Yes and No
How strong would you say your word is? That’s an important question for a lot of people, particularly in this part of the country. Folks in this particular subculture of the broader American melting pot are not so far removed from a time when a contract was signed and sealed with the speaking of a word and the shake of a hand. Many people still get nostalgic for a time when “a man’s word was his bond.” It was once thought that the measure of a person could be assessed by her word. Someone whose word was good was worth his weight in gold. A person whose word could not stand on its own had a value that stretched no further than you could throw them. Today, though, honesty doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as nostalgia would have us believe it once did. The idea of business ethics, for example, particularly in circles of great money and power is laughable; something to take an MBA course on or make great overtures towards at empowerment-type conferences, but not something to seriously try and incorporate into a regular work pattern. It’s much easier to tell people what they want to hear and then do whatever is in your own best interest. And don’t even get me started on politicians and the kinds of promises folks on both sides of the aisle make in order to get elected without any obvious intentions of keeping. Now, as a collective culture, most people would still say that honesty is an American virtue, but there are more and more times where it feels like more of a show piece than something people really work towards incorporating into their lives.
But, lest we lapse into a pattern of becoming overly critical of our own culture, let’s make clear that issues with honesty are not unique to us. People have been dealing with this for a long time. Now, from a theological standpoint, the reason for this is that one of the effects of sin in this world is that it causes us to hide in shame. Well, you can’t hide very effectively if you tell the truth all the time. So we lie. And then it becomes clear that by lying we can sometimes get what we want more quickly than by telling the truth all the time. Sure there are consequences to deal with later, but those are usually a small price to pay for the convenience of getting what we want when we want. Of course, I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the guilt that comes with lying given that we know deep in our bones we shouldn’t do it, that if it caught on it would undermine the very fabric of our society, but with a little practice we can learn to lie with a straight face and not even feel the internal flinch.
I hope you can see this is a problem. It is enough of a problem that one of the Ten Commandments is focused on it. We are to not bear false witness against our neighbors. Now, while that’s often understood to be a general prohibition on lying, the truth is that it is focused in pretty tightly on making false statements in a judicial setting that could lead to a false conviction (which in capital cases would render the false witness a murderer). But, given that honesty is one of God’s fundamental characteristics, the expectation is there all the same. And yet, the fact remains that honesty is not fundamental to us. A former youth pastor of mine who had twins told a story once about having one of the twins come and ask him for a cookie. My youth pastor told his son that he couldn’t have a cookie until he ate all of his dinner. The father then watched his son return to the living room where his brother was eating, dump the contents of his plate onto his brother’s plate, return to his dad, and said, “I ate it, Dad, not can I have a cookie?” This little boy was about three when this happened. So what we have here is a God who commands honesty and a people who are not fundamentally honest. This would seem to be the makings of a conflict, particularly if one of these parties wants to be able to have a relationship with the other. In light of this, it is no wonder that as Jesus was giving us some examples of how the greater righteousness necessary to gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven might play itself out in our lives, He spent a bit of time on honesty and what the greater righteousness looks like in our words.
If you are keeping score, this is the fourth of the six antitheses Jesus used to help us understand the kind of life necessary to live in the kingdom of heaven. (The antitheses are a series of contrasts Jesus sets up between those who would keep the letter of the Law and those who would keep its spirit.) We started this series five weeks ago by talking about the kind of life that Jesus wants us to be living if we are going to represent well our claim to be His followers. Given that we’ve been away from it now for a couple of weeks, let me remind you of how we got here. Jesus said that we are to be salt and light in this world. In other words, not only are we to make a difference, but it should be a positive difference in which our good works illuminate the great God whom we are serving. One of the ways we can do this is by living in a constant state of reconciliation. We talked about this in the second week of this series when we saw that our anger must not be allowed to spiral out of control because it can lead to our murdering the object of our anger in some way, physical or immaterial. The better way here is to seek to be reconciled with all those with whom we are not at peace. Then, in our most recent installment, we talked about Jesus’ thoughts on adultery and divorce. These are tough topics and have led to a lot of hurt in this world. But the solution, according to Jesus’ greater righteousness is very simple: be radically faithful to your commitments. If you have committed your heart to another person, don’t shop it around anywhere else.
This morning, then, we are going to focus in on Jesus’ words regarding honesty and specifically the making of oaths. With all of this said, let’s jump right into the text. If you have your Bibles, open them to Matthew 5:33 and let me read these words for you. “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.’ But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.”
