Dishonesty in the Heart
Dishonesty in the Heart
St. Matthew 5:33-37
by William Klock
As we continue on in our study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we come this week to Our Lord’s fourth practical example that shows the relationship between his teaching and the teaching of God’s Law. So far we’ve looked at Jesus’ examples that teach us to overcome anger, to be sexually pure, and to be faithful in marriage. Three more follow and they will teach us that if we are obedient to Christ, we will live honestly and in truth, we will be selfless in our actions, and that we will love our neighbours. This week we come to verses 33 through 37, where Jesus makes some very strong statements about truth – about honesty and dishonesty. Open your Bibles to Matthew 5:33-37 and follow along with me as I read there:
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, butshall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.”
Again, as he does in each of these six examples, We see this, “You have heard it said…” In each case the source of the “You have heard it said” phrase is a little different. In this instance he does sum up an Old Testament principle, but he doesn’t quote the Old Testament – he gives the Pharisees’ summary of what the Law says bout oath-taking.
There are quite a few passages in the Law that address oaths and our being faithful to them. Deuteronomy 6:13 says, “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.” Leviticus 19:12 warns, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” The scribes and Pharisees were right in their understanding that making an oath was a serious thing and so they drew on verses like these to put together their own teaching that prohibited false swearing of oaths. But again, we’ll see that they took a legalistic approach to the Law that undermined the spirit of it. Jesus shows us what the real meaning and intent of the Law is – the intent of the Law that he came not to abolish, but to fulfil – the Law that is still binding on us as Christians as we seek to give honour and glory to God.
So the first thing we need to look at in order to understand Jesus is the Law itself. The Law was given in the first place to show God’s standard of absolute holiness. The Israelites were no different than the rest of the fallen human race when it came to struggling to live up to that standard, especially when it came lying and dishonestly. That is, after all, why we need a Redeemer! But think about it. How many of us had to teach our kids to lie? For that matter, how many of us had parents that had to teach us how to lie? We do it naturally and I think that dishonesty is one of our most prevalent sins. And yet you can’t have a civil society if dishonesty is rampant – we’re seeing that today! And so the purpose of the Law was to check that sin.
The other side of the Law was to stress that oath taking needs to be done only in serious situations. Think about the first thing that’s likely to happen when people are dishonest all the time. Yep. If nobody can be believed, then they’re always swearing. “Honest, it’s true, I swear on a stack of Bibles!” “No, seriously, I swear to God!” Or what about, “Well, to be perfectly honest with you…” Does that mean that other times you’re not being perfectly honest with me? Taking these kinds of frivolous oaths is the direct result of our dishonest character. The Law stressed that oath taking was a solemn thing and should only be done in serious situations that require it. The Law was a reminder to the Israelites of the seriousness of life and of their relationship to God. It stressed just how much everything they did was done in the sight of God, that God was over all, and that every part of their life needed to be lived as unto him.
I don’t think I can emphasise this enough. As we look at each of these examples Jesus gives to explain the Law, we need to keep in mind what God tells his people: “I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). We need to remember that we are God’s people and that everything we do, say, or think happens under his watchful eyes. We need to remember that we are called to be salt and light – to be an example to the world of holiness. Through Christ’s sacrifice God has forgiven our unrighteousness – our inability to live up the standard of the Law – while at the same time filling us with his grace and his Spirit so that we can live up to his standards and be witnesses to his great gift.
So what did the scribes and Pharisees do with all this? Well, as usual, they twisted it to fit their legalistic approach to religion. They did whatever they could to twist and bend the Law to obscure the spirit of it and leave only the letter. They wanted something they could feel good about keeping. They had long since forgotten the concept of a Redeemer; their goal was to be self-righteous – to merit God’s favour all on their own. They reduced the Law to the mere letter. So as long as they weren’t guilty of the physical act of murder, or of adultery they were happy. They did the same thing here. They looked at the commandments having to do with oaths and saw them as nothing more than commandments against perjury. They didn’t look at it in terms of truth or of honesty – just the blatant act of perjury – of breaking an oath.
