On Monday this week I took myself to see my dentist. After some months with tooth pain and swollen gums, I knew I needed treatment. Ibuprofen tablets had often taken away the pain, but it came back again and again. Painkillers had temporarily suppressed the symptoms, but not cured the cause. The time had come to tackle the underlying problem. The root cause of my discomfort needed to exposed and addressed.
I’ll spare you the gory details, but some uncomfortable but ultimately successful root canal surgery was done! Now that the problem is addressed, Ibuprofen is no longer necessary. Thankfully, my skilful dentist has solved the problem at its source.
Over the past fortnight we’ve been looking at some very challenging passages in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Words which he addressed to his first disciples - words which we should also obey if we’re his followers today.
Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at what Jesus had to say about murder and about marriage. And like my dentist on Monday, I hope we’ve seen that Jesus got to the root of the problem. He addressed the sources of murder and adultery, rather than simply addressing the symptoms.
You see, Jesus’ commands to Christians go beyond Old Testament rules and regulations. Those Old Testament laws were simply given to treat the symptoms of human sin. Those Old Testament laws included sanctions and penalties designed to deter and restrain the worst excesses of human behaviour. But they couldn’t tackle their root cause.
- That’s why Jesus didn’t merely tell his followers not to murder, but to avoid anger as well. He knew every murder has its origins in anger.
- And that’s why Jesus didn’t just tell Christians to avoid adultery – he told them to avoid lust as well. Because he knew every act of adultery begins with a lustful look.
- Like a skilful dentist or doctor, Jesus addressed those two sicknesses at their very source.
After dealing with murder and marriage, Jesus today turns his attention to our mouths. He tackles the topic of truth and lies, of honesty and oaths. But before we dive in, let’s pray: Lord Jesus, as we come to another challenging word this morning, help us to trust and obey your voice, and give us the grace to do your will. Amen.
1. Total truthfulness!
I wonder, have you ever taken an oath - or made a solemn vow? Perhaps you’ve been a witness in court, and had to promise to speak “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God”. Or if you’re married, you will have certainly made a solemn vow to be faithful to your spouse “in sickness and in health”.
When I was ordained as Church of England minster I also had to swear an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, and had to pledge my loyalty to my bishop “in all things lawful and honest.” And many, many years ago now - as a young Cub Scout - I promised to “do my duty to God and to the Queen”.
The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition certainly had a lot to say about oaths and vows. It specified what to say when, and a whole industry had grown up to discuss when an oath was binding and when it was not - Jewish lawyers must have had a field day!
In verse 33 today, Jesus quotes one typical Old Testament passage on the subject. Summarising Deuteronomy chapter 23, Jesus says: “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 then he goes on to say: “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’”.
Well what’s going on? What’s wrong with swearing an oath or making a vow? First, let me be clear that Jesus is not saying we should refuse to make an oath if we are asked to do so in court. (In fact, Jesus himself spoke under oath at his trial in Jerusalem - Matt 26:64). And your wedding day could become rather awkward if you refused to make your vows to your spouse!
What Jesus is saying, however, is that Christians should be totally trustworthy and completely honest - whatever the circumstances. We should not need to swear an oath or make a vow, because we should be people who always speak the truth.
Jesus commands Christians to be people whose ‘yes’ always means ‘yes’ and whose ‘no’ means ‘no’. To be people who keep their word - people of total integrity. If we are people like that, then there will be simply no need for us to swear oaths. No need to supplement our yeses and our noes. No need for us to say things like: “Scout’s honour”, “On my mother’s life” or “cross my heart and hope to die!”
You see, the Old Testament system of oaths and vows was yet another instance of treating the symptoms of sin, rather than tackling the underlying cause. The reason people were told to make oaths is because people so often lie - because we so often lie:
- Who here has never ever told a fib to a family member or a friend?
- Who here has never been ‘economical with the truth’ when speaking to a colleague or a client?
- Which one of us can honestly say we’ve never distorted the facts to suit our purposes?
- Which one of us has never told a lie to keep out of trouble or save face?
