Apparently, Jesus thinks that lying, or breaking your word, is a big deal.
In our gospel reading for last Sunday we read these words:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made’. But I tell you, do not swear an oath 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. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV 2011).
Here’s what I said about this passage on Sunday (my sermon was covering the entire gospel reading, Matthew 5:20-37, so the amount of time spent on each individual section was quite small):
Once again, Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our bare word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but now I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?
Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute”, he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows that he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does”.
Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not, but I have to say that I would love to be that person. Jesus is telling me that this is God’s dream for me: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this, Jesus is saying. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.
(You can read the rest of my sermon here).
I pondered this gospel reading a little more afterwards, and I asked myself a couple of questions about it. First of all, what are the common situations in which I will tell a lie, or exaggerate or promise more than I can deliver, or fail to keep my word?
Sometimes it’s because I want to impress people. I’ll tell a story and exaggerate certain aspects of it, because it makes it a better story and I get more of a response from the hearers. Or I’ll commit myself to something that I know I don’t have time for, because I want people to think I’m a good guy.
Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done, and I’m afraid that I’m on the verge of being found out. So I’ll lie about it, or find some fictional reason why it’s not my fault.
Sometimes it’s because I’m lazy. I say I’m going to do something, but it’s not something I particularly want to do; it’s too much like hard work, or I’m not really interested in it. So as the deadline gets closer, I’ll put it off and put if off, and eventually the deadline passes and the job just doesn’t get done, and I’ve just provided the world with one more reason not to trust my word.
What do these three situations have in common? They’re all about self-absorption, rather than loving others and caring for their needs. I want to impress people with my dramatic story. I want people to think I’m a good guy, so I try to pull the wool over their eyes about my misdeeds. I want to have an easy time and not exert myself doing things I don’t want to do, so I don’t follow through with my commitments.
Clearly, selfishness and self-centredness are the root causes here. If I want to be more truthful and reliable, I’ve got to work on being less selfish and more loving.
The second question I asked myself is this: how could the Christian world become more truthful? Surely we ought to be known as people who tell the truth and keep our word?
When I was a young Christian, I learned a song that went like this:
At the cross! At the cross where I first saw the light
and the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight,
and now I am happy all the day.
‘Now I am happy all the day’? What sort of a lie is that? At no point in my life has that ever been true for me. Every day, at some point, I have found something to be sad about. So when I used to sing this song I would find myself thinking, “Is there something wrong with me? Have I not really given my life to Jesus properly? Have I not really been filled with the Holy Spirit?’ And so I would try to do it all over again: confess every possible sin I could think of again, give my life to Jesus again, pray that the Holy Spirit would fill me again. It never worked. I was happy some of the time (usually when i wasn’t thinking about being trying to be happy), but I was never ‘happy all the day’.
This song did real pastoral damage to me as a young Christian. I suspect songs like that do the same today. They give impressionable Christians a false idea of what the Christian life is really like. When they can’t pretend any more, they do one of two things: they give up on Christianity (“It’s just not true”) or they give up on themselves (“I’m obviously some kind of schmuck – that’s why I’m not experiencing everything God has promised”).
Sometimes our liturgies require us to make these false claims or unrealistic promises, too. How many times, during a baptism service, after the parents have made their promises, have I turned to a congregation and said, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” and the congregation replies, “We will”. Really? ‘All in your power‘? But how many people in the congregation don’t even bother to introduce themselves to the baptismal candidates or their families? If they see that the baptismal family haven’t been in church for a while, how many people in the congregation try to contact them and see if things are okay?
Or how about this one, from Eucharistic Prayer #3 in the Book of Alternative Services:
In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
Now I understand that theologically, things can be true of us ‘in him’ (i.e. in Christ) that have not yet actually come about in practice. But most members of our congregations are not trained theologians. Most people, hearing the priest pray this prayer, will get the impression that we are making a huge claim: that when we became Christians, we made a complete break with error, sin, and death. And since most sensible people know that this is an utterly false claim, it will be difficult for them (if they are listening, that is) to take the rest of the prayer seriously.
We need to be really careful about this. We need to make sure that we aren’t making unrealistic promises to people about what Christianity is like. And we also need to be willing to tell the truth about our own sins and failures. Not to everyone, of course, but we do need venues in the Christian world where we can be honest about ourselves. Really, this isn’t encouraged. I’m already beginning to imagine the reaction to what I’ve said earlier in this post. “He tells lies? What sort of pastor is he?” Well, yes, I’m not proud of the fact, but I have to admit that sometimes I do tell lies. I’m trying to do it less often, but I’m not all the way there yet.
Most pastors have had people sit in their offices at some point, telling sad stories about the mess they’ve gotten themselves in, and then saying, “I wish I had my life together like the other people in this church!” And we pastors smile to ourselves, because we know that if we stay long enough in our congregation, we’ll hear that same line from dozens of people, including highly respected members of the congregation. Highly respected members, that is, who have given the false impression that they have everything together in their lives. Highly respected members, in other words, who are lying.
William Barclay tells the story in one of his commentaries about the origin of the English word ‘sincere’. It comes from a Latin phrase that means ‘without wax’. It comes from the world of sculpture. Sometimes in years gone by, a sculptor would make an error and gouge out a hole in a statue that wasn’t meant to be there. A dishonest sculptor would fill in the hole with wax and then paint it so that it looked just like the stonework. A statue that had no such coverup jobs was ‘sin cere’ – ‘without wax’.
I want to be a person of integrity, a sincere person, a person who is honest, open and unpretentious. I want to be a person who does not exaggerate to make a good impression or promise more than I can deliver. I’m not there yet, but hopefully I’m moving closer to that goal. And I believe that we would all find it easier to move toward that goal if our church communities rated honesty and truthfulness as highly as Jesus obviously does.