Before we let ourselves feel to smug, we need to remember that Jesus speaks to us as much as he speaks to the scribes and Pharisees. We can be just as legalistic. We reduce worldliness and holiness to a set of do’s and don’ts. Some of my relatives have been involved in the “Two-by-Two” cult for several generations. They’re very big on humility. They show their piety with an outward show of plain dress and plain speech. The women wear no makeup, long plain dresses, and wear their hair in a bun. Whenever they talk about anything spiritual they’re obliged to look at their shoes. They get these things from Scripture and say that it’s their way of being unworldly – and yet for all their plainness, most of them seem to drive around in flashy cars and have very fancy homes – but, you see, the Bible doesn’t address cars and houses. There are churches where worldliness is reduced to drinking, smoking, dancing, playing cards, and watching R-rated movies (actually, decades ago it was watching any movies at all, but that was gradually compromised and relaxed). And yet many such people somehow seem to miss the fact that things like pride and greed, the lust of the eyes or the lust of the flesh are even more worldly in many cases. Too much of the time we narrow our definition of sin to just one thing – and as long as we’re not guilty of that one thing we think we’re okay. Or maybe instead of just one thing we make a list of things, but the problem is the same. Either way, when we do that, we’re being just like the Pharisees – we’re lowering God’s standard so that we can be self-righteous, forgetting that only the righteousness of Christ can make us acceptable to God.
Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of making a list of do’s and don’ts, but the way we rationalise our sins away. It’s amazing how hard we’ll sometimes work to come up with goofy ways to explain our sins away and make them something other than the sins that they are. Here’s where the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were really guilty when it came to this issue of honesty and oath taking. They had developed a complicated system – really a list – of all the different types of oaths you could take and which of them were binding and which weren’t. In the Mishnah – the rabbinic commentary on the Law – there’s an entire lengthy tractate that spells out this sort of thing: if you were to swear by Jerusalem, then your oath wasn’t binding, but if were to swear towards Jerusalem, then it was. They came up with lists of distinctions like that, never mind that either way, you had made an oath. It’s not like the person to whom you made the oath was going to say, “Oh, okay, you swore by not towards Jerusalem, so I’ll just forget you told me you’d do such and such for me next week.” Or, “Okay, so I guess because you swore by the altar, not the showbread on the altar we’ll ask the jury to disregard your testimony against the defendant.”
You see, the Pharisee honestly thought that he could make a promise to someone or give him his word that something was true, but that he could justly lie through his teeth as long as he swore by the right thing. If the other person later called him on it, he could justify himself saying, “No, you can’t hold me to it; I swore by the Temple Mount, not by the Temple. Your loss if you don’t know the difference or if you weren’t paying attention.” It’s no different than making a promise while crossing your fingers behind your back. Why would an honest person do that? An oath is an oath. There is no set of rules that justifies dishonesty.
So we’ve looked at the actual teaching of the Old Testament and then how the scribes and Pharisees twisted it. What does Jesus have to say? Look at verses 34-37:
But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath 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 evil.
So does that mean that even if called to testify in court, taking an oath is wrong? Well, there are groups today, like the Quakers, that would argue for this kind of literal interpretation. Some have taken this as an absolute and complete ban on taking oaths under any circumstances. But the danger of focusing only on the act of oath taking itself, runs the risk of forgetting that the issue isn’t oath taking so much as it is honesty. The letter of the Law says, “Don’t get hung up on oath taking,” but the reason – the motive and spirit behind that is that we need to be impeccably honest. If our yes is yes and our no is no, then we don’t need to take an oath.
It’s impossible to reconcile a complete ban on oath taking with the rest of Scripture. Think about the great saints of the Old Testament. When Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac, he made his servant swear an oath to him. Jacob – Israel himself – took an oath from his son Joseph, and Joseph in turn took an oath from his brothers. Jonathan took an oath from David.
You might say, well, those men were great saints, but they were still sinners and made other mistakes. How about God the Father himself? Think of Genesis 15 – my favourite chapter in all of the Bible. God had made his promise to Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky, and Abram confessed his faith in that promise, but still asked, “Lord, how will I know that this will really be my inheritance?” And in response, God had Abram sacrifice a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon, cutting them in half, and laying the halves on the ground side-by-side. As night came, Abram fell asleep and God gave him a vision. In the vision God came in the symbols of a smoking pot and a torch that moved between the pieces. God made an oath to Abram using what was the common means for doing so in that day. Men would sacrifice an animal – literally cutting and letting the blood from the animal – saying, “If I break my word, let this be done to me.” God made his promise to Abram and made his way between those cut up animals saying the same thing: “Abram, you know I will keep my promises – may what has been done to these animals happen to me if I break my oath.” In that chapter God shows us his great faithfulness, but we see that he is faithful because he embodies faithfulness and truth in his very being. For him to be untruthful, for him to be unfaithful would be for him to violate his very nature as God. God’s yes is always yes and his no is always no, and yet he made an oath to Abram to make the point.