So what Jesus is talking about here is the making of oaths. I’ve got to say, on the surface, this seems to be one of the least applicable commands Jesus gives. I mean, are there any regular oath-takers in here? I can’t think of the last time I swore an oath. I’ve never been in a courtroom setting as a witness, although I know some of you have had that experience. Well then how about this: anyone pepper your conversations with the rather ubiquitous phrase “I swear to God”? When I was in high school and college it was not uncommon to hear people make a statement and follow it up with “I swear to God.” It was a way of adding credibility to one’s words. Other than those, I really can’t think of many occasions in which people take oaths. So why did Jesus spend any time on this? Well, in order to answer that question, we need to make sure that we understand as fully as we are able what Jesus’ audience would have heard and thought about when Jesus gave this teaching.
As a matter of fact, there is no direct verse in the Old Testament that says “You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.” Instead, Jesus is citing a variety of traditions that all point in this direction. There are three places in particular that Jesus was probably drawing from: Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21. Of these, the passage from Deuteronomy is probably the most relevant. Let me read this for you starting at Deuteronomy 23:21: “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to keep it, because He will require it of you, and it will be counted against you as sin.” Here’s what was going on in this situation. When the Israelites wanted to make a point with particular clarity and emphasis, they would swear to the truthfulness of their words by the name of God. Let me see if I can describe what they were doing by this. In the Egyptian culture out of which the people had fairly recently come (they had only been free for about ten percent of the amount of time they had been in Egypt surrounded by this culture), there was a fair bit of magical thinking that accompanied the people’s thoughts about the gods. What I mean is that most folks thought that if you did or said the right sequence of things, you could exert some meaningful control over the gods. Thus, if someone wanted to guarantee the truthfulness of something or else commit themselves fully to some action, they might swear an oath in the name of the appropriate god. The thought was that this would bind either the god or themselves to a certain course of action. Granting a very different majority worldview, we have linguistic features like this today. I just mentioned one. Perhaps you or someone you know has used the phrase “I swear to God” to back up something that’s been said. People swear on their mother’s grave. I’ve heard used the phrase “May God strike me down if what I’m saying isn’t true.” Or this: “I swear on a whole stack of Bibles” (as if their power increases with numbers). The language used is different, but the intent is the same. We want to give people more confidence in what we are saying and so we bind our words to some broadly recognized source of authority. Now, this doesn’t mean our word is necessarily any stronger than without the oath, but the impression is there all the same.
Well, you can take the people out of the magical-thinking culture, but it’s no small feat to take the magical-thinking culture out of the people. Just because the people of Israel were 40 years removed from the borders of Egypt doesn’t mean their old habits of language were gone from them. They didn’t lose this practice of strengthening words with an oath, they just changed the source of authority they used to empower the oath. Well, here’s the difference between God and all the other false gods of Egypt: He actually exists. Oh, and He’s not all that found of people treating His name as if it was something that merely belonged to them to use however they felt at the moment. (There’s probably something about a Third Commandment in there, but that’s for another time.) As a result, God had Moses pass this additional command on to the people: If you swear an oath in My name, you’d better keep it. To do otherwise was to send a message to God that read something along the lines of: “God, I know they say Your name is really important and sacred, but I don’t really believe this. I consider it to be more of my own personal pocket authority tool that allows me to give my words a greater semblance of truthfulness. The truth is that I really don’t think of you as much more than my own personal genie.” As you might imagine, God didn’t take so kindly to this and told them so.
As a result of all this, when the people finally got it through their heads that God’s name is a pretty important thing, some cultural changes began to occur. First, they stopped pronouncing the name of God. If you listen to any observant Jew read the Hebrew Scriptures today, every time they come to the word Yahweh (the name God revealed to Moses), they will say “Adonai” which means simply “Lord.” When they write out the word God they will spell it G-d. More important for our purposes, though, they stopped swearing in God’s name unless they really, really meant it. Instead, for making oaths that they never intended to keep, they would swear by all manner of other things. Later in Matthew 23, when Jesus pronounced a lengthy woe on the scribes and Pharisees, he hit them for teaching people that if they swore on one thing that was of a second or third level sacredness like the sanctuary or the altar in the sanctuary, they didn’t really have to keep that oath. If, on the other hand, they swore by a first level of sacredness item, then they were bound by their word. This was like telling people that if their fingers aren’t crossed they have to keep their word, but if they are, then they don’t really have to mean what they say. And if it’s your fingers and your toes, you might as well tell the other person that you’re lying.
