truth, you would not sneak about secretly nor shun the day and the light [John 3:19–20].

284 All this has been said about secret sins. But where the sin is quite public, so that the judge and everybody know about it, you can without any sin shun the offender and let him go his own way, because he has brought himself into disgrace. You may also publicly testify about him. For when a matter is public in the daylight, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying. It is like when we now rebuke the pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.

285 Now we have the sum and general understanding of this commandment: Let no one do any harm to his neighbor with the tongue, whether friend or foe. Do not speak evil of him, no matter whether it is true or false, unless it is done by commandment or for his reformation. Let everyone use his tongue and make it serve for the best of everyone else, to cover up his neighbor’s sins and infirmities [1 Peter 4:8], excuse them, conceal and garnish them with his own reputation. 286 The chief reason for this should be the one that Christ declares in the Gospel, where He includes all commandments about our neighbor, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” [Matthew 7:12].

287 Even nature teaches the same thing in our own bodies, as St. Paul says, “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty” (1 Corinthians 12:22–23). No one covers his face, eyes, nose, and mouth, for they, being in themselves the most honorable parts that we have, do not require it. But the most weak parts, of which we are ashamed, we cover with all diligence. Hands, eyes, and the whole body must help to cover and conceal them. 288 So also among ourselves should we clothe whatever blemishes and infirmities we find in our neighbor and serve and help him to promote his honor to the best of our ability. On the other hand, we should prevent whatever may be disgraceful to him. 289 It is especially an excellent and noble virtue for someone always to explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor (if it is not notoriously evil). Or, at any rate, forgive the matter over and against the poisonous tongues that are busy wherever they can to pry out and discover something to blame in a neighbor [Psalm 140:3]. They explain and pervert the matter in the worst way, as is done now especially with God’s precious Word and its preachers.

290 There are included, therefore, in this commandment quite a multitude of good works. These please God most highly and bring abundant good and blessing, if only the blind world and the false saints would recognize them. 291 For there is nothing on or in a person that can do both greater and more extensive good or harm in spiritual and in temporal matters than the tongue. This is true even though it is the least and weakest part of a person [James 3:5].

Note: Luther says that God gave these two commandments to ensure His people knew that stealing is not only the physical act of taking unjustly from another, but is also the desiring of something that is not ours, such as our neighbor’s wife, servants, or any property belonging to our neighbor. These commandments are not broken with the hand or the mouth but with the heart. They remind people who consider themselves virtuous that they too, by nature, sin. Toward the end of his explanation, Luther offers a powerful and critical theological insight. All the commandments constantly accuse us of sin and reveal to us where we stand under the Law in God’s eyes: guilty! This is the chief purpose of the Law, to show us our sin.

292 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is his.
293 These two commandments are given quite exclusively to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, in part they also apply to us. For they do not interpret them as referring to unchastity or theft. These are forbidden well enough above. They also thought that they had kept all those commands when they had done or not done the external act. Therefore, God has added these two commandments in order that it be considered sinful and forbidden to desire or in any way to aim at getting our neighbor’s wife or possessions. 294 He added them especially because under the Jewish government manservants and maidservants were not free as now to serve for wages as long as they pleased. Jewish servants were their master’s property with their body and all they had, as were cattle and other possessions [Deuteronomy 15:12–18]. 295 Further, every man had power over his wife to put her away publicly by giving her a bill of divorce and to take another [Deuteronomy 24:1–4]. Therefore, they were in constant danger among each other. If one took a fancy to another’s wife, he might declare any reason both to dismiss his own wife and to estrange his neighbor’s wife from him, so that he might get her in a way that appeared right. That was not considered a sin or a disgrace among them, just as it is hardly considered a sin now with hired help, when an owner dismisses his manservant or maidservant or takes another’s servants from him in any way.

296 In this way they interpreted these commandments, and that rightly (although the scope of the commandment reaches somewhat farther and higher). No one should consider or intend to get what belongs to another, such as his wife, servants, house and estate, land, meadows, cattle. He should not take them even with a show of right, by a trick, or to his neighbor’s harm. For above, in the Seventh Commandment, the vice is forbidden where one takes for himself the possessions of others or withholds them from his neighbor. A person cannot rightly do these things. But here it is also forbidden for you to alienate anything from your neighbor, even though you could do so with honor in the eyes of the world, so that no one could accuse or blame you as though you had gotten it wrongfully.

