When was the last time you cheated? When was the last time you told a lie? Was it back in high school when you looked on a friend’s test and got the right answer? Maybe it was twenty years ago when you told your boss you were sick, but really, you just took the day off to go fishing. Maybe it was last year when you promised something that you had no intention of following through on. Has it been that long ago that you were dishonest, and ever since you’ve been absolutely truthful? Or maybe it was just now when you claimed to be honest and you know you aren’t.
Back in 1992, Time Magazine ran a cover article entitled, Lying: Everybody’s Doing It. And the article documented how prevalent dishonesty and lying had become in everyday life. I wish I could say it has gotten better, but I’d be lying. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where we don’t expect people to tell the truth – we assume people are lying.
There is a saying: “It’s not the mountain ahead that wears you out, but the pebble in your shoe.” How true it is of our Christian lives, that we fret and fuss over the big sins – that we condemn and denounce the sins that are publicly distasteful, yet it is the little sins – the white lies, the half-truths, the quiet dishonesty that shipwrecks our faith.
Absolute honesty is a rare commodity, people of integrity are hard to find. We have become so used to distrusting people that we are a little suspicious of taking anyone at their word and surprised when we find someone who is as good as their word.
It even shows up in our language. Have you ever found yourself saying things like: “Seriously, now… In all sincerity… Cross my heart… Really, I promise… No kidding… Trust me… Honestly” (implying that what has been said previously isn’t serious or sincere or real or honest.)
Our law books are filled with regulations to ensure that a person acts honestly. In every kind of business transaction and financial dealing you sign page after page of documents declaring that you will do what you say you’re going to do. (And even then you can’t be sure.) The bottom line it would seem is that you can’t trust anybody. Now we make a lot of noise about honesty. You hear claims from every direction – trust me!
In that respect, the 21st century isn’t very different from the 1st century. The Pharisees held truthfulness at an absolute premium. The truth should always be told.
Unfortunately, they also had a sliding scale of truthfulness – you should always tell the truth, but you should especially tell the truth if you invoked God’s name in affirming your truthfulness. You guaranteed your truthfulness by the type of oath you swore. If you could give the impression of honesty, you had accomplished your purpose.
As will all sliding scales – this scale of honesty slid toward the bottom end, and now, rather than indicating truthfulness, became a technical loophole through which a person might avoid the truth, yet still claim righteousness – being technically acquitted of wrongdoing by his own man-made standard.
The problem with swearing oaths is really two-fold: · People used oaths when no oath was really necessary. It was frivolous. When you have to affirm everything you say by using an oath, then everything you say becomes suspect.
· Secondly, people used oaths evasively. They wanted to circumvent the truth while still giving the impression they were telling the truth. And then when confronted with their dishonesty, they would simply reply, “Oh, did you think I meant that? Well, I didn’t swear by God, but by his throne, and surely you should have know I didn’t mean it.”
Into this social context, Jesus speaks about a standard of honesty that is as rare today as it was then – vs. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all; either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Jesus draws upon 3 passages of scripture from the OT:
Lev. 19:11-12 “ ‘Do not steal. ‘Do not lie. ‘Do not deceive one another. ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.”
Num. 30:1-2 Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.”
Deut. 23:21-23 If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.”
The Scriptures let us know that what we swear, we swear to the Lord and by the Lord. And his presence was invoked as an indicator of the seriousness of the vow made. So, vows or oaths weren’t forbidden, but a strictness was enforced on their performance.
When we read the OT, we find oaths being used by Abraham, by David, even God himself used oaths: “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself…” (Heb. 6:13). When Jesus wanted to call attention to the absolute truthfulness and significance of what was being said, he would say, “Truly, truly, I say to you…” Paul would write in 2 Cor. 1:23 “I call on God as my witness…” and Gal. 1:20 “I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie.”
So, It would seem that there is nothing inherently wrong with oaths. But we need to see that the purpose of divine oaths was not to increase God’s credibility ( in other words, that he is saying “trust me”), but to elicit and confirm our faith. The fault which made God condescend to this human level lay not in any untrustworthiness of his, but in our unbelief.