What happened was that all of this developed into this elaborate system of rules and regulations called casuistry that, while complex as if to have the appearance of religiousness and authority, there were so many loopholes and exceptions as to make our tax code look like a seamless, simply applied ordinance. The result of all of this was that these professed followers of God and keepers of the sacred Law of Moses were covering their fundamental dishonesty with a holy blanket. This was about as far from honoring God as they could have gotten. What Jesus was doing here then, was closing the loopholes. When Jesus recommended that people not take oaths altogether, He was not prohibiting bad language or making promises or even taking oaths in a judicial setting if necessary. There are several places in the Bible where some of the apostles and even God Himself takes oaths to guarantee something. He was instead saying that all of this covering dishonesty with complex looking exceptions and caveats had to stop. People were better off stopping the taking of oaths altogether than continuing in this God-dishonoring direction. How much better would it be to develop such a reputation for being honest that when you said, “Yes,” everyone knew that was what you meant and it wasn’t changing for any reason? As the prophet and king David wrote in Psalm 15, the person who honors God keeps her word even if it hurts. How much easier would it be if people knew without any question that when we said, “No,” that really was the end of the story? Well, for followers of Jesus, this is not a reality that we have to try and imagine. It is the reality we are called to embrace. According to the greater righteousness that gains us access to the kingdom of heaven, our word really should be our bond. In other words, for the follower of Jesus, honesty isn’t merely the best policy out of many good options, it’s the only policy. Honesty isn’t merely the best policy, it’s the only policy.
This all helps us understand what Jesus was saying and why He said it, but it doesn’t really tell us much about what we should do with this information. I mean, most of you have been in church for a long time. You already knew that believers are supposed to be characterized by honesty. Even if this were your first time walking in the door of a church, if you were raised in this country, you understand that people should be honest with each other because honesty is one of the fundamental American virtues (even if many of us aren’t terribly virtuous people). And even if you weren’t raised in this country you know that honesty is the foundation for any successful society because the importance of truthfulness is part of the essential make up of human beings. Sure, as far as followers of Jesus go, honesty is the only policy, but everyone knows that it’s at least something to shoot for. So again, what does this really look like in our lives?
Well, let’s start with something really basic. If you say something, make sure it’s true. This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but we get caught all the time whether we mean to or not. Let me give you an example. As parents, we want to establish a record of truthfulness with our kids. No-brainer. You don’t lie to your kids, right? How many of you when your kids were little and you were trying to get them to stay in bed told them something you thought might pacify them in order to get them to comply with your demands which you either later forgot about or else had no intention of doing in the first place? I couldn’t possibly imagine what that’s like… If we are going to say something, we need to make sure it’s true. Anyone ever cheat on your taxes? How about, has anyone ever fibbed a bit on their driver’s license? Have you ever told a friend she had a great hair cut when it really looked terrible? Ever have anyone ask you how you are doing when you were running around with your pants on fire things were so bad and you responded with, “I’m fine, how are you?” I don’t think I need to go to any big things in order to make my point here. If you say something, make sure it’s true. Here’s why: Jesus said so. Okay, that’s a bit too easy. Here’s why: we serve the God who is the source of all that is true in the universe. There are no truths which are not ultimately grounded in Him. As individuals created in His image, everything we say should be self-evidently true. When we say things that aren’t true, when we take oaths that we never intend to keep, when we pepper our conversations with oath-making language in order to give our words more credibility, we are going against our creation. Not only that, but because all truth is ultimately grounded in God, if we are creating or even simply inhabiting a world in which untruths are allowed to stand, it is a world in which God is not present. Indeed, He isn’t welcomed there. On that last note, if you are one who feels the need to add oath-making language to your conversation patterns in order to give more credibility to your words, your words probably need more help than oath-making language is going to offer. If your words have that little credibility, start using fewer words and spend more time making sure the ones you do use are trustworthy. This all goes double if you claim the mantle of believer. For a follower of Christ, honesty isn’t the best policy, it’s the only policy.