- Which one of us has never ever broken a promise we’ve made?
Hopefully few (if any) of us have committed murder or adultery - but dishonesty is a universal trait of the whole human race.
So the Jewish system of oaths and vows was designed to discourage and deter people from lying, especially in situations where much was at stake – like a court case or a property transaction. Even today we have contracts and laws, covenants and affidavits – devices all designed to promote truth and discourage lies. All designed to treat the symptoms of human dishonesty. But Jesus goes to the root of the problem. He tells his followers to consistently tell the truth. He tells them that honesty really IS the best policy!
It’s a tough challenge isn’t it? It’s a discipleship challenge that we all have to wrestle with daily. Depending on our personal circumstances, being totally truthful may involve:
- Telling the taxman exactly what we owe, not fiddling the figures or fudging the facts.
- At work it may mean telling your clients the whole truth about your product and its cost, or being honest with your boss when you’ve made a mistake on the job.
- At home, honesty means being very careful what promises we make to our children, so that they learn to trust our words and value truth for themselves.
- And in our daily relationships with friends and relatives, we will all face countless opportunities to speak the truth in love, rather than deal in deceit.
If we Christians are people who speak the truth - people who keep our promises and are known to be honest - then we will shine like stars in our society. We will be totally distinctive (‘Salt and Light’) in a culture that loves spin, exaggeration and even outright lies. We will be witnesses to truth in the midst of a compromised, fallen world.
2. Whose side are you on?
Whose side are you on? In sport its easy to tell, isn’t it? Sports players wear different coloured kits, so you can see which team they are one. Politicians wear coloured rosettes so you now which party they support. But what about Christians? How can we show our allegiance to Jesus in our daily lives?
Well, one way is to speak the truth. Did you notice that in the final verse of our passage Jesus links all lies back to the devil. He says that dishonesty and half-truths “come from the evil one”. Elsewhere the Jesus explicitly calls the devil the ‘Father of lies’. Because the devil has been a liar from the very beginning.
From Eden onwards, the devil has dealt in deceit. At the beginning of the Bible, right back in Genesis 3, the devil first lied to Adam and Eve when he said God’s word couldn’t be trusted. He then lied when he said sin would have no consequences. And Satan lied when he said sin wouldn’t lead to death.
So today, if people deal in deceit, they are doing the devil’s work. If they love lies, they are aligning themselves with the Evil One. If they constantly make false promises, then they are continuing Satan’s legacy.
Christians, however, are to be as true to our word as God is to his. We are to be promise-keepers who imitate our faithful Father in Heaven. And we are to be lovers of truth, disciples walking in the footsteps of Jesus – who is the way, the truth and the life.
You see, Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples to be truthful - he modelled it. He practiced what he preached. Writing at the end of his own life, the disciple Peter described Jesus as the one man who never committed a sin – “no deceit” was ever “found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22).
Throughout his earthly ministry, Christ spoke the truth to ordinary people and the powerful - even when it was unpopular or uncomfortable. He didn’t even fudge the truth or massage the facts when he was on trial for blasphemy. When asked if he was the Son of God he did not deny it, even though he knew he would be executed on a Cross because of his claim.
And because Jesus died for Christians’ sins on the Cross, we can be forgiven for our past lies and our broken promises. If we have faith in Jesus - if we’ve come to Christ - we can be certain that our past dishonesty has been fully forgiven. In a few moments we will eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Christ’s Cross. As you do so, remind yourself that Jesus died there to pay the price for our deceit, he took the guilt for our broken oaths. Wonderfully, he took the punishment for our past empty promises.
And as we Christians seek to speak the truth in the future, Jesus hasn’t left us as orphans, as people struggling on our own. For a start he has he gathered us together in his Church, so we can encourage each other in truthfulness and hold one another to account for our honesty. And he has also put his Holy Spirit within our hearts:
- A Spirit who can help us separate truth from lies.
- A Spirit who can help us control our tongue.
- A Spirit who can help us speak with honesty and integrity throughout our daily lives.