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One of farmer Jones' neighbors came to him one day and said, "Johnny Little took a wagonload of apples from your orchard."
"Did you see it?" asked the farmer.
"No, but Joe Williams told me about it."
Farmer Jones went to Joe Williams and asked him, "Did you see Johnny Little take a wagonful of apples from my orchard?"
"Heavens, no! What I heard was that he took a wheelbarrow full of apples. It was Henry Anderson who told me that."
When farmer Jones asked Henry about it, he replied, "All I said was he took a pocketful of apples. Nancy Adams told me that."
Farmer Jones asked Nancy Adams, who said, "Johnny Little was talking to me the other day and said your apples were ripe and that it was about time somebody picked them."
This is typical of how bad things get started — because people like to embellish what they hear. So, by the time a simple comment made it to farmer Jones, it had become a major theft. This sort of thing tempts farmer Jones to anger and possibly to rash judgment. And the growing stories could do nothing good for Johnny Little's reputation.
This falls under the Eighth Commandment as listed in Exodus 20:16: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." And it is certainly sinful.
Before we begin to examine the Eighth Commandment, I have a couple of confessions to make. First, this is the Commandment I have the most trouble obeying. The Eighth Commandment covers a lot of different things — as you'll soon see — much more than just lying. Although tempted like everyone else, I have no trouble with telling the truth. I just have trouble with several of the other things covered by this Commandment.
Second, the Eighth Commandment is the hardest commandment of them all to understand in all its implications and most certainly the hardest to obey. I spend more time trying to get this one right than any of the others. This concerted effort makes it easy to understand why we say we are "practicing" Catholics.
The Eighth Commandment is probably the most commonly violated of all the commandments. So, there is no way we're going to get it all covered this week. Most people think it only covers honesty, but that isn't nearly all it encompasses. The Eighth Commandment forbids false witness, lying, rash judgments, rash suspicions, flattery, tale-bearing, detractions, calumny, contumely, libel and the telling of secrets we are obliged to keep. It obliges us to always be truthful, especially when it concerns someone's good name and reputation. It also obliges us to interpret the actions of our neighbor in the best possible way.
Let's begin by defining a lie. A lie is anything we know or suspect to be untrue, usually for the purpose of deceiving others. And there's no such thing as a so-called "white lie." It's a perversion of man's nature to tell a lie because God made man to know and tell the truth. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 2467 notes, "Man tends by nature toward the truth."
Therefore, no excuse can make the telling of a lie good, since lying in itself is sinful. A basic principle of moral theology is we may never commit an evil that good may come from it. That includes the "white lie." It doesn't matter what anyone or anything else says about lying — including the shameful ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that police officers can lie to a suspect or to a person being questioned in order to obtain a confession from them or otherwise get at the truth. We must obey God rather than man.
Moral theology also gives us something called a jocose lie. A jocose lie isn't really a lie at all. It's a story made up in order to amuse or instruct others — such as a joke or tale like in one of Jesus' parables. A jocose lie only becomes sinful if the storyteller fails to make it clear in some way that the story isn't to be taken literally.
There is also such a thing as a lie in action. Lying in action is called hypocrisy. A good example is when a parent tells a child to "do as I say, not as I do."
The next one on our list is rash judgment. This is believing something harmful about someone's character without a sufficient reason. For example, you may have a convicted felon attending your parish, and you automatically think he should be shunned and otherwise made to feel uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere. You would be rashly judging his character without sufficient reason.
Do you know for a fact he was guilty of the crime? Even if he was, what is his behavior like now? Can people change? Of course, they can. Don't forget, St. Paul was guilty of murdering Christians prior to his conversion. So, the best rule of thumb is to take each person where he's at and determine his character by how he deals with you personally and how you observe him with others. Rash judgment is wrong because disrespecting someone's reputation equates to disrespecting their person. Each person deserves our respect.
There are also sins that can be committed by telling the truth. What? Did I just say that? Really? Yes. Those sins are called tale-bearing and detraction.
Tale-bearing is telling someone the unkind things others have said about him or her. This is sinful because it provokes a person to anger, hatred, revenge and other sins.
Detraction is acting without an objectively valid reason to tell "another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them." Now, we may tell the faults of another to the proper authority — say, teachers, parents, police, etc. — if we believe the wrongdoer can be helped or stopped from further wrongdoing or to keep the wrongs from becoming worse. It's important to stress, though, we should be more concerned with seeing a sinner break with sin than to see the sinner punished.
Next week, we'll continue our examination of the Eighth Commandment. Just know and understand now that all of this only scratches the surface of this demanding Commandment of God.