The Eighth Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 10th August.

This month I’m considering the eighth commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Is this really a directive that will make you happy? Sometimes we tell lies. We might call them little white lies as we use them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to avoid a confrontation. Can that be wrong? Why does telling the truth get such a good reputation?

George Washington, the first US President, is reputed have shown a tendency to tell the truth from an early age. The story goes that as a six year old he was given a gift of a hatchet. He reputedly chopped his father’s cherry tree with it, causing some damage. When confronted by his father he apparently replied “I cannot tell a lie, I damaged the tree.” This earned him the reputation of honesty. However the story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, his first biographer. It is, in fact, a lie.

Should we always tell the truth or lie with a good intent? One situation where people sometimes tell lies is in writing references for someone’s job application. The might hope to advance the person’s career, exaggerating their abilities and achievements to give them a leg up. Perhaps they want the person to get the job to move a problem on to someone else to deal with. In either case the candidate will be set up to fail in the new job, causing trouble for them and their new employer. Better to just, truthfully, tell the good things. By reporting that the applicant for the secretary’s job makes a great cup of tea you can tell the truth and say nothing negative, The prospective employer should get the message.

The commandment talks of bearing false witness which makes us think of being a witness, whether in court or in reporting an incident. The ends of justice can be thwarted when lies are told to protect the guilty. Lying can not only protect the guilty but can result in an innocent person being imprisoned unjustly. There have been many cases of people who have been released after many years in jail when their case has been reviewed and found to be based on false evidence. I wonder how many innocent people have been imprisoned unjustly and were never cleared.

The difficulty we have when lies are told is that it can cause a breakdown in trust. The story of the boy who was bored and cried “Wolf” just to see the people run out to defend the flock illustrated the point well. Eventually the people were fed up with his game and when the wolf did appear they ignored his cries. They had lost trust in him. How often does that happen today?

One important area of public life where trust is very important is politics. We elect politicians to form a government and work to bring about good results for the country. We trust that they will do what they promise. Very often they do not achieve what they had set out to do. This may not be because they were telling lies but rather they get the job and find things are not as straight forward as they had assumed while they were campaigning. We have to trust them on that.

Where the trust breaks down is when politician are found to be misleading. Misleading Parliament is a serious offence. Esther McVey was forces to apologise to Parliament when she was found to have made a report to Parliament which was the complete opposite of the truth. She claimed that she had unintentionally misled Parliament rather that lied to hide a very critical report on her department’s work.

These incidents can cause people to lose trust in our politicians and our political system is damaged as a result. Many now are ready to disregard anything politicians say because of the behaviour of a few. The US President has become infamous for his use of ‘Fake News’ both by telling lies openly and by claiming that any criticism of his behaviour is just fake news.

We seem to have become a society for whom the truth is whatever we choose to believe. We long ago decided that unborn children are not really human. Aborting them is not killing. Now we face claims that abortion is a human right. All along I thought the right to life was a human right. In our modern world there is no such thing as an objective truth; truth is what we want it to be. I think that sums up my problem with this issue. As a Christian I live in two worlds, the Christian world and the modern world. These worlds are at odds on the issue of the truth.

In Christianity the truth plays a central part in our existence. In John’s gospel Jesus mentions the Truth twice. When Jesus was preparing the disciples for his leaving them he reassures them that they will be able to follow him later. Thomas asks how they can follow if they don’t know where he is going. How can they follow if they don’t know the way?

Jesus said:

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
If you know me you know my Father too.
From this moment you know him and have seen him.

John 14: 6,7

Jesus is saying that the Truth is not something we decide for ourselves. Recognising the truth seems to be essential if we are to reach God the Father and our salvation. Jesus seems to be saying that He is the way to the Father and eternal life and he personifies the truth. Later he goes further.

When he has been arrested and is eventually taken before Pontius Pilate he is questioned by the Roman Governor. Pilate asks Him why his people have handed Him over to be executed. Jesus explains that His kingdom is not of this world.

Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. ‘Truth?’ said Pilate ‘What is that?’

John 18: 37,38

So that seems to be the position that Christians are in, facing a choice of two worlds. Which world do we want to belong to? The eighth commandment tells us that we belong to the world Jesus is leading us to; where we can find true happiness. That’s the choice I’m facing. Do I subscribe to a world of objective truth where black is black and white is white or am I to be happier in a world where white can be declared the New Black?

Perhaps I would prefer a world where I can be a man today and just declare myself to be a woman tomorrow? I can make up my own truth and you will be declared intolerant if you do not agree. I can’t see that leading to happiness. It seems to me that this is a recipe for social upheaval and prepares the way for the unscrupulous to manipulate people. To use the old expression ‘It will all end in tears.’

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Saint Paul and the Pagans – My October Column – Full Text

Statue of Paul

Paul’s Mission to the Pagans

Last month we saw how the Apostles came to understand that the Good News of the Gospel was meant for all mankind, not just for the Jews. Now Saul, or Paul as he is now being called, set off with Barnabas to bring the word to the pagans. On their journey they reached Antioch. On the Sabbath they went to the synagogue and after the lesson had been read they were invited to address the congregation with some “words of encouragement”. Paul’s address to the congregation was a complete explanation of how Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s promise to the Jews. So impressed were the congregation that Paul was invited to return the next Sabbath to give another talk.

