READ : Matthew 5:33-37
Actions may speak louder than words, but the way we talk sends a pretty powerful message about our faith.
When I was a boy I used to watch a television program called “Truth or Consequences.” It was a funny little game where contestants were required to answer a question truthfully or suffer a penalty.
What would it be like if real life were that way? What if the world operated on the basis of truth or consequences? Imagine a world where everyone had to pay an immediate penalty whenever they said anything false or misleading, where every lie was instantly exposed and punished, where people always had to speak the truth straightforwardly, without any evasion or misinformation. An epidemic of honesty would break out that would turn things upside down! There wouldn’t be any more television commercials. Ninety-nine percent of lawyers would be unemployed. The CIA would have to be disbanded. Used-car salesmen would all need extensive counseling and job retraining. Politicians appearing at news conferences would say things like, “I don’t have an answer to that question” and “You know, my opponent is actually a better candidate than I am.” That’s what would happen in a world where people were always honest.
But they’re not. It’s not “truth or consequences” in real life. Most lies go undetected. Most liars get away with it. People don’t tell the truth. They twist it, break it, distort or disguise it in a hundred ways. They slander, gossip, create false impressions, exaggerate, perjure themselves, utter falsehoods – and often pay no immediate price. In fact, it even seems to benefit them. It can be rather enjoyable. That’s why they keep doing it.
TELLING THE TRUTH
Jesus addresses this sin too – the sin of untruthful speech – in his teaching on the Old Testament law, the Ten Commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus selects several of the commandments and amplifies their meaning with his own insightful comments. He deals with the sixth commandment about murder by talking about anger and hatred, murder’s underlying causes. He expands the seventh commandment against adultery to include lust and adds a positive word about faithfulness in marriage. Now in addressing the subject of oaths and swearing, Jesus is opening up the ninth commandment, which forbids us to bear false witness against our neighbor, and there are also overtones here of the third commandment about misuse of God’s name as well.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5:33-37, rsv
DO NOT SWEAR
Boiled down to simplest terms Jesus’ teaching here consists of two straight orders, one negative and the other positive. The negative one is “Do not swear at all” (v. 34). When we think of swearing, we tend to think of language that is foul or profane, the sort of language that, when it appears in print, has to make liberal use of the phrase “expletive deleted.” Or we think of cursing, which originally was the invocation of the name of God to call down harm on someone or something. As the sense of the reality of God has faded from modern consciousness, so the invoking of his name has changed. Even God’s name has become little more than an expletive, a kind of verbal exclamation for expressing anger or frustration or surprise. For many people, it’s even less than that. It’s just a meaningless sound, something they repeat out of habit. While the use of profane language is certainly wrong, and the casual abuse of God’s holy name is a sin that should shock us far more than it does, this is not the kind of speech Jesus targets here.
Jesus is speaking here of swearing in the more technical sense of the term. He is referring to the invoking of God’s name in an oath in order to confirm the truthfulness of what one is saying and to elicit the trust of one’s hearers. Jesus is talking about the kind of oaths that use God’s name very deliberately and intentionally. In fact, in his day so great was the reverence for the name of God that most people would substitute a euphemism for it. They would swear by heaven, or by the earth or by Jerusalem or its temple, or even by themselves, by their own heads for instance. Scholars tell us that two types of oaths were common in Jesus’ day. There were oaths of affirmation attesting to the truthfulness of a particular statement, and there were promissory oaths, vows that bound a person to some future course of action. That is to say people were in the habit of swearing solemn oaths to underscore either their honesty (that they were telling the truth), or their faithfulness (that they could be trusted to keep their promises).
But Jesus tells his followers not to swear at all. What does he mean? Some extremists want to take him literally and say that a Christian is forbidden from binding himself with any kind of oath, any pledge, formal promise, oath of office, marriage or church vow, civil oath in law court or legislature, oaths undertaken for military service, even a classroom pledge to the flag. That sort of rigorous position is good for all of us to think about. Surely we are far too casual about the promises we make and the pledges we undertake. Jesus’ words ought to cause us all to pause and remember that our words have meaning, that taking a vow or an oath is a very serious business, and that our ultimate allegiance is to him. We have no right pledging ourselves to any conflicting authority.
