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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

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.".

— John 1:46

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 Abraham developed this ploy for the specific purpose of concealing the

fact that Sarah was his wife. 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

prejudicing the truth and 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, 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, who, in

employing this ruse, did not fear God, nor did he 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 his dissembling. 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 that he was willing to sacrifice the truth and put others at risk because he

thought it would increase his odds of staying alive.

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 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.

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