297 For our natural instinct is that no one wants to see someone else have as much as himself. Each one acquires as much as he can. 298 The other may do as best he can. Yet we pretend to be godly, know how to dress ourselves up most finely, and conceal our base character. We resort to and invent tricky ways and deceitful works (like those that are now daily and most ingeniously invented). We act as though these ways were derived from the legal codes. In fact, we even dare properly to refer to the law and boast about it. We will not have this called trickery, but shrewdness and caution. 299 Lawyers and jurists assist in this who twist and stretch the law to suit it to their cause. They stress words and use them for a trick, despite fairness or their neighbor’s need. In short, whoever is the most expert and cunning in these affairs finds the most help in the law, as they themselves say, “The laws favor the watchful.”

300 This last commandment, therefore, is given not for cheaters in the eyes of the world. It is for the most pious, who want to be praised and to be called honest and upright people. For they have not offended against the former commandments, as especially the Jewish people claimed to live, and are even now many great noblemen, gentlemen, and princes. For the other common masses belong yet further down, under the Seventh Commandment, as people who are hardly concerned about whether they gain their possessions with honor and right.

301 Now, this happens most often in cases that are brought into court, where it is the purpose to get something from our neighbor and to force him from his property. For example, when people quarrel and wrangle about a large inheritance, real estate, or such, they help themselves and resort to whatever appears right. They dress and adorn everything so that the law must favor their side. They keep the property with such title that no one can complain or lay claim to it. 302 In the same way, if anyone wants to have a castle, city, duchy, or any other great thing, he makes many financial deals through relationships, by any means he can, so that the owner is legally deprived of the property [1 Kings 21]. It is awarded to the other person and confirmed with deed and seal and declared to have been acquired by princely title and honesty.

303 In common trade, one carefully slips something out of another’s hand, so that the latter must watch out. Or one person surprises and cheats another in a matter where he sees advantage and benefit for himself. Then the person who was cheated, perhaps on account of distress or debt, cannot regain or redeem the property without damage. The other person gains the half or even more. Yet this property must not be considered as taken by fraud or stolen, but honestly bought. Here they say, “First come, first served,” and “Everyone must look to his own interest, let another get what he can.” 304 Who can be so smart to come up with all these ways in which one can get many things into his possession by such believable arguments? The world does not consider this wrong and will not notice that the neighbor is placed at a disadvantage by this, by sacrificing what he cannot spare without harm. Yet no one wishes for someone to do this to himself. From this we can easily see that such devices and arguments are false.

305 The same was done in former times also with respect to wives. They knew such tricks, that if one were pleased with another woman, he personally or through others (as there were many ways and means to be invented) caused her husband to become displeased with her. Or he had her resist her husband and act in such a way that he was obliged to dismiss her and let her go to the other man. That sort of thing undoubtedly prevailed much under the Law, as we also read in the Gospel about King Herod. He took his brother’s wife while he was still living. Yet Herod wanted to be thought of as an honorable, pious man, as St. Mark also testifies about him [Mark 6:17–20]. 306 But such an example, I trust, will not happen among us. For in the New Testament those who are married are forbidden to get divorced [Mark 10:9]. (Except there is the case where one man shrewdly by some trick takes away a rich bride from another man.) But it is not a rare thing with us that one estranges or alienates another’s manservant or maidservant or lures them away with flattering words.

307 In whatever way such things happen, we must know that God does not want you to deprive your neighbor of anything that belongs to him, so that he suffer the loss and you gratify your greed with it. This is true even if you could keep it honorably before the world. For it is a secret and sly trick done “under the hat,” as we say, so it may not be noticed. Although you go your way as if you had done no one any wrong, you have still injured your neighbor. If it is not called stealing and cheating, it is still called coveting your neighbor’s property, that is, aiming at possession of it, luring it away from him without his consent, and being unwilling to see him enjoy what God has granted him. 308 Even though the judge and everyone must let you keep it, God will not let you keep it. For He sees the deceitful heart and world’s malice, which is sure to take an extra long measure wherever you yield to her a finger’s breadth. Eventually public wrong and violence follow.

309 Therefore, we allow these commandments to remain in their ordinary meaning. It is commanded, first, that we do not desire our neighbor’s harm, nor even assist, nor give opportunity for it. But we must gladly wish and leave him what he has. Also, we must advance and preserve for him what may be for his profit and service, just as we wish to be treated [Matthew 7:12]. 310 So these commandments are especially directed against envy and miserable greed. God wants to remove all causes and sources from which arises everything by which we harm our neighbor. Therefore, He expresses it in plain words, “You shall not covet,” and so on. For He especially wants us to have a pure heart [Matthew 5:8], although we will never attain to that as long as we live here. So this commandment will remain, like all the rest, one that will constantly accuse us and show how godly we are in God’s sight!
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