Truthfulness & Integrity. Matthew 5:33-37, July 18th 2021.
Matthew 5:33-37 and James 3:1-12. Psalm 19?
Truthfulness and Integrity
Prayer: Gracious Father, now give us diligence to seek you, and wisdom to find you. May our ears hear your voice, our eyes see your goodness, and our tongues proclaim your name as we commit our lives to pleasing You. Amen.
How are you? Well, for the Northern Irish folks watching, it can mean nothing, it’s a greeting; we say it – and when they visit they do not expect you to reply. I had forgot that a couple of years back when visiting home and a guy said it to me and I started to reply and realized – nope, do not need to. Now, of course, if I say to you ‘how are you?’ I want to know.
Words matter. When you think about it, Jesus has pointed to the power of words a lot already in his sermon: he declared the Words of God, the Word of God, the Old Testament is fulfilled in him… he condemned horrible words of contempt that can be spoken against people, for example due to their intelligence, gender, theology, or as we saw and heard after England’s loss last Sunday, words of racist contempt spoken against three of the England players – Rashford, Sancho and Saka – all because they missed a penalty.
Jesus spoke against adultery, condemning the words that encourage it, sustain it, hide it… He pointed to divorce, which reminds us of the painful words from a marriage breakdown, from which perhaps deep, long term healing are needed, perhaps words that were full of emotional abuse, or simply words that while now divorced, both partners need to forgive each for as part of the next step of restoration for each.
Jesus now focuses directly on words. What he will now discuss is about truthfulness and integrity.
‘Again you heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths that you have made to the Lord.’ Jesus words do not quote one law of Moses, but it is accurate summary the meaning of specific passages in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
In the OT, it discusses when a vow – or today we may call it a promise – was made, ie the speaker calls on God to witness his vow to do this or that, and to punish him or judge him if he breaks it.
In general the OT did permit oaths. Eg Deut 10: ‘’Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is your praise.’’ What the Law of Moses, which Jesus points to, the law is forbids false or fake oaths or to wrongly or lightly using the Lord’s name (adding it on, as a passing thought) . In Exodus 20 – do not take the name of the Lord in vain;
in Leviticus 19, Numbers 30 and Deuteronomy 23, it is about fulfilling your vows, and against false swearing, or lying – perjury was the old word – ie make a vow, but you have no intention to fulfil it.
What is Jesus correcting? Well the Pharisees in their teaching, had shifted the attention of people from the need to keep the vow, to about the formula used when making the vow. So they argued the law was not about taking the name of the Lord in vain – ie you say it but won’t keep the promise / vow, but they said it was about taking the name of the Lord, in vain. Ie you have to use the name of the Lord correctly.
So false swearing became – profanity , a profane use of the divine name.
It was not about lies – perjury.
The idea in the days of Jesus was: if a vow contained the right formula, then it was binding. So any oath as we said, that contained the name of God was totally binding. Any oath which evaded using the name of God, was held not to be binding. So in order avoid having to fulfil the vows, if they did not want to, or feared they could not, they did not use God’s name, but rather swore eg by heaven, or earth, or by Jerusalem, or by his head, so the person felt quite free to break that vow if needed.
The idea. If God is used in the vow, then he is involved in that transaction, that promise. But if his name was not used, he was not involved, so you are not bound.
Jesus is saying, that is wrong thinking. We do not make God a partner in any transaction; God is already there – Heaven is his throne, earth his footstool, Jerusalem his city, our own heads do not belong to us but to him the creator. So if God is not named, it does not matter, God is there. Heaven, earth and Jerusalem belong to God, and so to swear by these things was the same as swearing by God himself.
So in one way, Jesus affirms the binding nature of all oaths. He defeats their efforts to have an escape clause to a promise…you can say something, but later, not be bound to do it.
But then he lifts it to a new level – ‘Do not swear at all … Simply let your yes be yes and your no no, anything beyond this comes from the evil one. ‘ You do not have an escape clause to get out of when you make a promise etc. For Jesus, the formula is not important; it is about the keeping of the vow, the promise. So the what is basically Jesus saying: ‘’we must keep our promises and be people of our word.’’(John Stott).
He is focusing on integrity and about constant truthfulness.
