From Living the Sermon on the Mount
Vicious cycles like war and violence, dishonesty and manipulation, are what Jesus is diagnosing realistically in the Sermon on the Mount. And he shows how God is doing something new in our lives: bringing God’s way of deliverance from these vicious cycles.
This is, once again, not a matter of high ideals and hard teachings but of transformation and deliverance. In a time of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; terrorism; civil war; and ethnic cleansing, followers of Jesus have a gospel that the world badly needs. We can receive and spread his gospel with joy.
Traditional Righteousness: 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.” (Matthew 5:33)
Diagnosis of Vicious Cycle: But I say to you, not to 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. Nor swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (Matthew 5:34-36)
Transforming Initiative: Let your word be, “Yes, yes,” or “No, no”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37)
Traditional Righteousness: False and True Vows
Jesus may be pointing us to the Ten Commandments in Matthew 5:33-37 as well: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name,” (Exodus 20:7). The Old Testament clearly teaches against swearing falsely, (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Zechariah 8:17). Ecclesiastes 5:5 says pretty much what Jesus says: “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it.”
The Vicious Cycle: False Claims and Oaths
Jesus is concerned about both truthfulness and God’s holy name. Each kind of swearing uses loyalty to God to manipulate and dominate another person through false claims. What a wrongful use of the name of God!
Matthew 23:16-22 shows the kind of vicious cycle that Jesus is concerned with. He says, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?”
Here the practice makes an oath that sounds real (swearing by the sanctuary) but actually has a cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back secret limitation that you are not really committed to do what you promise to do. This is first of all untruthful. But more, you are taking advantage of a person, trying to manipulate and dominate him or her by deceit. Third, it is using God’s sanctuary to deceive and manipulate, which is a horrendous betrayal of God’s care for justice for the powerless and vulnerable.
We also notice that Jesus is angry here, calling the blind guides “fools.” This supports what we saw in the last chapter: Jesus did not legalistically command people never to be angry, and not even never to call anyone a fool, but commanded that when we are angry we need to talk directly and explain what is wrong so we can make peace. Here his “talk” is a direct confrontation. Jesus’s love includes the kind of tough love that confronts directly when necessary. It names the viscous cycle realistically.
Jesus continues: “And you say, ‘whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by Heaven, swears by the throne of God and the one who is seated upon it.”
Notice the words in italics: they emphasize the presence of God. Jesus focuses on God’s presence – one of the seven characteristics of the reign of God. Whenever we make a promise or say anything to someone else, and certainly whenever we take an oath, we do it in God’s presence. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, we represent his presence to others. Therefore, making a false promise or speaking an untruth is doing it in God’s presence, and making a negative testimony to Jesus.
Here is a clue for what Jesus means by going beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees, (Matthew 5:20). It means being more truthful, and in particular it means serving God first, above other loyalties.
Transformation and Deliverance
Some followers of Jesus have refused ever to swear an oath. Historically, the Quakers were faced with sentences for contempt of court when they refused. But they earned an outstanding reputation for telling the truth. Eventually they won court provisions to allow Quakers to affirm the truth of what they were saying and avoid taking oaths. Their reputation for telling the truth fits the main point of this passage: it is more about being truthful to other persons in God’s presence than about oaths. (We are always in God’s presence.)
The command, the imperative, in Jesus’s teaching is, “Let your word be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or, ‘No, no.'” His emphasis is on the way of deliverance: being truthful. In Jesus’s society, saying the words twice (yes, yes) intensified the meaning – saying yes and really meaning yes, a true yes.
Learning to tell the truth begins in early childhood. Babies bond with their parent(s) from early on, and the quality of their communication is crucial. I still remember clearly the impression my mother made on me when she said she would always know if I was telling the truth.
As a young boy I would go to the farmer’s market with my grandfather, a German immigrant tomato farmer. His bushels of tomatoes were beautiful, all on display! One day a customer came by and began lifting out the top tomatoes to see if those on the bottom were as good as those on the top. I remember what my grandfather said in my deep, gruff voice and heavy German accent: “Dey’re da sam t’rough an t’rough; ya don’t believe it, ya go buy somewhere else!” Though the customer would have heard that as “true and true,” he meant, “through and through” – all the way through. My grandpa was so honest that he was offended if someone even hinted he might be deceiving customers about the quality of his tomatoes. His honesty was so widely known that he could afford to chase away the rare customer who might doubt him. In fact, his reputation was so sterling that the town of West Saint Paul, Minnesota, elected my grandpa – with his sixth-grade education, German accent, and modest means – mayor of the town. For the rest of my life, his deep, gruff voice has been echoing in my head: “True and true, through and through.” He is my model for being truthful, all the way through.
Today’s corporate culture, often emphasizing profits as the one goal that counts, and today’s political culture, often using information not as respect for truth but as what’s effective in tearing down the reputation of a rival, threaten the quality of truth in our society. Yet when a corporation is shown to be untruthful, we see it heavily penalized and even driven into bankruptcy. When people lose confidence in the veracity of a president – as happened to Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon over Watergate, Bill Clinton over personal matters, and George W. Bush over claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq despite United Nations inspection reports to the contrary – it gradually eroded their popular support. By contrast, presidents of both parties who cultivated greater respect for the truth – notably Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford – grew in stature and respect. We should not become cynical and give up on demanding truth from our leaders. Our leaders set much of the moral tone for the nation.
The theological ethicist Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced a major challenge to truthfulness during the Nazi regime in Germany in World War II. Bonhoeffer was involved in a secret project that successfully helped Jews escape to Switzerland, and in a plot to try to topple the Nazi government. To save lives, he had to tell some lies. Yet he had enormous loyalty to telling the truth. It was he who wrote the truthful confession of the sins of Germany, including sins of churches that allowed themselves to become supporters of this evil government. (Ethics)
The truthful confession led churches, and eventually government leaders to begin the process of national confession and repentance. The practice of acknowledging error has spread to other governments and become an important practice of peacemaking, healing some of the bitterness from war and massacres.
How could Bonhoeffer be such a strong follower of Jesus and such a believer in telling the truth, and yet justify not telling the Nazis what he knew about Jews hiding and escaping? He wrote an essay about a boy in school being asked by his teacher in front of the whole class whether his father often comes home drunk. The boy knew his father did, but he also sensed that the teacher had no business asking a question so damaging to his father’s reputation in front of everyone. So he answered, no. Bonhoeffer wrote that the boy understood the meaning of truth in relationship to reality better than the teacher did. He had no covenant with the teacher obligating him to tell about private family matters. Truth is thus a covenant. Bonhoeffer had no covenant relationship with Nazis to tell them where Jews were hiding. Parents have a covenant relation with their children to tell them the truth, but not the part of the truth that is too frightening for them to be able to cope or understand. By contrast, children do have a covenant relation with their parents to tell them the whole truth.
This covenantal understanding is very different from calculating when telling the truth or a lie is to your advantage. Such self-interested calculation opens the door to a life of deceit. In a society where everyone is always calculating whether to tell a lie, trust breaks down and people learn to do only what is in their own selfish interest. People learn to lie to God and deceive themselves. It is a society at war with itself, and at war with God. Telling the truth is a covenant obligation to others in God’s presence.