The following week almost the whole town turned out to hear Paul, pagans as well as Jews. Seeing the large crowds and being jealous of his popularity, the Jews contradicted Paul, shouting him down. Paul replied that, as a Jew, he had wanted to proclaim the word to the Jews first but as they had rejected it and so he would now go on to proclaim the word to the pagans as Jesus had commanded when he said

“I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

This made the pagans happy but it did not go down well with the leading men of the city. Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the territory. They shook the dust from their feet and moved on.

It is worth remembering that the early Christians were also Jews. They attended the synagogue before their meetings to break bread together. They didn’t think of themselves as a separate religion. It is not surprising that some of these early Christians were unhappy about Paul’s conversion of pagans. Some of them who were Pharisees objected. Paul had to convince them that this was part of God’s plan that all mankind were to be saved.

Paul’s mission was now one of bringing the Gospel message to the pagans. He travelled across what we now know as the Middle East, preaching to the Jews there but also converting pagans. He met with opposition from Jews and from pagans but pressed on.

Paul made journeys of hundreds of miles. Most of these distances he travelled were on foot. There was no transport system other than boats. Even journeys by sea must have been very dangerous undertakings. Paul’s life had become a journey, a journey to bring the Gospel to the world. I can’t help thinking that this is a kind of model for our own lives. Our lives are a journey, a spiritual journey. We walk, not along the dusty roads of Syria and Greece as Paul did, but in the everyday tasks we perform in our lives. Paul walked in barren wilderness. We often walk in a spiritual wilderness where Gospel values are not upheld.

Paul often found himself arguing with Jews and pagans who could not accept his teaching. He put himself in danger, angering powerful people. There are many stories of Paul escaping who opposed him. We don’t often find ourselves standing in the marketplace preaching the Gospel. We still have to bring the Gospel message into our society by the way we live. By living the Gospel we keep the message alive for others to find.

I remember being told by a missionary in Africa that the missionaries did not bring God to Africa. God was already there, the missionaries brought the Gospel. We see that in the stories of Paul’s travels. He would speak to people in a market place or a synagogue and some people were filled with the Holy Spirit and believed. Others did not have the Spirit. I’m not sure whether that is because some are chosen and others not or because some people are just not open to receiving the Spirit.

Whatever the danger he put himself in, Paul always argued his point and because he was guided by the Holy Spirit he was an eloquent debater. Often those who could not beat him in debate were frustrated and resorted to other means to defeat him. Despite the danger he put himself in Paul never wavered from his course.

That should be a model for us. In our ordinary lives we find our Gospel values being challenged. Like Paul, we must argue our cause. It is becoming increasingly unfashionable to hold Christian values and we have to accept that. As a bishop once told me, we are being told that the basic human value is equality. If we don’t believe that everyone is equal and all ideas are equal we are at fault. He insisted that the real basic value is truth. Some ideas are not true. We must be defenders of the truth.

As European Christians we could be regarded as followers of Paul. It was Paul who took the Faith to the pagans and we are the spiritual descendants of those pagans who converted. The Christians who are the descendants of the early church are those in the Middle East such as the Coptic Church. These Christians are the ones who are facing the same dangers that Paul faced. They are keeping their faith alive in the face of death threats.

The Christian population of the Middle East is falling rapidly as extremists kill some and others flee to safety. Even after fleeing Syria many Christians are unable to shelter in the refugee camps for fear of attack by other refugees.

We live in safety with no threat of violence for holding Christian beliefs. Some may suffer when the law of the land is changed in ways which contradict Christian teaching. The laws on abortion and same sex marriage bring some into conflict with the state. As we saw in the case of the midwives who did not want to have anything to do with abortion, standing by our beliefs can cost us dear.

The recent case of a Christian official in America who refused to licence same sex marriages and was jailed shows that sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe and put ourselves in danger. What would Paul have done? As we can see from his story he was jailed from time to time. He never allowed this to deflect him from his course.

Paul’s legal battles brought him to Rome eventually and brought the Gospel to the heart of the Roman Empire. It just goes to show that even when things look black and we think the fight is lost the tide can be turned. Paul never lost sight of the fact that it was the Holy Spirit who was leading him in his travels. Paul was just an instrument. So too, we are merely instruments in the Spirits work of evangelisation. We might not understand what is really happening but we know from the events in the early Church, the Spirit will not be diverted from his work. We must take Paul as our model and run the race to the end.

Keep the Faith.

Saint Paul and the Pagans – My October Column

Statue of Paul

Why did Paul preach to the pagans? Why did he annoy so many people? Why did they want to kill him wherever he went? Given all that, is Paul a suitable model for us?

Read my article in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Is the Truth there? Is the Truth important? If you can’t get a copy this week you can find the full text here next week.