This morning I want to concentrate on one paragraph of our gospel reading: the paragraph where Jesus talks about oaths and truth-telling. Apparently Jesus thinks that lying, or breaking your word, is a big deal! But before I dive into that, let me just let you in on the process by which I decided to focus on this section.
Our gospel today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, and it contains four distinct units of teaching from Jesus: one about anger and reconciliation, one about adultery of the heart, one about divorce, and one about oaths. These four units follow on from last week’s passage where Jesus talked about us having a greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. To him, their righteousness was just skin deep; it was outward conformity to the Law of Moses, but nothing was changed on the inside. Jesus wants us to experience inner change as well. So, for example, it’s not enough not to murder; we have to turn away from anger and work for reconciliation.
How does a preacher decide what to focus on in a passage like this?
One thing you could do—and it’s what I did last time I preached on this passage—is to do an overview of the whole thing. You don’t go into a lot of detail on each unit, but you paint the big picture of what Jesus is trying to say. And that can be helpful.
Another thing you can do is to pick the unit that people will find most painful or challenging or controversial, and help them deal with it. If I was to follow that method I’d probably pick the paragraph on divorce, since it affects many of us here today.
But today I’m not following either of those methods. Sometimes you have to turn away from the urgent in order to focus on the really important, and I’d argue that in our society today, one of the most important issues is the breakdown of trust. How do you know you can believe what people say? Politicians, we’re told, will say anything to get elected. Robots on Facebook perpetrate total lies to influence elections and get you interested in ads, and people repost social media memes without even the slightest effort to check their accuracy. And I’d argue that one of the major contributors to marriage and family breakdown is the erosion of trust. Can we trust that our spouse is telling us the truth? Or our kids? Or our parents?
Jesus presents the issue in terms of a formal oath, which in the ancient world was usually worded as a request for a god to punish the swearer if they don’t fulfil their promise. What does Jesus think of this practice? Look again at Matthew 5.33-37:
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 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 your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’
In Christian history there have been different opinions about how we should follow this passage. Some people, particularly in the Anabaptist/Mennonite and Quaker traditions, have interpreted this as a blanket condemnation of oath-taking, and so when they go to courts, consistent Mennonites will refuse to swear an oath. Other Christians have said no, it’s the inner spirit of what Jesus is saying here that matters; it’s about telling the truth at all times.
Let’s remember what Jesus is trying to teach us in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. He’s not happy with the Pharisees who think that just obeying the ‘thou shalt nots’ in the Law of Moses is enough. But what sort of person are you on the inside? Are you just obeying God reluctantly, because the Law tells you to do it, or are you being changed into the kind of person who delights in God’s will and walks in God’s ways because they love it? The kind of person who instinctively tells the truth at all times, because that’s the best way to live?
Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises at all? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our 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 in this instance 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. Try to 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 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, I would love to be that person. And Jesus is telling us that this is God’s dream for us: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.
This leads to a couple of questions, at least in my mind. First, 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?
Let me try to be honest about this, because after all, this sermon’s about honesty! So, sometimes I lie or exaggerate 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 doing something I know I don’t have time for, because I want people to think I’m a good guy.
Sometimes I do it because I’m afraid. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done, and I’m afraid I’m on the verge of being found out. So I’ll lie about it, or find some fictional reason why ‘it’s not really my fault.’
Sometimes I do it 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 it 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.
Now: what do these three situations have in common? I think it’s that 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.
But sometimes that self-absorption is about our deep inner fears and insecurities. We’re afraid that if other people really knew the truth about us, they wouldn’t love us any more. So we create a false persona, someone much more impressive than the real me. Problem is, it takes a huge amount of effort to keep that persona in place. That persona is built out of all the lies and misleading statements we’ve made about ourselves and others over the years. Just keeping track of them all is a full time job!
It’s time to lay that burden down. And we get the confidence to lay it down when we remember that the one person who knows the complete truth about us is God, and God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are. Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing will ever change that. He’s promised it, and he keeps his promises.
So as we get to know God better, and learn to rely on his love, maybe we can take the risk of letting the mask down and being real with God, and with other people too. None of us here has everything together in our lives. We’ve all messed up, and we all have secrets we don’t want anyone else to know about. There’s no need to be afraid of shocking the people around us by telling them who we really are; what’s actually happening is that they’re whispering to themselves, “Jeez, I thought I was the only one!”
The second question this reading brings to my mind is, how could the Christian world become more truthful? Because a truthful church would be a big encouragement for truthful Christians, wouldn’t it?
One thing we could do would be to stop exaggerating. Many of you have heard me talk about the song I learned when I was a young Christian:
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’d 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 trying to be happy), but I was never ‘happy all the day.’
Songs like this 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 because it’s obviously not true, or they give up on themselves, because they’re obviously a hopeless case. And all because of a song that makes untruthful statements about what it feels like to be a Christian.
We need to be really careful about this. We need to make sure 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 safe places where we can learn to be more honest about ourselves. I don’t need to tell you that in many places, this isn’t encouraged! Think about something I said earlier in this sermon. I can imagine what some of you were thinking. “He tells lies? What sort of priest 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 messes 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 dozensof people, including highly respected members of the congregation. Highly respected members, that is, who haven’t been honest about themselves and their own struggles.
Back in the 1950s a Bible scholar named William Barclay told a story about the origin of the English word ‘sincere’. Apparently 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 it looked just like the stonework. A statue that had no such coverup jobs was ‘sin cere’ – ‘without wax’.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus is calling us to be people of integrity—sincere people, people who are honest, open and unpretentious. People who don’t exaggerate to make a good impression or promise more than they can deliver. People who don’t need to take an oath to guarantee their honesty, because they’re known to all the world as people who always tell the truth and keep their word.
How do we get there? As I’ve suggested in this sermon, one way of getting there is to acknowledge that our dishonesty is often about fear: fear of what other people will think if they find out the truth about us. We can address that fear as we learn to trust the God who knows everything about us, but still loves us anyway. And as a church, we can help each other address that fear by gradually letting down our picture-perfect masks with each other, so that everyone knows we’re all in this together. You probably won’t shock the person sitting beside you by letting them know you’re not quite as perfect as they thought! Guess what—neither are they!
Let’s close in prayer.
God of truth, you know how we love to spin illusions with each other, and you know why we do it. Help us learn to really believe, deep down in our hearts, that your love for us is absolute and complete, even though you know the whole truth about us. And help us take the risk of honesty with one another, so that we can rebuild trust and maybe, just maybe, help build a world where illusions are recognized for what they are, and the truth is honoured and loved. We ask these things through the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.