Let me take just a minute more to jam on so-called “little white lies.” What are the two biggest reasons we tell these? I would argue that we tell them for our own convenience and to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings (which is really about our own convenience as we don’t really want to deal with the fallout of hurting their feelings). This brings us to a place of asking a tough question. Which is better: maintaining a reputation of unflinching honesty, always spoken in love, or avoiding hurting the feelings of the ones we love? I know the churchy answer here is the former, but most of us hold pretty tightly to the latter. I mean, why would we hurt someone’s feelings if we can help it by telling a lie that really won’t have any evident consequences? Why it would be unloving not to lie in such a case. In this way, we convince ourselves that tolerating a small amount of untruthfulness in our lives is okay for the sake of peace. Yet the things we have already said this morning still hold sway. If we are to be known as followers of Christ, not even a glimmer of dishonesty has a legitimate place in our lives. Tolerating it is like building a brick building with faulty bricks on the bottom. No one is going to see them and it would be way too inconvenient to try and replace them or order some more. Leaving them alone, however, will cause big problems later. And if you want proof of this I have two words for you: American. Idol. How many of you watch the tryout part of the season as a guilty pleasure to laugh at the people who come into the audition room ready to sign their name on their big contract and yet couldn’t carry a tune with a wheelbarrow and extra help. The reason they are there is because somewhere in their past, someone told them a “little white lie” that has resulted in a big red embarrassment. And the really sad part is that some of these folks have so internalized the lies that they are no longer capable of living in the truth. Honesty isn’t merely the best policy, it’s the only policy.
Now, for some of you a tension still remains. What about situations like when a wife asks her husband how some outfit makes her look? Or when a man seeks approval from his wife on a pitiful attempt at romance that fell painfully short? Or when a child asks his parents if his drawing is good? How can we tell the truth in those times if the truth is going to hurt the seeker? Let me start at the end and work backwards. When your son or daughter (or grandson or granddaughter) brings you a picture it probably won’t be a Rembrandt. I have pictures from Noah in my office that are little more than scribbles on a page. Yet what was going on when he gave me those pictures? He was expressing his love for me by giving me a gift. He was not looking for me to affirm his artistic ability, but for me to affirm my love and pride for him. Of course the picture itself isn’t good. But the gift is. And so when I tell him how glad I am that he gave me that picture and how good a picture it is, I’m telling him the gospel truth. As an expression of his love for me that picture might as well be a Picasso.
But what about an adult seeking approval? That’s tougher. But think about this. What is a woman often looking for when she asks how an outfit makes her look? She’s looking to have her fundamental question answered: Am I enough? What she’s really asking is: Does this add or detract from my overall self-worth? When a man seeks approval for something he’s done for his wife, he’s looking for his fundamental question to be answered: Am I enough? What he’s really asking is: Have I demonstrated my manliness by this project? Look, if someone has to get this question answered a lot, there’s something deeper going on. Perhaps the best answer to these kinds of questions is: “Honey, I appreciate the effort you have made to show your love for me. You are all the man I need. Let me show you the kinds of ways that I receive messages of love from you the most clearly. If you are sending these kinds of messages and pointing our family in the direction of the kingdom, you will always be man enough.” And from a husband: ‘Honey, you are beautiful because you are created in the image of God. Your worth is not connected to anything external, even your own skin. Dress without fear for your value is secure. If you are dressing in ways that modestly celebrate your God-given femininity, you will always carry an external beauty.” Now, are these the answers that are going to make them immediately happy, the answers that are being sought? No. But, if the other is questioning their own worth, thus living apart from the truthfulness of the kingdom on this point, giving the simple affirmation being sought is like putting a band-aid on a wound requiring stitches. It addresses the most pressing felt-needs, but it doesn’t work toward any real solutions. The obvious little white lies that you might feel are necessary to tell here because you can’t honestly give the answers sought, are band-aids. Honest isn’t merely the best policy, it’s the only policy.
Alright, well let’s come back around and tie things together. If we are going to follow the path of the greater righteousness Jesus lays out before us here, we need to be a people of absolute honesty. I’ll leave the hypothetical ethical dilemmas to the ethicists, but for now, the clearest understanding of what Jesus says doesn’t leave room for exceptions. We should come to be known as a people who stand by their word, regardless of the cost. Every time we open our mouths, the very words of God should come out. We don’t need oath-making language to certify the truthfulness of words like this because they are inherently true. Nothing else can be added. In fact, to add anything suggests a doubt of the very character of God on our part. This is what it means for us to have our words seasoned with grace as Paul would later command us. I know that there are situations in this life in which it is really tempting to let a little lie slip for the sake of convenience, but we cannot fall prey to these. The lie might allow everyone to keep a smile on their face in the short term, but it will contribute to the crumbling of that person’s ability to live within the spacious bounds of reality. Honesty is not merely the best policy, it is the only policy. So let me ask you again the question I did several minutes ago: how strong would you say your word is? Do you need oath-making language to beef it up? Is it strong enough merely to keep the people around you happy? Is it strong enough to build a proper framework of truthfulness and reality in the lives of those around you? Is it strong enough to pass the test of Jesus’ greater righteousness? Be honest now. Because honesty is not merely the best policy, it’s the only policy.