Jesus is teaching his disciples, he is teaching kingdom ethics. In the kingdom, a Christian’s word can be relied upon without qualification and does not need the guarantee by any oath. ‘’With the dawn of a new era comes a wholly new standard set of righteousness, one in which a yes really is a yes, and a no is really a no.’’ Donald Hagner( Hagner, WBC, Matthew).
Jesus teaching is timeless. Why do we swear, why do we make oaths?
Well, we make an oath because we want to empower our truth.
We want to convince people that what we are saying is true. In some ways, we see that power when giving evidence: for example in N.Ireland at the Crown Court.
“I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” It is good to remember that Jesus himself when on trial was asked under oath – if he was the Christ and Jesus answered. Jesus words are about personal truthfulness; it is not that we should refuse to take an oath if required by an external authority. Jesus is speaking about our personal dealings, not our official dealings.
In various movies or Netflix series, we see it from time to time: when a serious moment has come, a character trying to convince another. ‘’I swear on my mother’s grave or I swear on all that is holy’’
Why do we use some phrases. We believe that our simple word may not be trusted. Yet if there were no lies in the world, there would be no need for oaths. The oath gives weight. We have said the oath, therefore it must be true.
But of course, we know from Netflix etc how many characters, make such an oath and it all sounds very serious and then by the end of the film they have deliberately broke it. They said the oath to convince the person listening, the killer threatening them etc etc.
I can imagine as Christians we are thinking. Well, I don’t take oaths – I don’t I swear on my mother’s grave, or by the city of Jerusalem etc… when talking to people, even when things are really serious.
Why take an oath?
Well. Let’s consider again why an oath is taken. It was to add weight. To convince. To maybe impress. It is empower our truth. So it can be a way to use words to get what we want.
For us. Too often we want to use speech as a weapon, to establish our authority. Sometimes we add something to our speech to impress someone, to perhaps to gain acceptance of what we are saying or what we want. You know how it is. We declare a promise, or we state a purpose or a plan, or share info or knowledge. We want people to accept it. So we say something with it, to lend weight to the words etc.
So, what can happen, is that words can become a device of manipulation. The aim is to override the judgement and will of anyone who listens, to push them aside, than respect them, leave their conclusions and actions up to them alone. What we use may not be relevant to the issue at hand – but it is to get others to believe me and get my way. Do we do that?
An example. Well you are in a meeting. The conversations are not going well. You know what you want. The team are resisting your great idea. So you may say ‘well as team leader…’ Now we are the team leader. Everyone knows that. But why say that? Are you simply expressing your authority, a decision needs to be made, or are you saying that, using words to shove people your direction as you simply want that result?
Or in a church council meeting, we are talking about the direction of a church. A person may say ‘Well, I have been a member of this church since 1960s… and I remember…’ and why are those words being said? Is it to say – well I have been in this church since X and so what I am saying on that matter is actually the wisest or most consistent with the church values etc
Now these words on one hand, may be coming from simply sharing experience. But the question will be – why were those words say, why do we say what we do? The human heart – as we heard last week from Jesus, can be hard, and at times we say things, or state who we are, what we know, or maybe even who we know.
But verbal manipulation is wrong. We are making use of people, try to bypass their understanding and judgement – we want to trigger their will – and get them round to our purposes. But whatever agreement they have offered, is not totally formed, because we have short-circuited their understanding of what is going on. Willard: ‘’As God’s free creatures, people are to be left to make their own decisions without coercion and manipulation.’’ (Willard, Kindle, p 195).
Instead we commit ourselves to plain speaking – integrity, truthfulness. Let your yes be yes, your no, no.
We say what needs to be said, no more, or less than what needs to be said.
Christians – we claim to have the truth and to follow Him who declared ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’, John 14, the One who said ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’’ So in all our conversations, ‘’truth must be our watch word’’ (DA Carson, Sermon on the Mount, p54). Let’s get really into truth and words. How many of us tell stories with a slant, to present ourselves in a more glamourous light or to make our point more emphatically or more overpowering?
How many of us will say – yes – we will do things, and then renege on these responsibilities, because it is personally inconvenient to us? Remember the story of the two boys.
Later in Matthew 21, he says – there were two sons.