But most Christian teachers, including Jesus himself, have also found a legitimate place for oaths in our lives. Even Jesus, when placed under oath at his trial, responded with a simple declaration of the truth. The fact that he tells us not to make oaths does not mean we are forbidden from taking oaths when asked to do so by lawful authority. No, what he’s getting at in forbidding swearing is something deeper than the form of words that we use. He is addressing the underlying rationale for all such things.
Think about it. Why do we feel the need to use these forms of speech? The existence of oaths is like the locks on the doors of our houses and automobiles. They are all an indirect testimony to the untrustworthiness of human nature. Why do we ask witnesses in court to place their palms on a Bible, raise their right hands, and swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God”? It is to try to make them do what ordinarily they might not. When Jesus tells his followers not to swear, what he really means is that for Christians truthfulness should not be reserved for special occasions only. Our whole life should be devoted to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. All our words should be spoken as if under oath. Christians must be consistent lovers and speakers of the truth.
LET YOUR YES BE YES AND YOUR NO, NO
That is the meaning of Jesus’ positive command in verse 37: “Plain yes or no is all you need to say; anything beyond that comes from the Evil One” (reb). In saying this Jesus requires two things of us in our speaking. The first is honesty. Telling the truth is more than simply a matter of avoiding statements that are factually false. It means letting our yes mean yes and our no mean no. It means using words in such a way that the meaning we intend to produce by them in the mind of our hearer is a truthful one. We all know how to lie by telling the literal truth. “Did you clean your room?” a mother asks her daughter. “Yes, I did” comes the answer, and then under her breath, “I did it last week. You didn’t say when.” That’s the sort of game people learn to play as children, and many continue it with far more serious consequences throughout their lives, but it is unworthy of Christians. We must set ourselves against all the ways people play fast and loose with the truth by exaggerating it, twisting it, suppressing it, ignoring it, or selectively reporting it. All such things come from the Evil One. As Jesus says elsewhere, “The devil is the Father of all lies.”
Christians must be true to their word, thus making it utterly dependable. We must demonstrate consistent integrity in everything we say. I love to listen to good music, and while there are many things wrong with the modern world, one thing for which I’m very grateful is the modern technology of sound recording. What a tremendous thing to be able to turn on a relatively inexpensive machine and hear glorious music whenever we want. When the first true stereos came out, they were known as “hi fi’s,” short for “high fidelity,” because of the great level of fidelity or faithfulness with which they reproduced true sound. Well, Christians ought to be high fidelity people whose words neither distort nor obscure nor misrepresent the truth.
In addition to honesty, Jesus’ command also requires of us simplicity in our speaking. Christians ought to be plain-spoken folk, not given to bragging or boasting or flattery, not guilty of inflated language. Letting our yes be yes and our no be no means we strive to avoid exaggerated claims and rhetorical excess in everything we say. People have a habit of trying to lend weight to their pronouncements through the use of jargon and clichés, and all too often Christians are no exception; there’s a pious sort of jargon we’re sometimes guilty of employing. I remember a meeting I had with a man some years ago to try to straighten out a misunderstanding. When he walked through the door the first thing he said was, “On my way there this morning, the Lord told me to be stern with you.” My heart sank as I realized we probably weren’t going to make much progress. I was right.
I think that is one example of the sort of thing Jesus is warning us against. Christians, of all people, should not try to manipulate others with our words, and of all things we should avoid invoking the Lord’s name to try to lend weight to what may only be our own opinion.
As Christians we must learn to speak both simply and honestly because we honor and love the truth. And we honor and love the truth because we love the Lord whose word is truth and who is himself always faithful, always true.
Make the psalmist’s prayer your prayer today. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer.”