And look at Jesus’ example. In Matthew 26 we’re told that when he was on trial before the high priest he was silent until the priest put him under oath. Jesus didn’t say, “You’re not supposed to do that.” No, he acknowledged its legitimacy and answered the priest’s question.
So what was Jesus saying about oaths? Look at Matthew 23:16-22 with me. Jesus addresses the same problem there, but in a little more detail.
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.’
Jesus really hits us where we’re weak here. He says, “You can’t compartmentalise your life, thinking that God is present in one place, but not in another. God is present in everything we do. No matter how much we may compartmentalise our lives, God is there with us in every compartment. Your friend might not know that your fingers were crossed behind your back, but God does. Truth is important always and everywhere – it’s just as applicable in one situation as another.”
So the issue isn’t the oath taking – it’s the dishonesty in our hearts that makes the oath taking necessary. I’ve met a few impeccably honest people in my life – and I’ve never heard them tell me something and say, “I swear it’s true!” They don’t need to, because people trust that what they speak is true. This struck me one day when I was on the phone talking to a customer about the repairs needed on his computer. I started a sentence saying, “Well, I’ll be honest with you…” And the man on the other end stopped me and said, “Does that mean that the last time you repaired my computer and charged me $400 you weren’t being honest?” Now that’s not at all what I meant – it’s just a manner of speaking when we want to say something the other person might not want to hear – but it struck me that there have been many, many times when I’ve stretched the truth, been deliberately misleading, or outright lied to someone.
We do things like that a lot – and when we do, we’re being like the Pharisees. Someone asks us a question and rather than tell the truth, we deliberately mislead them. We may not have actually told the lie with our mouths, but by not speaking we allowed the same untruth to be believed by that person and we’re just as guilty as if we had lied. Sometimes we stretch the truth and justify it saying, “I didn’t actually lie.” And yet the result is the same. Jesus tells us, “I am the Truth. If you are to follow me you need to value that Truth – you need to follow my lead.” Have you ever wondered why it’s wrong to tell a lie? It’s not so much because God tells us not to – that’s doesn’t really tell us why. Lying is a sin because it violates God’s character – if he embodies perfect Truth, then we as his followers must have a devotion to and love for Truth – anything less is unholy and ungodly.
How often do you tell something to someone only to have them doubt your word? And so you tell them, “I swear on a stack of Bibles” or “Honest, really. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a need in my eye!” How often do we start our conversation saying, “Well, to be perfectly honest with you…” You see, Jesus tells us here that the very fact that we have to persuade others with our oaths is a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty.
In conclusion, let me say: Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t have to swear anything at all. As Christians the truth should be sacred to us – we should honour it – and for that reason we need to let our yes by yes and our no be no. We have been redeemed, our sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ, who is the Truth Incarnate. If we are to be witnesses to the world of his redemption, we need to value Truth and we need to live honestly. No dishonesty. No tricks. No crossed fingers. No word games. No exceptions. Anything less comes from evil (or depending on your translation, “the evil one,” who is aptly described in St. John’s gospel as the father of lies.” To grab a current slang phrase, “Who’s your daddy?” God is Truth. Satan is the father of lies. We need to be witnesses to God’s truth, and as we witness to his truth, letting our yes be yes and our no be no, there’s no need to invoke God to be our witness, because we know God is already watching and is present as we speak, knowing what’s in our heart.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we thank you that we have been redeemed by the one who came as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us value the very nature of Christ which is implanted in us by your Holy Spirit. Let us be witnesses to his Way and his Life by living in the Truth. Give us the grace to stamp out dishonesty in our lives. You have clothed us with Christ’s righteousness; give us grace to live out that righteousness as witnesses to what he has done for us. We ask this in his holy name. Amen.