Father went to the first and asked him to ‘go work today in the vineyard’. His first son – I will not – but later he changed his mind and went.
The Father went to his second son. He asked the same thing. The son said ;’I will sir’, but he did not go. Which one did what his father wanted, Jesus asked…
For those of us who teach, who preach, how many times do we fudge the evidence to make a point? Or where we do not know and saying ‘ No, I don’t know’ we create a haze of a response. This is not about making mistakes. This is about walking in truthfulness and being careful to speak only truth. Of course that makes us vulnerable and challenges our self esteem or how we feel people may look at us. I love how Alpha encourages us – as group coordinators – if someone in your group asks you a question, you do not know the answer, we say ‘That is a good question, I don’t know, I will look into it and get back to you.’
To choose to speak the truth can require strength.
To choose the speak to the truth can be tricky. Even costly.
A true story about a man whose nickname was Gibbo. Gibbo used to work as a clerk for the famous London department store Selfridges, and he worked with Gordon Selfridge, who actually started Selfridges. And one time the telephone rang, and he picked it up, and the person said, `Could I speak to Gordon Selfridge?’ And Gordon Selfridge was in the room, and so he called him, and Gordon Selfridge said, `Tell him I’m out.’ And Gibbo handed him the phone and said, `You tell him you’re out!’ And Gordon Selfridge apparently was absolutely furious. But Gibbo said to him, `Look, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I never will.’ And that moment transformed Gibbo’s career at Selfridges, because from that moment onwards when they needed someone they could trust, they always went to him.
George Sada story. High Rank in the Air Force. He would speak his mind. Yet because he would tell his mind, Saddam trusted his view, than the others who just told him what he wanted to hear. He did not agree with his faith nor agree with what he said, but he knew he spoke what he believed.
To learn to speak truthfully to one another, I think requires that we learn to speak truthfully to God, and that means we learn how to pray. I think if we are speaking truthfully to God, then to speak truthfully to others becomes more possible.
That is why the Psalms are the great prayer book of the church – they teach us to pray without pretensions, to be truthful in our praying, to say it as it is. ‘’The Psalms show us that we can rage against God, and in our rage, discover God’s refusal to abandon us.’’ (Stanley Hauweras, Matthew).
The Psalms train us also to speak truthfully because they force us to acknowledge our sins before God, or they reveal our sins as we meditate and read them.
In fact as we read these across the sermon on the mount, we find our loving God, is a most pure and perfect being, who sees faults, hears faults and imperfections where often we do not. He reads our inward motives and what Jesus reminds us here, is that he notes our words and thoughts as well as our actions. He desires ‘truth in the inner parts’ as David prayed in psalm 51.
Maybe this section of Jesus teaching catches us more than others. The previous parts of Jesus teaching, perhaps we could say, oh that is someone else, or ‘oh for the grace of God go I.’ Yet words, truthfulness. We all fall short. As James said: ‘’We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man…’’ But it reminds us of the blessing and need for Christ’s atoning blood. Lies, vows made and not fulfilled, etc, these are sins which are just as serious as contempt, adultery, bitterness, as serious as the sins that may have happened in the process towards divorce. There is no hierarchy. All sin is equal. All needs Christ’s atoning blood. Jesus takes words, truthfulness as seriously as adultery, bitterness and contempt, lust.
We may say well surely some sins, have more effect upon others. These are only words. But how many of us know the power of words? James 3 talks about the power of the tongue. How many of us have wounded through the tongue. How many people carry damaged self esteem, poor self image, struggle with body image, or wonder how they can call God Father, due to the words spoken to them, how many of us have been hurt by broken promises. That is another reason why adultery hurts as it does – promises were made to be faithful to each other, forsaking all others – and that promise, is deliberately broken.
We are challenged in Jesus words, here and earlier, to avoid all sin. If we want to be holy, we must be aware of how we live and that includes we do not offend with our tongues, not to make promises we do not plan to keep, or by our words seek to manipulate others.
We must keep our lips under control, like a horse’s bridle, and be careful with our words as we communicate and share, our yes must be a yes, our no, a no.…
Our prayer is …
Who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
13 Keep your servant also from wilful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
14 May the words of my mouth
and this meditation of my heart
always be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.