Human rationale for using oaths was far less noble. So, Jesus says, “But I tell you, ‘Do not swear at all.’”
Let’s make sure we hear what’s really being said here, especially within the context of the Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard that it was said”: Not only don’t murder, don’t even hate – Not only don’t commit adultery, don’t even lust.
Now he says, “You have heard it said, don’t break your oaths, I say, don’t swear at all.”
The problem is not with the oaths, per se, but with what people tried to do by invoking oaths – legalize and minimize. Their intention was to justify themselves while remaining dishonest. Their problem was with their heart – it always is.
Jesus illustrates this by showing how they had circumvented the Law – vs. 34-35 “Do not swear at all; either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black.”
The problem with these oaths is more fundamental than a person’s choice of what he would swear by. It is rooted in the command, “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” It is in the truest sense of the word, “profanity” to use God’s name without the absolute holiness and purity that should accompany it.
If one used God’s name in an oath, well then, that settled it. It was absolutely binding. But if one could avoid actually using God’s name, that was different. If you could swear by something that gave the impression of having God’s good name behind it, yet really didn’t, then you could slide by. When we come to Matt. 23, Jesus shows us the extent to which this hairsplitting had gone – Matt. 23:16-22 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
The point is that there is nothing that you can swear by that doesn’t belong to God – heaven is his throne, earth is his footstool, Jerusalem is his city. Anytime you try to sidestep honesty by alluding to God, you have profaned his name.
He takes it to its ultimate conclusion. Don’t even swear by your own head, because even that belongs to God. You can’t change a hair white or black (obviously before the days of Clairol and Grecian formula), but make no mistake – there is nothing within our control --- and there is nothing by which we can swear which will confirm our truthfulness and honesty if it is our intention to mislead and lie.
The point of all this is that God wants us to be people of integrity, that what comes out of our mouths is truthful, that what our lives are on the outside flows out of what is on the inside, that how we live in public is what we are like in private. Integrity, honesty, transparency – those are the qualities that reflect God in our lives. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Col. 3:9-10)
And integrity isn’t always going to work out well for you. There are sometimes when telling the truth is going to be costly. Anybody can tell the truth when it’s in their own best interest – when it will get them ahead, when it makes them look good. The question is, will we have integrity when it leads to the cross? We don’t tell the truth because it gets us ahead in life, we tell the truth because we’re that kind of people – people who reflect Jesus in our lives.
Words have a tremendous power. Jesus speaks as the Word of God. If we are his disciples, how can our words be any less holy? They are vessels of God’s truth, they are instruments of reconciliation, they are the proclamation of his good news. How can we profane those words with dishonesty (and for that matter with gossip and slander, with malice and spite)? Our words belong to God.
More than anything else, Jesus is saying that we need to be people of integrity, whose lives are lived with such honesty and transparency, that our credibility is unquestioned. No one should ever wonder whether we are telling the truth, whether our word is good.
That isn’t a license for being critical and caustic - it doesn’t mean you blurt out everything that comes to your mind and excuse yourself by saying, “I was just being honest!” This isn’t permission to be “brutally honest.” In Ephesians, Paul reminds us to “speak the truth in love.” And that means there are times when we don’t say everything we think. In the same letter to the Colossians in which Paul says, “Do not lie to each other,” he also reminds us, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col. 3:9, 4:6)
This is the challenge for the Christian, to be honest even when dishonesty is assumed by the world around us, even when we could get away with it, even when honesty will cost us. And to speak the truth with love and compassion and graciousness. To use our words as instruments of compassion and healing, rather than weapons of destruction.
God has never had a standard lower than absolute truthfulness, with or without oaths. When we give our word, whether it be our marriage vows, or business deals, or any of the numerous commitments and promises we make on a daily basis, our word alone should be an absolute guarantee of truth. Whether we place our hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, or merely say, “I will do it” – others may know it is as good as done.
What is your word worth?