Protecting the Good Name of Others
And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Today we continue our study of Question 144 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?” The second part of the answer states, “The duties required in the ninth commandment are… a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them.” Last time we looked at our duty to promote the truth. Today we consider our obligation to protect the names and reputations of our neighbors.
Previously, we saw how Abraham’s scheme to hide the true nature of his relationship to Sarah; by proclaiming that they were brother and sister (a half-truth) when they were actually husband and wife; was not “freely, clearly, and fully speaking the truth and only the truth.” In fact he developed this ploy for the specific purpose of concealing the fact that they were married to each other. He knew that if he and Sarah introduced themselves as brother and sister, people would assume they were not at the same time husband and wife, which was the errant conclusion at which he aimed. It was a sophisticated way of promoting falsehood without speaking an outright lie.
Additionally, his ill-advised plan failed to promote the truth in another way; it did not frame “a charitable esteem of our neighbors,” nor was it a way of “defending their innocency … and unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them.” When king Abimelech discovered how Abraham had deceived him as to the true nature of his relationship to Sarah as her husband, he was understandably upset. He had Abraham brought before him and basically demanded of him, “Why have your wronged me? Explain yourself!” Abraham’s reply is not very flattering: “And Abraham said, ‘Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife,’” (Gen. 20:11). What a sad answer; so unworthy of the father of the faithful! Abraham justified his intentional misrepresentation and suppressing of the truth out of his fears over what the people of Gerar might be thinking and what they might do.
We do not know why Abraham thought this. Perhaps he heard reports of evil behavior by the people of Gerar, or maybe he saw things as he traveled in the region. No doubt he had his reasons for concluding that there was no fear of God in the land. And it is possible that he had some real justification for believing that someone might kill him in order to take Sarah into a harem. Be that as it may, Abraham’s response was not an action based on his faith in God and his love of his neighbor (or even enemy). In his own words, his actions flowed from his fear of man and a love of his own skin. Ironically, it was Abraham’s ruse that did not fear God, nor did it seek to protect the reputations of the people of the land, nor even to protect his wife from being taken into a harem, for she was taken, precisely because of Abraham’s stunt! The only thing Abraham was protecting was his own life, and this is not what a man of God is called to promote first and foremost. The bottom line is he was willing to sacrifice the truth in order to increase his chances of staying alive in what he viewed as a very wicked nation.
At this point perhaps someone might object that Abraham did not have the full obligation to these people as neighbors since he was merely passing through their land. Here is where we have to keep in mind the context of Abraham’s actions. The Bible says he had moved south and now he “dwelt” and “stayed in Gerar,” which was Abimelech’s kingdom (Gen. 20:1). Clearly, Abraham was not merely passing through; he was planning on remaining in and living in this region for some time. What a terrible way to introduce himself to the community! These people were and would be Abraham’s neighbors. If they were too wicked to be that, then he should not have moved in, but if he was going to live there then he owed them the love of a neighbor. May God grant that you and I think well of our neighbors and do what we can to protect their reputations.